Washington Apple Pi

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Fingerprints: Why you care about the iPhone

© 2007 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Like millions of others, I read about Apple’s introduction of a new cell phone at Macworld San Francisco 2007 and thought, “I don’t care. I don’t need a cell phone.”

I was wrong. True, I don’t have an immediate need for a new cell phone. But after reviewing Steve Jobs’ keynote address at Macworld, the iPhone incorporates great big bunches of goodness that I expect to see in Macs and iPods Real Soon Now. The reason? Fingerprints.


A quarter century ago, when I had my first computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80, I discovered the fingerprint phenomenon. My mother had been using computers for years, but for her a “computer” was a big metal thing the size of a small house, and it spewed out boxes of paper covered with densely packed numbers. When she saw my TRS-80 Model I, she immediately… poked at something on the screen.

Many, many years later, watching the keynote speech stream into iTunes, I watched Jobs stroke the iPhone screen to turn it on, poke it to zoom in on things, “pinch” images to make them bigger or smaller, and switch between graphical interfaces to move between video content, messaging, music and making phone calls, using nothing more than his fingers. I leaned forward to get an oblique look at my monitor and saw: fingerprints.

We use our fingers to type things into a computer, yet still like to point at what we’ve entered. I once had a supervisor who had the habit of taking erasable whiteboard markers and drawing on my monitor. This annoyed the heck out of me (diplomatic understatement), but admittedly it seemed a completely natural thing to do.

Looking at the iPhone, I want that technology – on my Mac. I want to reach out to the monitor and move a window by dragging it with a finger. I want to pinch a graphic to shrink it, or expand it. I want to flip through album covers in iTunes with my finger.

Jobs made a mocking reference to Windows tablet computers at one point, asking who wants to use a stylus? If you are pointing at a computer screen and expect something to happen, do you want to grab some additional tool, a precision engineered stick, or just use your pinkie? You’ll never lose your pinkie, and never have to train it to work with your Mac, so leave the styluses to Windows and – point. And swipe. And touch. And tap.

iPhone is finger friendly

The finger-friendly iPhone, by Apple Inc.

If Mac OS X supported touch commands, you’d presumably need to get a touch-sensitive monitor to take advantage of such enhancements. I could live with that. Macs can already talk to you and see you; they might as well feel you, too.

iPhone also hints at great things for the iPod. Selecting songs with a scroll wheel is nice, but flipping through album covers with your finger, or sliding your finger down a scrolling list is far more “natural.” If you watch the keynote, you’ll see that Apple has added some ridiculously cool and completely unnecessary – but compelling – flourishes, such as inertia. While flipping rapidly through album covers, when Steve stopped the flipping didn’t just jarringly halt, but slowed and stopped; the “weight” of the album carousel kept the rotation going for a second or two. Similarly, inertia kept the scrolling list going for a second or two after he stopped scrolling. I want an iPod with this interface!

The iPhone interface also changes according to orientation. Turn it sideways, and you can see a video in “widescreen” mode. Looking at video on a traditional iPod screen has never had any appeal to me, but with a “widescreen” iPod I can envision a trans-Atlantic flight or a flight to the West Coast being far more enjoyable.

I’m singularly uninterested in the iPhone itself. But I want the iPhone’s touch-driven screen – on my Mac, and on my iPod. I want it now. And I know just the company to do it.