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The story of iOS's text selection tool and the importance of those "handles"


On February 11, 2014 the United States Patent and Trademark Office published the Apple's patent for the "selecting of text using gestures." Filed in 2008, and arriving on iOS devices in iOS 3 in June of 2009, you probably know this patent as "the thing that lets you highlight text on your iPhone." This tiny addition to iOS had a powerful impact on helping bridge the gap between smart phones and personal computers, and opened up the possibilities of working on your phone.

To celebrate the release of these patent details the folks at Cult of Mac reached out to Apple's former user interface designer, Bas Ording, for an interview about the development of this important feature. The company knew text selection needed to find its way to iOS. Apple's old MessagePad personal planner utilized a stylus to cut-and-paste text, but according to Ording Steve Jobs refused to consider requiring a stylus on the iPhone.

This left developers with figuring out how to allow users to select text on a tiny screen utilizing nothing but grubby fingers on the iPhone's screen. The breakthrough came along with the concept of adding movable "handles" at both ends of the text, which would allow users to precisely make selections without having to cover up the words they're looking for. Ording points to this design as a major factor in the success of the text selection tool.

Some people called them 'lollypop sticks' and we played around with a bunch of different ideas [regarding] how best to do them. It started out with much larger visible handles. We ended up making them smaller and smaller, until they were just dots. You see, it turns out your fingers are actually pretty precise.

If there's a grain of sand on your desk, you can easily target it despite it being a tiny dot. On-screen the dots are small, but in software the invisible active area is much larger, so they're easy to grab."

Cult of Mac's interview goes on to discuss what working with Jobs on early iPhone development was like, and includes a few interesting tidbits about early iPad prototypes which were used for iOS development. You can read the complete story here. If you're interested in taking a look at Apple's patent for "Selecting of text using gestures" head over to the U.S.P.T.O. and gaze upon the blueprint for a tool we all probably take for granted.

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