The Future of Mobile Devices is Now

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I find myself in awe of the staggering potential of mobile devices. A little over a week ago, Palm introduced us to the upcoming WebOS, and yesterday I finally ditched my crappy cell phone for an iPhone.

Compared to my previous phone, the iPhone is a revelation. The ability to access my phone, email, contacts, calendar, task manager and more in a handheld device is a uniquely fuzzy feeling. The unity and polish of the UI has, aside from a couple minor complaints, been an absolute joy to set up and use.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, owning and using the iPhone has only amplified my anticipation and excitement for the Palm Pre. If you haven’t seen it yet, treat yourself to a look:

Many have been calling the WebOS a spiritual successor to the iPhone interface, and I can see why. It takes the polish, minimalism and versatility of Apple’s design and adds a cohesiveness wherein applications co-exist in some fashion beyond the home screen.

Seeing as the iPhone ditched a traditional keypad in favor of an entirely touch-based approach, Palm’s addition of a slide-out keyboard and “gesture area” may seem like a step backward. I disagree, as I’m reminded of a similar decision made with the original Treo and described by industrial designer Dennis Boyle in Bill Moggridge’s book Designing Interactions. Therein, he explains the incentive for ditching the innovative, gesture-based “Graffiti” method of entering text:

Handspring TreoI remember that Handspring decided to put the Treo out with both a keyboard and Graffiti, because they didn't know which one people would choose; they decided to let them vote. The result was quite clear; a large majority went for the small keyboard. [...] [The] little QWERTY keyboard, bad as it is, is such a standard that it requires no guesswork, and that attracts more users.

While the comparison isn’t perfect (the only real difference between a touch and traditional keyboard is tactility), the lesson is clear: designers shouldn’t dismiss ubiquitous methods of text entry any more than they should ignore canonical visual language in iconography design.

I still believe we may be surprised by the future impact of Google’s Android (in terms of sheer number of potential applications) , but the iPhone and, potentially, the Palm Pre will assuredly establish a level of polish and immediacy that other vendors will continue to reach for and, hopefully, surpass.

If you find yourself losing your passion for interaction design or The Web, try out one of these devices. The realization that a versatile, dynamic connection to ourselves and the world will rest attractively in the palms of our hands will ignite your enthusiasm faster than almost anything.