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Hands (and fingers) on the iPhone

Hands (and fingers) on the iPhone

Yes, I've touched it.

Although the undisputed winner of the most-talked-about product award at this year's Macworld Expo is Apple's new iPhone, it's actually quite a rare commodity. There were two units behind plastic on the outskirts of the Apple booth, surrounded by throngs of worshippers and a phalanx of security guards. There was one on stage at the Apple booth, briefly shown off before being swept backstage to a high-security room. And there were some small number -- maybe two, maybe more -- being used in private briefing rooms by Apple executives.

I don't have an exact count, but as far as I can tell there aren't very many real iPhones out there in the world. (And since the iPhone is still six months away from its arrival, that's not too surprising.) And it's too bad. As big as an impression as the iPhone has evidently made simply by dint of Steve Jobs' extended product demo and its coolness factor when slowly rotating in a clear cylinder, let me tell you with personal experience, it's much more impressive when it's in your hand -- or more to the point, when your finger's running across its multi-touch screen.

It feels small, and quite thin. The screen is remarkably responsive -- I could sense no delay between when I pressed an on-screen button and when the phone responded to that finger press. I typed on its on-screen keyboard with my index finger, and after about a minute I felt that I was already well on my way to be a proficient iPhone typist. (The iPhone's software works very hard to figure out what you're trying to type, including taking note of what keys are nearby the one it thinks you pressed, in case your finger was just a bit off target.) And as you type, the keys "pop up," getting larger as if they're rising up to meet your touch, which gives you visual feedback that you're pressing the right letters.

The screen's impressively bright and remarkably crisp, thanks to a high pixel density of 160 pixels per inch. (To contrast, the MacBook Pro's got a pixel density of 110ppi, the MacBook 113ppi, the 23-inch Cinema Display 98dpi.) The iPhone's screen is 320 x 480 pixels, meaning that the iPhone has twice as many pixels as the video iPod, but fits them in an area 88 percent larger. (And no, the iPhone's "widescreen display" isn't a traditional 16:9 home-video aspect ration -- it's 3:2, so widescreen movies will either be cropped or display slight letterboxing effects when you play them.)

In any event, I can admit that I found it quite difficult to form complete sentences while I was holding the iPhone. In terms of sheer gadget magnetism, its power can not be overstated. But based on the work-in-progress unit I encountered (several items, including Notes and Calculator were just placeholder images) we can make some basic assumptions about how the iPhone interface will generally work. A strip of icons at the bottom of the screen display the phone's most popular options -- at the Home menu, they're Phone, Mail, Web, and iPod. When you click on one of those icons, you'll see a new set of icons, these representing the main options in whatever mode you've entered.

One of the joys of using the iPhone is understanding that it's not just a press-and-hold interface, but one that can be controlled by numerous gestures, most of them fairly intuitive. When you're in a long list (such as a list of iTunes artists), flicking your finger on the screen makes the list scroll rapidly. To unlock the iPhone and start using it, you have to slide your finger across its face, a movement that made me feel as if I was almost unzipping the phone. Zooming in on an image or a web page by poking at the area you'd like to enlarge with two fingers and then spreading them apart feels quite natural, too.

With six months between us and the iPhone's scheduled arrival date, it's clear that there's a lot more work for Apple's developers to do. We haven't seen all the software that will ship on the phone, nor do we really know details about how it'll let you browse important documents -- for example, if someone e-mails me a PDF, Word document, or Excel spreadsheet, will there be some way for me to display those? Apple officials assured me that the iPhone will support PDF, but I didn't get any assurance about other file formats. If the iPhone's not just a phone, but a revolutionary Internet communications device, it'll need to be pretty versatile, and that means displaying (or editing) common document types.

Which leads me to the larger issue, that of third-party software development on the iPhone. After all, Apple's engineers will strive to write software that fits the majority of the needs of the majority of iPhone users. But will other developers be able to write software to fill the gaps, to address the more specialized needs of certain corners of the iPhone user base?

During Macworld Expo, I chatted about this very topic with at least a dozen people. And by the end of it, the prevailing conventional wisdom was this: that Apple would probably not allow applications to be installed on the phone willy-nilly, but rather would force would-be software developers to follow some strict guidelines and get explicit permission from Apple before the software could be sold. At that point, the software probably will only be available via iTunes, with Apple taking its cut and providing DRM so that there's less risk of piracy. It seems some statements that Steve Jobs made to the New York Times bear this out: "These are devices that need to work, and you can't do that if you load any software on them. That doesn't mean there's not going to be software to buy that you can load on [the iPhone] coming from us. It doesn't mean we have to write it all, but it means it has to be more of a controlled environment."

I would imagine that we won't get any details about how Apple plans to address iPhone development until this year's Worldwide Developer Conference at the earliest. However, I am intrigued by one subtle bit of language in the iPhone announcement: Apple talks about iPhone applications as well as iPhone widgets. Which makes me wonder: will developers be able to create widgets more freely than applications? In Mac OS X terms, a Widget is generally a bunch of JavaScript and some images, usually including Internet access. (Yes, you can embed code in Widgets too, but let's leave that aside for now.) When I think about Widgets -- and Apple's new Dashcode development environment for building them -- I begin to wonder if Apple will permit iPhone Widgets to be developed much more freely than iPhone applications. If Apple limits those Widgets to ones created in Dashcode, using only JavaScript and Internet connectivity, the iPhone would really benefit -- and without the huge scrutiny Apple will probably give to more complicated iPhone applications.

Make no mistake: I think Apple must allow third-party developers to have access to the iPhone. It's a far more complex device than the iPod. And while it's not a Mac, and shouldn't have that level of complexity attached to it, its features are so rich that there needs to be a clever collection of developers who are filling the gaps that Apple won't, and in many ways shouldn't, bother with.

Take it from a guy who held one in his hand, if only for a moment.


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