September 19th, 2012 by Mike Fulton
Categories: Apple, iPhone, Mobile

Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 5 last week has prompted a lot of people to take note of the fact that it’s very much an incremental, evolutionary step forward, not so much a revolutionary one. Most of the new hardware features are either relatively small improvements or else just catching up to what other phones have already had for the last year or so.

A good example is the “4G” support. Although it appears at first glance that Apple’s done a pretty good job at implementing support for the newer, faster data transfer protocol, other phones have had this for awhile now. In fact, most people were surprised that last year’s iPhone 4S model didn’t support it.

A larger screen? This could arguably be a bad thing if it makes the phone overly bulky, but fortunately the screen really isn’t THAT much bigger, and the difference is offset by the phone’s reduced thickness and weight. Still, it’s hardly a revolutionary step forward, and realistically Apple is just responding to the competition, which has been using a variety of larger screen sizes over the past year.

The camera is a little better, offering 1080p video recording instead of just 720p. The processor is faster and a bit better regarding power consumption. What else is new about the hardware… the docking connector? This is really a few years overdue, and even with adapters available it’s going to play havoc with the accessories market. For now I have to say that this one is as much bug as it is feature.

Let’s turn our attention to the software. iOS 6 is a decent enough upgrade, I suppose, but it doesn’t break any new ground either. The 3D mode of the new Maps app is kinda cool, but really nothing we haven’t seen before on other platforms.

What’s The Next Big Thing?

The evolutionary nature of the iPhone 5 has led many to speculate on what the next big revolution will be, and if it will come from Apple or someone else. I’ve seen people suggesting all sorts of ideas, quite a lot of which seem pretty far fetched to me. So much so, in fact, that it’s prompted me to make this post in order to respond to some of them.

One idea that I’ve seen thrown out a few times is that the ubiquitous touch screen we’ve all come to know and love, or in some cases hate, is an evolutionary dead-end.  The cellphone equivalent of a Neanderthal. Some are suggesting that the next big paradigm shift will abandon the touch screen in favor of another sort of interface.  Alternatives suggested include a holographic display that uses hand gestures in mid-air, like the computer setup in the movie Minority Report.  Or how about a completely voice-operated phone?

People have already demonstrated computer user interfaces like those in Minority Report using off-the-shelf devices like Microsoft’s Kinect so we know such things are possible, but I have strong doubts about how practical they are in the real world, and even stronger doubts about how applicable the idea is to being the primary means of operating a mobile device.

The first problem is that anybody using the gesture system shown in the movie as a primary UI had better be in awesome shape if they intend to use it for more than a few minutes at a time.  All of those gestures are essentially a big aerobics workout.  That might be OK in small doses, but for those of us who spend several hours a day on the computer, I don’t think it’s going to work quite so well. You thought carpal tunnel syndrome was annoying, how about worrying about getting a coronary from doing a file backup to the network?

The second problem lies in using such an interface for a mobile device. If we forget about the aerobics workout aspect for a moment, it’s not hard to imagine using such an interface for a stationary workstation in an office or someone’s home, but for a mobile device? Seriously?

Assuming you can build the necessary sensors into the device in the first place, is using the Minority Report interface with a mobile device even slightly practical? Do the people suggesting this nonsense really think that people are going to take their phones out of their pockets, set them down on the floor or a table top, and start waving their arms around?  In public?

Not to mention the fact that a holographic display puts all your information in mid-air for everybody to see. That leads us to the next idea, which is a device that uses something like Google Glasses for the display.

I could see the glasses idea being combined with the Minority Report gesture UI. You wouldn’t have to take your phone out and set it down somewhere, presuming the sensors are built into the glasses. So it’s somewhat more practical. However, you’re still faced with the idea of people waving their arms around to control the device, and between the aerobics workout aspect of things and the pure embarrassment involved, I think this might not catch on with everybody.

A completely voice-operated phone is perhaps a bit more practical. At least in some respects.  Maybe.  For some specific apps, anyway.  But certainly not everything is going to work right with this setup.  For example, what about the first time you have to enter a password on a voice-operated phone while you’re in the middle of a bunch of people? Or what if it’s simply too dang noisy and the phone can’t hear you? I think voice activation is absolutely going to be an even bigger thing down the road than it is already, but I don’t think it’s practical as the only means of operating your device.

And answer this… how does one play Fruit Ninja with a voice-operated phone?

The Real Danger To Touch Screens

To me, the biggest danger facing the future of the touch screen isn’t some better idea waiting in the wings, but rather it’s all the patent nonsense going on right now between the iOS and Android camps. Frankly, I think there’s been a huge mistake made at the patent office in granting a lot of these patents in the first place.

Patents aren’t supposed to be granted to mechanisms and methods that are obvious given the context in which they’re found. Not necessarily obvious to the general public, but obvious to someone working with such technology. Likewise, patents aren’t supposed to be granted for things which have been demonstrated through prior art, even if it was a fictional representation rather than real technology.

I think a lot of the touch screen-related patents fall into those categories. Especially the prior-art thing. Patenting the electrical hardware mechanism for a capacitive touch screen that can recognize multi-touch? Perfectly reasonable. But given the context of having a multi-touch screen, patenting a particular multi-touch gesture is just ridiculous.

There’s plenty of prior art demonstrating touch screen gestures. If you go back to early demos of the Microsoft Surface table-top touchscreen device, which was not a capacitive screen, but which DID recognize multi-touch, they use many of the same gestures that Apple managed to patent later on. And you could probably put together at least 10 or 15 minutes of footage from from old Star Trek episodes showing touch screen interfaces that use these same gestures.

Following the recent Samsung-Apple patent lawsuit, where Apple won, the jury foreman admitted in an interview that the jury skipped over the prior art question because it was bogging them down. Seriously? The validity of a patent is key in an infringement lawsuit, and they just skipped over it? Wow.

I think Apple is a very innovative company and many of the patents surrounding the iPhone and iPad are quite reasonable. But there’s a good number that just make no sense at all. If these patents are ultimately upheld, I think it’s going to effectively give Apple a monopoly on the touch screen, and I don’t at all think that’s a good thing. It’s going to make other companies spend a lot of time and effort trying to come up with alternatives, most of which probably won’t work as well.