[Or It’s just the first step… I hope]

Really I’m writing in something of a frustrated mood. I feel a bit like I’m missing out here, and once again it’s because people don’t seem to have thought things through in the planning stages.

It seems these days that every third Tweet, fifth web page and tenth piece of spam has to do with the iPhone. Apple have reportedly sold over 21.4 million iPhones (both 2 and 3G), and so I guess I have to agree that they’ve done SOMETHING right.

What they’ve done wrong, what they seem to continue to do wrong has to do with the interface. For those of you who didn’t notice, Stevie Wonder attended CES and spoke about how touch screen alienate the visually impaired. Now there are 100 000 people with a Visual Impairment in NSW and the ACT (oddly I can’t find a national figure).

Having attempted to use a couple of iPhones to deal with issues at work, I find it nigh impossible. The screen has poor contrast and is totally unreadable to me. I did manage to fix the problems by randomly stabbing the thing. OK, wasn’t quite random, but I still have no idea what I did.

Now thinking about this, it’s not just those of my ilk that are cut out of the iPhone wonderland. Anyone who doesn’t have reasonable fine-motor skills is also going to have some pretty big barriers.

But lets look on the positive side for the moment. Apple have clearly done some special things with the iPhone. The integration of Internet connectivity (both using mobile networks and local wireless), and the operating system itself are clearly big wins for the company. So much so, that we can see Google playing a bit of catch-up with Android.

But Google seem to have fallen at the first gate as well. From what I’ve read (and someone please tell me I’m wrong here), they have not included any API hooks into the basic I/O systems which might allow for the development of alternative input and output devices – to the point that developing a simple screen magnifier looks hopeless. [Edit: Oh, I find that there’s some development here. Good Google. :-)]

Is it just me that thinks that we keep taking the wrong approach to interfaces? It would seem sensible, in terms of both hardware and software, to start taking a modular approach.

At the middle of any of these devices is a Processor, or processors, memory and other associated hardware. These bits do the actual work of the system, running the core OS and applications. At the top end of the OS we have the kernel, which is the user level interface. Imagine this: a box which houses the chips, battery, and other bits that do the actual work. This bit we can mass produce, we can sell millions of the things, so they’re cheep to make because of volume.

Having made this core, why can’t we slot in all sorts of various modules for both input and output? You can have a standard touch screen for the majority, or a screen and standard keypad or keyboard depending on preference. But maybe you want Braille output? Slot that in instead. Need a large keypad because of motor skills? Slot it in. Voice activation? Sweet. If we build these modules with the hardware and software (or firmware) to take the I/O data from the core, and handle the interface separately, then we’ve built a truly flexible system

Is this really that radical an idea? As we move along with technology, we see more and more modular designs, separating form from content. For large projects we treat code objects as black boxes, we don’t care what happens inside, we just need to know that if we give it a certain input it will give a certain output. It gives rise to a generic device which can be made accessible to anyone. OK, a Braille display is going to be more expensive than a standard output, but I think we can live with that when we know we’ve all got the same opportunities to access these new devices.

So in building the iPhone, which is something of a mini-revolution in and of itself, Apple missed the mark. But they’re not alone. I don’t think anyone has truly hit it yet. That is why the iPhone fails.

Soundtrack
The Resignators – Weirdos Superheros and Me
Radiohead – Creep
The Lyrical Madmen – Alarm Bells
Weezer – El Scorcho
Los Capitanes – Scene Queen
Dr Octopus – Repeat
The Bullet Holes – Our Fault
Dr Octopus – Last Time
The Living End – So What
Los Capitanes – Riff Raff
Addiction 64 – Learn to Dance
The Lyrical Madmen – Best Friend

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