Dr Chris Horn discusses how initially the iPhone made things simple but the plethora of apps has made them complicated again
Tech

“Smartphones are really complicated. Just for the basic stuff people have a hard time figuring out how to use them.” As Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs made these observations when he launched the very first version of the iPhone, at MacWorld in San Francisco in January 2007. He criticised the competing smartphones at the time as being overly complex to use. They had tiny, awkward keypads in the bottom half of the phone, which in turn squeezed out the available space for the screen.

“Get rid of all those buttons, just make a giant screen,” said Steve. “And we’re going to use the best pointing device in the whole world . . . we’re going to use our fingers.” Thus the iPhone was introduced with a single screen with no physical keyboard, but which understood finger swipes, taps and pinches to control it.

At first the only apps available for the iPhone were those from specific business partners of Apple. A year later Apple released software tools which enabled any software developer anywhere to build apps for the iPhone. The Apple AppStore was launched in July 2008 with 552 available apps. By last July, there were over 1.5 million apps for the iPhone. Google’s Android smartphone was launched in 2008, and now has more than 1.6 million available apps.

Finding our way around our apps


Given the plethora of apps, discovering which are the best for your needs could be a challenge. Fortunately, popular apps usually quickly emerge and so most of the apps you download are probably those others have recommended. Finding a useful app is not an issue for most of us. The more serious problem is finding our way around those apps we have chosen.

It is not unusual to have tens of apps. Sure, you can organise them into folders, gathering those with similar roles: one folder for apps for social media, another for transport timetable apps, and so on. But all too frequently you find yourself swiping between screens, then tapping into folders, then tapping to launch an app, then waiting, then swiping and tapping your way through that particular app until eventually you get it to do what you wanted in the first place.

Perhaps Apple acknowledged this when they launched the Siri voice-activated assistant on the iPhone in October 2011. Ask Siri to do something on the phone – “Hey Siri, call my Mam” – and it will probably work out what you want to do, particularly for common tasks.

However, Siri, and its equivalents Google Now and Microsoft Cortana, struggle to understand the options, commands and capabilities available inside the apps developed by third-party enthusiasts. And these voice-activated assistants are often slow to react compared with the near-instant response of finger-tapped commands.

At least one start-up agrees smartphones nowadays are really complicated, and even for basic stuff people have a hard time figuring out how to use them. Flic, in Stockholm, is launching a wireless product which is a soft, coloured silicone button. Each button is the size of a small coin, and can be stuck to a surface or simply carried.

It contains a bluetooth device that can couple to your phone to a distance of about 50m. The button can be pressed once or twice, or held down, with each action preset to carry out a specific command on your phone, or on any app on your phone. Press a button to have your phone ring so you can find where you left it. Stick a button under a photo of each of your grandchildren to have your phone Skype speedcall any of them. Double-press the button in the kitchen to have your phone order a pizza. Attach a button to the inside of your coat lapel to have your phone send a distress call in an emergency. And so on.

Underwhelming


A wireless attachable button may seem underwhelming and simple – and perhaps expensive (a single Flic button can be pre-ordered for $34). I am aware of other start-ups working on alternative approaches to vastly improve the control of smartphones: finger rings and other wearable jewellery, with built-in sensors; software that understands in a generic way the details of what any app can do, and so provides a common interface for all apps; free-standing devices that see and understand hand gestures; and so on.

Back in 2007, the iPhone was truly revolutionary, and the existing generation of smartphones was really complicated by comparison.

But today, the success of the iPhone and its peers in being able to run apps developed entirely independently of each other, with different styles of usage and commands, has in fact made smartphones really complicated again. I doubt whether Steve Jobs would be happy with the situation were he still with us today: a new revolutionary approach is needed.

Author: Chris Horn, a former president of Engineers Ireland, was the co-founder, CEO, and chairman of technology middleware business IONA Technologies. Dr Horn regularly contributes to debate on Ireland’s high-tech industry and was a member of the ICT working group at IBEC. He currently serves on the board of Gridstore, is chairman of Sophia Search and chairman of Science Gallery International.

This article first appeared in The Irish Times Innovation section on September 14 (https://www.irishtimes.com/business/time-for-another-revolution-in-smartphone-technology-1.2348684)

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“Smartphones are really complicated. Just for the basic stuff people have a hard time figuring out how to use them.” As Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs made these observations when he launched the very first version of the iPhone, at MacWorld in San Francisco in January 2007. He criticised...