Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
Apple has just introduced an incredibly promoted portable touch-screen device touted as revolutionizing an entire industry. Lines formed in anticipation of its release. The most controversial aspect of it, though, is its text-input method. And one more thing, the year is 1993 and the product is Newton. The disappointment of Newton's handwriting recognition resulted in negative reviews that left Apple with egg freckles on its face and the bold Newton MessagePad and its successors all but doomed.
Will history repeat itself with this year's model? The first sign that the iPhone's touch-screen keyboard may have a learning curve came during the Steve Jobs interview at the D: All Things Digital event when Apple's CEO offered to buy Walt Mossberg dinner if he wasn't happy with the iPhone's keyboard after coming up to speed on it.
Reinforcing that, in Apple's video walkthrough of the iPhone, the black-shirted narrator notes that "it's easiest to begin typing with just your index finger" but encourages that "as you get more proficient, migrate to using two thumbs" for the payoff that "in about a week, you'll be typing faster on iPhone than any other small keyboard. Perhaps the keyboard's tag line should be, "Give us a week. We'll take off the wait." Fortunately for Apple, most reviewers have not thrown Apple's baby out with its backspace.
Bear in mind Apple's messaging behind the iPhone -- a "revolutionary phone," i.e., voice experience, "the best iPod we've ever made," and the "Internet in your pocket". For the first two, a keyboard is merely nice to have for tasks such as entering contacts and searching for songs (which the iPhone doesn't yet support), And for at least the iPhone's music features, the larger screen afforded by removing the physical keyboard enhances its ability to display pictures, album art and movies.
A larger screen also means more real estate to display long lists of songs, which means less scrolling or, in the iPhone's case, flicking. Apple could have taken advantage of a slide-out keyboard such as those on the T-Mobile Wing or Helio Ocean, but this would mean added bulk. And the iPhone's slim design is almost as much a part of its appeal as was the Motorola Q's.
Then there's the Internet experience. Most of Apple's emphasis here has been on the inclusion of Safari which, while not as well-supported as Internet Explorer or Firefox, particularly by leading-edge "Web application" sites that Apple now sees as key to expanding the iPhone's capabilities by third parties, should provide better Web site fidelity than other mobile browsers.
Indeed, with the iPhone I have been able to pay bills using my bank's regular Web site, something I've not been able to do on any other mobile phone. Here again, a QWERTY keyboard is useful mostly for entering URLs (which can admittedly be long, unforgiving and difficult to assist with "smart" typing algorithms) and searches. But for most consumers, the overwhelming majority of our time spent in the browser is used reading, not writing. Forms certainly play a key role, but they are usually limited to small bits of text.
Next week's column will discuss the other aspects of the iPhone's functionality as it relates to the device's other core features.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.