Faster iPhone Data Input

Mobile phones are taking on the capabilities of PDAs - but providing input to a telephone is challenging. This article explores the opportunities for improvements in future generations of iPhone.

In the mid 1990s, personal digital assistants or PDAs were everywhere. Everybody had a Palm Pilot, a Psion, a Sharp, or a Handspring Visor. Remember those days?

Now, the telephone is the ubiquitous tool. It provides access to email and vital information. Telephones can also take photographs, videos and store music. Not surprisingly, the PDA has fallen by the wayside.

The rise of powerful telephones has killed off, or at least significantly curtailed, the PDA market. Additionally, laptop computers are smaller, more powerful, and more convenient than ever before and in many cases have taken the place of desktop machines. So many people who needed the additional power of a PDA as an information management tool now simply fire up their PCs or MacBooks when necessary, to retrieve their vital information.

However, the legacy of the PDA can be seen in the elegance of the iPhone. The software on the iPhone is beautifully integrated with the capabilities of the hardware. As the iPhone provides internet connectivity, you can access any information that you have posted online using your iPhone. The weak link for the iPhone is text input. Currently inputting large volumes of text requires a keyboard, not the miniature, hunt and peck system which the iPhone or Blackberry devices offer.

As the telephone, notebook, and PDA markets continues to converge and compress themselves into one entity; there will be pressure on this question of providing input to your telephone. One possibility is that voice recognition software will become accurate and reliable enough that it can take over the duties of the hunt and peck widgets. Another possibility is that a foldout keyboard, as last seen on the Psion 5 series PDAs, could be coaxed into the physical format of a telephone. Some telephone manufacturers have created devices with keyboards, but none are large enough to allow reasonable speed typing.

Voice recognition software should be viable in terms of computing power. The problem with voice recognition is that the diversity of human language defeats the programmers every time. However, a breakthrough here would be fantastic for users. Software developers should be encouraged by the fact that we users are willing to learn how to use keyboards, strange styli, and tiny keyboard widgets. If the payoff is sufficient, the user will make the necessary effort. Imagine dictating and editing your next email on your iPhone, you would probably be prepared to learn some special diction for that capability.

Alternatively, the Psion PDAs showed what can be achieved using an integrated keyboard. Although the Psion PDAs achieved great popularity in Europe they had hardware problems. Surprisingly though, the problems were typically not in the keyboards themselves, but instead in hinges and battery recharging mechanisms. Given better engineering and quality control, the foldout keyboard is likely the easiest route to an improved level of input for the next generation of super phones.

Perhaps there will be a resurgence in the special writing techniques which made the Palm Pilot and Handspring Visor machines popular. This means of generating input for an electronic device might not have seemed viable given the experience that Apple had with the Newton. However, the success of the Pilot and Visor showed that when the software is well executed, users will deal with the necessary learning curve.

The current iPhone software, which essentially responds to simple gestures and finger movements, shows how iPhone's touch sensitive screen could be coaxed into receiving user input. Perhaps the Apple developers are already in the process of creating an abbreviated set of letter gestures which will allow iPhone users to input information to the iPhones as fast as they can now input that information into their MacBooks with their keyboards. I certainly hope so!

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