Why the iPhone will change the (PC) world

Imagine an iPhone the size of a big-screen TV. That's the PC of the future.

Steve Jobs' iPhone demo at Macworld Jan. 9 rocked the house, stopped the presses and upset the smart-phone status quo. Yes, Jobs changed the world. Again.

His keynote was so insanely great that five weeks later, we almost forget one important fact: The iPhone doesn't exist -- at least as a shipping product.

Neither you nor I have ever so much as touched an iPhone. Almost everything we know about the iPhone came from one big sales pitch. The iPhone could be the greatest device ever manufactured. Or it could be a horrible flop like the Newton. Either is possible.

Jobs' iPhone demo was so powerful that he actually made people believe that Apple invented a whole new user interface. In fact, Apple did something more important than that. The company took some of the best -- hitherto obscure -- UI research and put it into a product that you will be able to buy. It did the same thing with three other products, the original Apple computer, the Mac and the iPod.

This is how Apple changes the world. It takes awesome research out of other people's labs, polishes and perfects it, and then ship it as warm-and-fuzzy consumer products everyone can buy.

Succeed or fail, the iPhone will be remembered as the first major step toward the third-generation PC user interface.

Old and busted

The first-generation UI was the command line. Apple didn't invent it, but used the concept for early Apple computers.

The second-generation UI is the icon-based, folder-driven, resizable overlapping windows interface that we use today. Again, Apple didn't invent it -- Xerox did. But Apple was the first major company to build it into a consumer product, the original Macintosh computer, which came out in 1984.

Microsoft shipped its Windows Vista operating system last month, and Apple's next update to OS X is expected by late spring. Although these platforms contain elements of the next-generation UI, they're based on the same old folders, icons and windows paradigm from the 1980s.

I don't know about you, but I think 23 years is a long time to wait. I'm fed up and ready for the next radical leap forward in UI technology. You will be, too, once you've seen the video I link at the end of this column.

The new hotness

Tomorrow's third-generation PC UI has already been invented. All the research is done. In fact, some elements have been independently developed by dozens of geniuses at multiple research centers, each taking a slightly different approach, but all embracing more than one of the major five elements of tomorrow's UI. Here are those elements:

1. Multitouch

A lot of people now think Apple invented multitouch -- the idea that a touch screen can respond to two or more points of control at once. In fact, researchers have been developing multitouch technologies for more than a decade.

Multitouch on a PC user interface is as powerful as "multitouch" in real life. Imagine if you had to go through life interacting with the world using just one fingertip. Dialing the phone would be OK, but picking up the receiver would be a problem. Multitouch lets you "pick up" on-screen objects, turn them around, resize them and do other useful things. Here's what multitouch looks like.

2. Gestures

Current-generation touch-screen devices already have rudimentary gestures. In fact, even the Apple Newton, one of the first personal digital assistants, supported gestures. If you circled text while writing on the Newton, the circled word would then be "selected." That's a gesture. Interestingly, multi-touch amplifies the power of gestures by an order of magnitude. For example, you can put two fingers on the left and right side of a photograph, then use the gesture of moving your fingers apart to instantly enlarge the picture.

3. Physics

Second-generation UIs have folders, trash cans and documents that represent physical objects. But they don't act like physical objects. They don't move like they have weight, mass and momentum. When you slide a folder across your Windows desktop, it doesn't slow down gradually, but stops the instant you release the mouse button. When you crash an icon against other desktop objects, they don't scatter like bowling pins. If they did, your mind would more readily accept them as real objects. Here's an example of gestures combined with physics.

4. 3-D

Some UI objects in both Vista and OS X have 3-D properties. For example, you might be able to turn a document around and see what's on the back or look at cascaded documents from the side, which helps you select and organize them. For the most part, however, current-generation UIs are profoundly 2-D.

5. Minimization of icons

Icons are the central element of today's operating systems and represent folders, documents and applications in their closed state. When you click on them to open, the icon is still there, but clicking opens the item and loads it into memory. Next-generation operating systems will make items in their open state -- not their closed state represented by icons -- the central element. You'll be able to shrink or grow just about any object almost infinitely in either direction, but size will be fluid, rather than binary -- items will be shown in degrees of largeness, rather than either open or closed. Here's what a UI without icons looks like.

The combination of these elements means that the UI practically disappears. And so does the learning curve for basic use. A child will be able to walk up to a third-generation PC and start playing around with it.

Does all this sound familiar? These are the five core elements of the iPhone user interface. And they do not exist together in any other major product.

The iPhone's relevance lies not in its convergence of phone and iPod or even the mobilization of OS X, but that it's the first-ever mass-market computer with a third-generation UI.

Here's a link to a UI technology demo that combines everything: multi-touch, gestures, physics, 3-D and icon minimization. Fasten your seat belts, if you haven't seen it. This demo makes Jobs' keynote look as boring as, well, a Bill Gates keynote: Perceptive Pixel founder Jeff Han demonstrates tomorrow's UI at the TED Conference in February 2006.

In addition to the five UI elements, this demo also shows the hardware elements required to use it comfortably: a "drafting table" screen that's low and at a comfortable angle; a large touch screen; very powerful 3-D graphics hardware; high-performance file retrieval; and massive, raw processing power.

Breathtaking, isn't it? The best news is that you'll soon be able to buy a tiny one from Cingular.

But will the desktop version of this third-generation UI come from Apple, or Microsoft?

My prediction: both, and maybe Google will offer a variant as well. Time will tell. The important thing is that the direction of the UI is clear. And it's truly -- some might say insanely -- great.

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.

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