Does the iPhone represent a “new class of interface”? - Macenstein

Does the iPhone represent a “new class of interface”?

Faithful Macenstein (and NYT) reader Paul sent us a link that gave even MY inner Apple Fanboy the douche chills.

“People don’t understand that we’ve invented a new class of interface.”

Those are the words of Steve Jobs in a recent NYT interview when talking about the iPhone.

Now, hopefully this is being way taken out of context (although after reading the article, I don’t think so). So as much as I love Steve, I just can’t allow that line to slip by. Apple may have been the first to try to register the name “multi-touch”, but multi-touch, intuitive displays have been being developed secretly for years, and not secretly almost as long. For Apple to try to claim credit as inventor of the multi-touch screen interface is a kick in the slide rule to not just every non-paid, brainy grad student toiling away anonymously in university research departments across the country, but also a slap to the unshaven face of every special effects artist who have depicted touchscreen interfaces (albeit, non-functioning) for years.

Now, perhaps Steve meant Apple took an existing technology and was the first to apply it to a handheld device. That argument might have legs, although I am sure someone will be able to point out some obscure Korean touchscreen medical device from the 90’s that did it first. But the spin here definitely comes across as Apple created this new way of interacting with data, and that just isn’t true. I love the iPhone, and I love Apple, but aside from the order of the icons on the iPhone’s menu screen, I can’t see Steve’s point here.

I know humility isn’t Steve’s “thing”, but I grew up in Murray Hill, NJ, home of Bell Labs, and I think there should definitely be a lot more of “we stand on the shoulders of giants” in that interview than there is.

11 Responses to “Does the iPhone represent a “new class of interface”?”
  1. Way Cool Jr. says:

    My favorite computer interface is the touch screen one from the first Jurassic Park movie that the kids use. The 11 year old girl in 3 seconds can navigate the Park’s entire security system. Now THAT’S intuitive!

  2. fog city dave says:

    You’re only focusing one single aspect of the iPhone interface in “multi-touch”, and you’re putting words into Jobs’ mouth.

    Multi-touch is the INPUT, not the INTERFACE. (Even so, prior multi-touch systems have been projector-based, like the Jeff Han work and the Microsoft Surface, so Apple really has accomplished something unique in the industry.)

    The INTERFACE that Jobs is referring to is the new GUI metaphor that Apple created and has been refining for the iPhone, and the new HIG that will be included in the forthcoming SDK. This includes not only the look & feel, but the physics engine and the behaviors of OS X on the iPhone, and the rules of how apps behave, etc.

    The interface of the iPhone (of which multi-touch technology is one aspect) is a completely new beast, invented by Apple. It’s not hubris on Steve Jobs’ part. It’s a completely justified stance.

  3. Dave,

    I understand your point, but (at the risk of appearing to be an Apple basher) I still must disagree.

    What exactly is it about the iPhone’s GUI and the way the apps work that makes it a “new class of interface” in your opinion, if not multi-touch? The main difference between the iPhone and a Mac is that your finger is now the mouse, and it uses multi-touch to accomplish tasks.

    How is using iTunes on the iPhone different from using iTunes on a Mac with a mouse?
    Or the stock widget with a mouse?
    Or Safari with a mouse?

    Jobs spoke of how the Newton was panned, so they had to come up with a whole new way of doing things with the iPhone, but to date, it appears the thing that makes it different from other handhelds it is uses mutli-touch instead of physical buttons, or instead of the touchscreen and stylus that even the Newton had. I see no cool Apple-specific gestures that make the iPhone unique. No “swish of the fingers” to select text and copy it to a clipboard for pasting, no dragging and dropping of URLS to Mail, or to open in a new window.

    The way Apps behave on the iPhone is the way apps behave on a Mac, which is of course impressive, to a degree, but in reality tthe iPhone then becomes a stripped down ultraportable MacBook. It isn’t doing anything differently than the way a MacBook does.

    What are these other parts of the iPhone interface you speak of ? (aside of course, from the jolly, candy-like buttons). I’ve been using the iPhone since day 2 and I love it, but I have not seen anything revolutionary from an interface POV.

    -the Doc

  4. The Emperor's Tailor says:

    The multi-touch system that is used on the iPhone comes from a company formerly known as FingerWorks, now known (since its purchase) as Apple. (The FingerWorks web site is still up, although you are greeted with a message that says, “FingerWorks has ceased operations as a business.”)
    Yes, they bought in the technology and the two principals who invented it. Legacy FingerWorks hardware is in great demand by those in the know: it goes for almost ten times its original retail price when (and if) it shows up on eBay.

  5. fog city dave says:

    Are you serious? “The main difference between the iPhone and a Mac is that your finger is now the mouse, and it uses multi-touch to accomplish tasks.”?

    Okay, let’s see. There’s no Finder, no file folders, no menus, no mouse, no cursor, no overlapping windows, no keyboard commands. It is not the standard desktop metaphor GUI in any way, shape or form.

    There are hardly any ways at all that the iPhone interface is similar to the familiar Mac or Windows metaphor.

  6. Hey Dave,

    Ok, you point out that there’s “no Finder, no file folders, no menus, no mouse, no cursor, no overlapping windows, no keyboard commands. It is not the standard desktop metaphor GUI in any way, shape or form.”

    I would argue that
    1) None of that is a good thing
    2) For the most part, I can say the same about my old Motorola Razr (although I guess that had folder access, which is depressing to think about). The iPhone’s GUI works pretty much exactly as you’d expect having used any other phone before.
    3) and yes, there ARE menus. They are just for the most part located at the bottom of the screens (check out the “iPod”, “Address book”, “Clock”, “Maps” etc. Just because there is a row of icons instead of a drop down doesn’t mean it isn’t a menu. And check out “Settings”. That looks like a menu to me.

    Again, I’m not saying the iPhone is in any way not cool, I am just saying I don’t see it as having “a new class of interface”. What makes the iPhone different from other phones is multi-touch. (And the lack of some basic, standard features – sorry, I couldn’t resist).


    -The Doc

  7. Ethan Sisson says:

    I agree with the article, and the doctor’s comments. Also, Dave, the fact that the iPhone lacks many interfaces that are available on a Mac does not justify saying it is a new interface – losing something is losing, not gaining.

    My opinion of Job’s line is that he has spoken prematurely about what Apple has created and is working on in the labs. We know Apple is internally working on the next iPhone and at least thinking about the one after that. Its reasonable to assume they are hugely experimenting with multi-touch in other applications, especially since the context of the quote was in talking about computers and the evolution of operating systems. Further, the article refers to the need for “radical innovations” in operating systems. The very next thing said in the article is this:

    “He contrasted it with stylus interfaces, like the approach Microsoft took with its tablet computer. That interface is not so different from what most computers have been using since the mid-1980s.”

    I think we can also assume the Apple does not simply want to take OS X and make it work with a touch-screen, with your finger being analogous to a mouse pointer. That would be just like what Microsoft did with tablet PCs (mentioned in the article as well), excepting that they typically use a stylus. What, then, is Apple trying to accomplish with multi-touch? We have yet to see anything outside of the finger = mouse analogy of the iPhone and iPod Touch.

    Apple is in the process of reinventing the way our hands interface with a computer, and the iPhone is only the first step – their foothold in a market that is appropriate for mobile multi-touch devices. In future multi-touch devices we will see vastly new and more natural concepts of human-computer interface made possible by multiple points of direct contact. On a mobile device the applications and techniques of multi-touch could continue to be very simple, as in iPhone, but we will surely see a jump from finger=mouse to input more of the style of zooming already present on iPhone.

    On a full computer, though, the applications have the opportunity to become vastly powerful, mostly due to screens many times larger. I think a multi-touch desktop or notebook running Mac OS X would closely resemble a traditional mouse-style desktop or notebook in the look of the interface, but in function would require a bit of relearning to understand the new paradigms that will allow for the most efficient use of multi-touch input. Think of a time before the mouse, when virtually all input was done by keyboard. When Apple began selling the Macintosh the manual included had to communicate even the most basic principals of navigating a computer using a mouse. Take a look at to see some examples. As the multi-touch interface matures into a truly new form Apple will need to provide similar explanation to usher people into the new age of directly touching their files and applications. In fact, Apple has already set their standard for how they will introduce new multi-touch concepts to customers with their iPhone and iPod Touch guided tours (

    So while I think Steve was either being misleading in saying that Apple had invented a new class of interface, or he got ahead of himself in vaguely referring to what’s in Apple’s labs right now, he is right in saying that Apple is inventing a new class of interface, because there is no way they will not harness the power of multi-touch to do just that. That line also caught me off-guard, but I quickly realized that it was more likely a reference to future multi-touch products (I guess Apple does talk about future products in a way, though indirectly and vaguely) than to the current iPhone interface.

    Good call calling Jobs on this one though, Dr. Macenstein – the opportunities for reading between the lines in that article are astonishing.

  8. Oh Blah Dee Blah Dah says:

    Columbus did NOT discover America. Others came here before he did. It has been documented that the Leif Ericson was the first known European to arrive in North America, but the credit for opening up America to Europe goes to Columbus.

    Columbus receives the recognition of discovering America, because he promoted it persistently and persuasively, after he returned to Europe. THAT is what lead to the development of America.

    Apple did not discover ALL of the features and components of the iPhone UI, however, Apple is the first to put them all together, with its own unique patents and sell it to the end user.

    As you can see, demand for, and satisfaction of, the IPhone is immense. Yes, Apple, with its 200 iPhone patents, deserves credit for inventing a fully USABLE and PRACTICAL touch device!

  9. Erik says:

    Did you even read the article? I’m not sure if you did, otherwise you would have read, what Steve Jobs meant with “new class of interface”.

    “In contrast, Mr. Jobs said that multitouch drastically simplified the process of controlling a computer.

    There are no “verbs” in the iPhone interface, he said, alluding to the way a standard mouse or stylus system works. In those systems, users select an object, like a photo, and then separately select an action, or “verb,” to do something to it.”

    So, this is not about technology… this is about interface design. So yeah, your quote is pretty much completly taken out of context and it certainly did not help that you did not read the article you referenced.

  10. Richard says:

    Oh blah Dee,
    You say “Apple did not discover ALL of the features and components of the iPhone UI, however, Apple is the first to put them all together, with its own unique patents and sell it to the end user…Yes, Apple, with its 200 iPhone patents, deserves credit for inventing a fully USABLE and PRACTICAL touch device!”

    No one is arguing Apple that Apple did not indeed produce a device (in fact, I am holding one right now). What IS being argued is whether it represents an entirely new interface class, and if so, how much credit should Apple get?

    I agree with Ethan and the dr. that 90% of what makes the iPhone’s GUI unique (as far the end user is concerned) is the touch screen navigation.

  11. Erik,

    Thanks for reading Macenstein.

    As to your point, yes, I DID read the article, and the very lines you quote are what cause the problem. All that is being said there is that Jobs thinks MULTI-TOUCH presents a new way to navigate the GUI, with no “verbs”.

    What exactly did Apple contribute to the GUI that would give them the right to claim THEY created a new class of interface?

    The “verb-less” interface has been the concept behind multi-touch technology since its inception, a decade or 2 before Apple thought to bring it to the iPhone.

    -The Doc

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