The Real Revolution in the iPhone Is the Fully Programmable User Interface

Jan 9, 2007

The Apple iPhone is the world's first (as far as I know) portable device with a fully programmable interactive user interface. That is the real revolution that will affect us all in the near future.

Other than a few simply buttons, the entire functional interface of the iPhone is maleable in software. Most of the entire top surface is a multi-touch surface and high-resolution display. This way the function of the device can be altered on the fly based solely on touch and various sensors, along with its connectivity via cell and wi-fi. In the future all devices used by people will be based on the same plan. Static physical buttons on devices may become as common as vinyl records.

Imagine user interfaces on devices starting with a either a blank slate (like the iPhone) or a set of programmable blank buttons (if you have to have feedback). Add a tiny computer, IPv6 or other connectivity, and the function of the device can be anything. Even simple devices like a light switch can interact in a network, provide information (the light bulp is 20% used up) or even support skins (the pooh bear light switch). Add digital paper (flexible screens) and the future will be highly programmable.

Which means new opportunities for programmers and less for other engineers. The future is in software, again.

Of course if you can't see well or at all, it's not as rosy a picture. How do you present a touchable screen and dynamic information to someone who can't tell what you put on the interface? It's been hard during the computer revolution to not make life more difficult for those who are sightless. Screen readers still don't really support the rich interfaces we currently put on the web. I could imagine sufficient intelligence being added to programmable interfaces to allow feedback by sound (which would work in a device like a phone) but it will still be less of a revolution for the sightless world and require far more engineering.

Although Apple has many patents in this area, I am sure that other companies will find ways to build similar devices outside of the phone space (good luck to the other phone companies!). Digital Surfaces are the wave of the future, and nothing will stop the progress now. In the future our concept of a web interface, married to portable or even stationary devices all around us, will be expanded to everything around us. I always find it interesting, coming from the pre-mouse days of text-based green screens, how amazing it is when my browser window switches effortlessly from one website to another, leaving me with an entirely different interface, new yet familiar. In the coming generation we will find this metamorphosis commonplace and ordinary.

I can hardly wait. You can buy the future starting in June.