iPhone Predictions: Improved E-Mail And Texting

Apple should improve the e-mail and texting capabilities of the iPhone and find a way to provide tactile feedback when users touch a key, a usability expert says.

Industry analysts and pundits expect Apple to introduce additional features and capabilities to its popular iPhone next week. They expect those enhancements to appeal to the business user and make the mobile phone-browser-music player combo play better with the type of IT infrastructure used by most companies.

One key area that needs improvement, says one usability expert, is e-mail and text-entering capabilities. "Apple should elevate the good features, like magnifying glass and cursor movement. And it should provide cut-and-past capability," said Gavin Lew, managing director of User Centric, in an interview. He also hopes Apple will let users turn off the phone's auto-correct feature.

The iPhone has received high praise for its music and video entertainment features, but has left most business users cold because they rely so heavily on e-mail. Some observers expect Apple to introduce connections to Microsoft Exchange or other popular e-mail applications when it holds a press conference next Thursday. The company plans also to discuss the status of its software developer kit.

Based on User Centric's usability studies of the iPhone, Lew said he expects Apple to address the complaints -- particularly from business users. "Apple should consider improving haptic feedback," said Lew, referring to the phenomenon of giving users some sort of "buzz or tiny indication" of tactile response when a key on the phone's touch screen has been activated. He noted that Apple recently filed an important tactile patent, "Keystroke tactility arrangement on a smooth touch surface."

Independent researchers have been working to provide tactile feedback, including Glasgow University researchers Malcolm Hall and Eve Hoggan, who have developed a prototype scheme in which vibrations and waveforms on the iPhone give users the sensation of pressing or releasing a key on the iPhone keyboard.

In its studies of iPhone users, User Centric found that they made significantly more errors and took more time to accomplish e-mail and texting tasks than consumers who used mobile phones with tactile QWERTY keyboard phones. Users were frustrated by the vertical keyboard and its lack of visibility for editing in the middle of a word or sentence.

Lew also expects Apple to improve the touch zones on the edge of the keyboard, where users often hit an unintended key, creating "false alarms."

Lew gives the iPhone high marks for its intuitiveness, but he says Apple doesn't provide enough help for users, particularly business users who generally need to carry out their tasks quickly and without error. "Apple gives you a four-page pullout," said Lew. "It's not in-depth. They want you to find out by yourself."

While not making a prediction, Lew said adding a sliding QWERTY keyboard to the iPhone would have great appeal to business users.

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