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Originally published June 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 25, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

iPhone: It all comes down to buttons

I don't know if they realize it, but those people lining up to buy Apple iPhones on Friday are guinea pigs. They may be after a nice phone...

Seattle Times staff columnist

I don't know if they realize it, but those people lining up to buy Apple iPhones on Friday are guinea pigs.

They may be after a nice phone or the newest version of the iPod. But what they're getting for $600 plus fees is the chance to participate in a great experiment, testing whether the public is ready for pocket Web computers and whether Apple chose the best way to package and control them. The folks in lab coats are watching — especially those in the field of human-computer interaction, or HCI.

They've known for decades that pocket-size, wireless computers were coming. It was just a matter of time before the processors, screens, sensors, software, memory and networks were ready.

We'll know that moment has arrived if the iPhone succeeds, just as the iPod marked the point when digital music players were ready for the mainstream.

What's still unclear is the best way to manipulate tiny computers — the ideal combination of buttons, keyboards, touch screens and voice commands.

HCI researchers are excited to see their work popularized in the iPhone, but they're already wondering if Apple's choice of a big touch screen is the best approach.

Right or not, Apple's design will influence other companies. It may also set expectations for this sort of device, said James Landay, an HCI expert at the University of Washington.

"The question is, will people mind not having usable buttons?" he said. "I think that's a big issue."

Buttons may seem dated in the haze of iPhone hype. But they let you control a device without looking, adjust volume, change songs and maybe even dial without taking your eyes off the road or the device out of your pocket.

Apple gave up buttons to have a bigger screen, a decision surely influenced by its growing emphasis on selling entertainment products and video content.

Scott Klemmer, a professor and co-director of the HCI Group at Stanford University, thinks the iPhone's lack of a "tactile input device" is its Achilles' heel.

"Design is fundamentally about choice and making tough decisions," he said. "What's interesting to me with the iPhone is Apple has privileged the viewing experience over the text input experience."

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That makes the phone a "killer platform" for media and Web browsing, but less so for people using portable devices for e-mail and text messaging, he said.

Bill Buxton, a touch-interface pioneer now at Microsoft Research, said touch will clearly "have a place in the future," but there is no single best interface approach.

"Touch isn't best for everything and neither are other types of physical devices, and we still have a long way to go to understand the details of what, where, for whom and why," he said.

Buxton noted that the computer mouse took 30 years to become mainstream after it was invented around 1965.

"From that perspective, we've still got 10 years for some of these multi-touch things to get traction," he said.

Buxton offered advice to those trying to divine its influence:

"The one message from someone who has worked for over 30 years on input techniques on devices is that ... everything is best for something and worst for something else."

I guess we'll have to wait and see whether Apple boss Steve Jobs still has the Midas touch.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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