This has been a big week for touch interfaces with the announcements from both Apple and HTC. The Apple iPhone will be available for purchase through AT&T on June 29 and I won’t be surprised to see long lines of people before the stores open with customers clamoring to be sure they get an iPhone before initial supplies run out. I expect we’ll see video of those customers on the network news the morning of the 29th. HTC surprised a few people with their announcement of a new Windows Mobile smartphone, the Touch, with its touch interface that was no doubt rushed into existence since Steve Jobs demonstrated the iPhone at MacWorld earlier this year. Both devices are interesting and I have been giving them a lot of thought the past few days. Read on if you’re interested in my thoughts on the two devices.
First the iPhone. Apple has done a masterful job at repeating the philosophy of the iPod. Make the iPhone drop dead simple to operate, and make all facets of the operation seamless with the others. It is obvious that Apple designed this touch interface from the ground up and that makes a very seamless operation of the phone and the iPod functions on the iPhone. It’s not only cool but it is very, very simple to operate with the finger, and that appeals to an awful lot of prospective customers.
Is the iPhone the perfect smartphone? Having watched the Jobs keynote demonstration of the iPhone again last night I see two areas that might make the iPhone experience less than stellar. I’m not sure how that on-screen keyboard will hold up for extended usage. I think users are going to get tired tapping on those keys on the screen, and my experience with touch-screens tells me that you will have to tap those keys straight on from the front and not from the sides of the keys or mistakes will be made. That leads me to the second problem I see with the iPhone. It takes two hands to operate. Most smartphones today can be operated with one hand for the most part which makes them much easier to use. The iPhone requires two handed operation, one holding the phone and the other tapping/ swiping the screen. You won’t be using the iPhone in a lot of situations you could use other smartphones as a result.
The HTC Touch is an interesting Windows Mobile device that is actually smaller than the iPhone. It runs Windows Mobile 6 Professional, and that may be the ultimate downfall of the Touch. Don’t get me wrong, I love Windows Mobile but it’s no iPhone. Microsoft hasn’t really designed WM 6 to take full advantage of touch-screens, because it’s designed to also work on smartphones with no touch-screen. HTC has developed TouchFLO, a touch interface that looks cool and operates in a similar fashion to the iPhone, but it’s really just a pretty shell sitting on the Windows Mobile engine. I fear that to fully use the Touch with its WM background you will be reaching for the stylus a lot, and that will detract from the experience. Above all else if HTC is dependent on the standard Windows Mobile on-screen keyboard for text entry then the Touch will fail miserably. That keyboard is terrible to use, and even if the iPhone keyboard isn’t optimum it is way above the WM keyboard. The Touch MUST have a keyboard that can be tapped with the finger, much like that on the iPhone, or the user experience will be horrible. What the Touch cannot do is force the user to frequently reach for the stylus, that’s not the way to have an enjoyable touch experience. I hope the touch interface extends to all areas of operation and doesn’t just work on a few tasks on the Touch. It will quickly be apparent that TouchFLO is just s slap-on shell if that’s the case.
One thing I will say to both Apple and HTC- please incorporate some good functional voice dialing capability on your phones. When you have no buttons nor keypad the touch screen only goes so far. Voice Command for Windows Mobile will not suffice for the Touch either. It is too resource intensive and tries to do too much. All a user needs is a simple way to voice dial numbers. This has been driven home to me recently while switching back and forth between Windows Mobile and S60 smartphones. The simple voice dialing on the Nokia phones makes a world of difference after putting up with Voice Command for so long. Keep it simple and add easy voice dialing and both phones will provide a richer user experience.
It will be very interesting to see how the iPhone and the Touch perform in the wild. I would love to get my hands on both phones and do a real comparison of the two. That would be cool.