13 Ways I’d Change the iPhone’s Interface…if I Could

I love my new iPhone 3G. But I'd love it more if I could tweak the heck out of it.

By  |  Friday, July 18, 2008 at 6:40 pm

For a year now, an amazing number of people have assumed I own an iPhone. Until last week, I had to politely correct them. (My phone of late has been an AT&T Tilt.) I hadn’t bought a first-generation iPhone for three big reasons. Which were:

1) I worked for a large company that used Lotus Notes–as large companies are wont to do–and there was no good way to get Notes on an iPhone;

2) Every time I tried Mobile Safari, I got depressed by how hobbled such an excellent piece of software was by the slow AT&T EDGE data network;

3) I didn’t want to buy a phone that could only run the applications that Apple itself decided to produce.

Problem one went away when I departed the corporate world to start Technologizer. (Side note: I’ve been using Gmail and Google Calendar to do the stuff I used to do in Notes.) The iPhone 3G solved the second one. And with the advent of the Apple 2.0 software, the iPhone can run third-party applications, of which there are already hundreds in the iTunes Store. So last Friday, I got myself up at 2:30am and braved the lines to buy an iPhone 3G–and a week later, I’m mostly extremely pleased with it.

Already, the library of iPhone apps is impressive: I’ve been downloading and enjoying applications such as Twitterific and Facebook, and am giddy at the prospect of other cool programs to come. But I’m glum about the fact that there’s one major category of software that appears to simply not exist on the iPhone: Utiltiies that change the standard functionality of the phone’s operating system and built-in applications. There are tons of such programs for Windows Mobile, and I used a bunch of them on my Tilt to make it that much more personal.

As far as I can tell, the lack of such programs on the iPhone–the App Store does have a “Utilities” section, but it includes no true utilities–is intentional. When Apple’s explained the architecture of the phone as an application platform, it’s talked about how applications are sandboxed so as to limit the damage that a poorly-written program can do. You can’t both sandbox apps and let them dig into OS itself and change its functionality. That means that other developers can’t build the tweaking tools that are commonplace with Windows Mobile. And even in the iPhone 2.0 software, Apple provides only a handful of ways for users to customize the phone.

So right now, the iPhone interface is what it is. What it is is by far the best interface ever produced for a mobile device, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of ways I’d change it if I could. Such as…

1. On my Tilt–and I know this is geeky and atypical–I’d programmed just about every button I could to do something that made the phone faster to use. (One press on a button normally used for Push to Talk brought up my calendar; two presses on it brought up my to-do list.) The iPhone, of course, has only one real button, and it takes you to the Home screen; Apple does let you configure it to take you to your phone Favorites or the iPod features if you press it twice. At the very least, I’d like to be able to specify that it launch any Apple or non-Apple app I choose when I press it twice. And hey, if you could configure it to do custom things if you pressed it three times–or, God help me, four times–I’d probably use that, too.

2) How about also being able to specify what the Home button does if you press it and hold it down for awhile?

3) Steve Jobs was so pleased with the iPhone’s “Slide to unlock” feature that it was just about the first thing he showed at the iPhone’s unveiling at Macworld Expo 2007. It is indeed a clever and useful feature. Despite that, I’d like the ability to turn it off, or to specify that the iPhone not need to be unlocked for a specific period after it first shuts itself off. Sliding to unlock feels a lot less cool when you do it dozens of times a day, as I’m doing now.

4) Here’s another goofy, geeky idea I’d use: What if you could set up multiple Slide-to-unlock sliders that took you to different apps?

5) Sticking with the iPhone’s behavior when you first turn it on for a moment, the customizable wallpaper is nice, but I wish I could skip the wallpaper and simply see whatever application I’m in before I slide to unlock. I’ve usually forgotten where I was, and it takes a millisecond or two for me to remember; I’d rather be reminded instantly.

6) Speaking of which, the app I was in last time I used the iPhone is often not the one I want to use when I turn it back on. If you could configure the phone to return to the Home screen rather than to the last app used, I might do that.

7) When you return to an app you’ve been out of for awhile, the iPhone takes you to wherever you were when you left–such as a particular inbox of one of your e-mail accounts. Which makes perfect sense, but if I could, I’d at least experiment with returning to the top-level screen of the app. (It can take a lot of thumbpresses to back your way out.)

8) There’s lots of opportunity to let uses program custom finger-swipes. What if you could launch a specific app or perform a certain task by swiping your finger quickly from to bottom–and another one by swiping from bottom to top?

9) I like the fact that you can move your program icons around on the Home screen, and that swiping your finger lets you jump to additional Home screens as needed. I’d be even happier if there was a way to set up Home screens for particular types of apps–say, one for productivity tools and another for games.

10) I don’t understand why the iPhone’s otherwise wonderful YouTube app, when I flip the phone into horizontal mode, doesn’t notice whether I’m holding the phone with the Home button on the left or right. It always shows up assuming that the Home button is on the right, but I always instinctively have it on the left, perhaps because I’m a lefty. Which means that YouTube is upside-down and I need to flip the phone around.

11) On the Tilt, I was stuck with Microsoft’s archaic Pocket Internet Explorer, but it was a lot less archaic once I installed a nifty utility called PiePlus which added most of the features that IE lacked. Safari doesn’t need help in the way that IE did, but I’d still like to see the ability for third-party developers to add features to it.

12) Once you’ve made a call with the iPhone, the on-screen keypad goes away until you bring it back with a press. I wish it could stay onscreen at all times during a call; there seems to be enough real estate to make that happen.

13)  One last wonky desire: If there were a Bluetooth keyboard for the iPhone that I could use instead of the onscreen one, I’d probably buy it. I’m not sure whether third-party developers have access to the iPhone’s Bluetooth, though…or whether they could suppress the on-screen keyboard when the real one was in use.

I could list another twenty things I’d love to see, and maybe I will at some point. My guess is that Apple will eventually implement a feature or two I mention above, and there are others that they’d absolutely, positively refuse to add. That’s their right. But it would be swell if independent iPhone developers made this amazing phone do just about anything that iPhone users wanted it to…


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6 Comments For This Post

  1. Kevin C. Tofel Says:

    Good thoughts Harry and welcome to the cult, er club. 😉 For item #9 in your list, you can do this manually. Just create a number of home screens and add productivity apps to one, games to another, etc… I don’t know that I want to use program metadata to have my screens auto-configured; I’d rather have total flexibility in this area… but that’s just me.

  2. Denny Arar Says:

    Not an interface thing, really, but I’m dreaming of Flash on the iPhone so I can play my favorite online bridge game (BridgeBase Online) which is Flash-based) without having to be at a computer. Steve Jobs supposedly said this won’t happen but I still see the odd news report that Adobe’s working on it. I’d be mortified if Windows Mobile supports it first (which isn’t impossible as Bill Gates is an investor in the game).

    And I too am getting weary of finger swipes.

    Denny Arar, former comrade in arms

  3. Harry McCracken Says:

    Thanks for the tip, Kevin–and congrats on today’s news!


  4. Patty Says:

    I’d like to configure things things like:

    Use EDGE for my voice calls. If not available, then use 3G.
    (Thus doubling the battery life.)

    …while… at the same time… using 3G for web-pages.
    If not available, then use EDGE.
    (Thus getting the fastest speeds.)

    Another idea… A way to set these indepentantly:
    Sleep/lock after 3 mins (if running from battery).
    Sleep/lock after 30 mins (if running from AC).

  5. ircyclistnow Says:

    I second the distinction between battery and AC for sleep/lock times. I actually wouldn’t mind if the phone stayed on the whole time while running on AC (like my MacBook does).

    On a totally different note – it might be cool to have multi-touch on my iMac screen… It could be a computing experience much like the one in Minority Report. Although I don’t want to think about what that would cost.

  6. Greg Says:

    Good improvements overall.

    Additionally it would be nice if we could name the so called Home Screens, (i.e. Games, Business, Cameras, whatever..). Then using a sliding motion over the little dots, see the name come up like the Apple Dock does. You could then slide your finger over the Icon like name to jump to that screen. I get pretty tired of flicking 10 or 11 times to get to a set of apps on the last screen. Of course I could move then closer to the front, but that defeats the purpose of having so many apps and storage.

    A Category search feature would be nice on the Finder/Search screen. Like, show me all Camera apps, Games, etc…