iPhone: making the PDA sexy again

29th Jun 2007 | 23:00

iPhone: making the PDA sexy again

Apple's converged device offers lessons in product design

On first inspection, Apple appears to have made a quantum leap in terms of mobile handset usability. The new Apple iPhone doesn't have a mechanical keyboard or a traditional stylus and most of its features are accessible from its glossy main screen.

Anyone familiar with a Mac should be instantly at home with an Apple iPhone because it's running a version of OS X. And because it's running OS X, there are some meaty bits of computer software in there. Forget the limited 2.5G mobile phone functionality; the iPhone is effectively a handheld computer. It's single-handedly making the idea of the PDA sexy again. Here are ten reasons why:

1) User interface

The multi-touch, OS X-style interface enables you to navigate the Apple iPhone's many features just by tapping or swiping a finger across the screen. Waking it up is a matter of pressing a button, then swiping an on-screen slider. It's an elegant solution for a 21st Century handheld. No stylus required.

2) Phone software

The iPhone's UI puts a delicious gloss on traditional functionality. Tapping the Phone icon brings up Contacts, synchronisable with Address Book. Flick a finger to scroll, tap an entry, then tap on the number to call. There are icons to mute, bring up a numeric keypad for numbers not already stored, and a speakerphone facility. Hold, swap call and conference are also possible.

The phone functionality is arguably the weakest feature of the iPhone. But tell that to the people who camped out just to be the first to own one. Such is Apple's keen attention to style that even the most mundane features on the iPhone have been given a polish. Apple seems to care about every little bit of its product.

3) The onscreen keyboard

On PDAs and some smartphones the onscreen keyboard hasn't changed in years. It's basically a digital representation of a QWERTY layout, complete with SHIFT and CTRL keys that give you access to punctuation marks or numerals.

The iPhone keyboard is 'intelligent' in that it prevents and corrects mistyped words, a feature that's bound to find favor (sic) with many. Find out more in our article: Why the iPhone keyboard rocks .

4) iPod software

Yes, other phones and PDAs can play music and video. But none manage to do it as slickly as the iPhone. Your music and video library is navigable by playlists, artists and songs. If you know the Apple iPod, then iPhone media navigation is a doddle. The neatest feature? Undoubtedly Coverflow. Just like in iTunes. Rotate the iPhone 90 degrees into landscape view, then riffle though a carousel of cover artwork to locate the album and song you're after. As for video, you can double-tap to zoom out and watch in theatrical widescreen. Beautiful.

5) Photos

Other phones and PDAs can also display photos. But the mistake they make is in taking basic JPEG-viewing software and calling it 'photo viewer' or 'photo gallery'.

On the iPhone images are displayed as thumbnails and a one tap on a photo enlarges it to full screen. To scroll to the next image, you swipe left or right with your finger and should a landscape shot come up, turn the iPhone 90 degrees to display it. Zooming in is where the multi-touch feature comes into play. You place your finger and thumb over a portion of the photo, then move them apart to zoom - it's called 'pinching'. You can move around the image by dragging, then double-tap to zoom out.

6) Safari web browser

PDAs and phones don't usually offer a full web browser as standard. But pages render on the iPhone exactly as you'd see them on computer. They're just smaller and a double-tap enables you to zoom in to view the detail. Bookmarks on the computer can be synced to the iPhone for two-tap access. To search using the default Google search engine, tap to bring up an on-screen QWERTY keyboard and enter a term. You can also enter URLs and there's a dedicated .com button to speed up entry.

7) Email

PDAs have long supported POP/IMAP mail and the iPhone is no different. The client can handle HTML mail with images and it also features built-in readers for such popular attachments as PDF, JPEG, Word and Excel. Image attachments are shown in-line with the message, while other attachments are accessed by clicking on their icons. Zoom in on a document with a pinch and drag to pan.

8) Weather & Stocks

The Weather app on the iPhone works like a Widget in that information is derived from the network. The weather app itself isn't particularly thrilling; nor is the financial program that Apple has installed named Stocks. But these two applications show what the iPhone will be capable of in the future. Palm and Windows Mobile PDAs are more than just digital diaries thanks to the range of add-ons that you can install on them. Currency converters, games, instant messaging software, etc. Apple might have locked down the OS so that new applications can't be installed. But there's plenty of mileage in Safari apps.

9) Google Maps

Google is behind the Maps app on the Apple iPhone. Open it, tap in the address, city name or, if in the States, the Zip code, to bring up the location. Zoom by double-tapping or 'pinching' with thumb and finger, explore the area by dragging and take a look at how it appears from space by switching to Satellite view. Zooming out needs a single tap, but with two fingers.

Favourite places can be bookmarked, and it's also possible to search for a specific location, such as a restaurant, by entering the business type and area. Any matches will show up as 'pins' on the map, which can be tapped to reveal details of the establishment. Further, you can bring up directions on how to get there by setting a start point in order to view the ideal view, including indications of local traffic conditions.

Other phones can access Google Maps. None have it built-in, however...

10) YouTube

Content from YouTube can be streamed to the iPhone. A tap on the icon brings up lists of popular videos, along with your own favourites. Turn the iPhone on its side to watch a selection and tap to see it in full-screen mode. Among the on-screen controls is the means to send a video link to a friend via email.

The iPhone isn't a revolution as such. Modern PDAs and phones can perform many of the same functions with a bit of fiddling. And that's the problem. Just as Apple turned the MP3 market upside down with a beautifully-designed and intuitive music player, so the iPhone points out the embarrassing flaws in rival PDAs and phones. Good design is often undone by poor user interfaces. And vice versa.

Apple's triumph (as far as the iPhone is concerned) is that it's made something so desirable, so iconic, that people will camp out in the street for one. It makes the P990 look like a brick; the Treo look like a relic from the 1990s. Apple has made owning a big PDA/phone sexy again.

Words by: Karl Foster and Dean Evans

AppleComputingInternetiPodMobile phonesPDAPortable audioPortable video
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