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So far, it seems only one company is close to releasing anything that has even the remotest possibility of being a competitor to the iPhone: Garmin. Its Nuvifone was announced a while ago, and since Garmin is big into GPS units, the GPS features of the Nuvifone were a huge selling point over the iPhone. Of course, now that the iPhone 3G includes GPS and, I’m guessing, much better nav maps, the Nuvifone’s GPS is no longer a unique feature.

But that’s not what I wanted to discuss. I want to specifically talk about how Apple has, in less than a year, completely defined how the touch interface on portable devices should work. The Mac set the standard that is still followed today (unless you’re using the nightmare Microsoft Office for Windows 2007), so we’ll see if the iPhone UI lasts as long.

Here is the Nuvifone in action (video is from Laptop Magazine):

Let’s go through this video and check for examples of the iPhone UI as copied by Garmin. (The Nuvifone in the video is not a production model, so who knows what may change by the time it’s on the market?)

0:07: The Garmin man is already comparing his product to the iPhone, saying “we have the same screens as the iPhone.” That’s probably not entirely accurate.

0:17–0:27: The Nuvifone uses the “fling” scroll with velocity slow-down and the all-important elastic stop. The genius of this design in the iPhone UI is that when at the very top or bottom of a list, if you try to scroll, it gives you a visual clue that your scroll was executed but that you are at the edge of the list. Imagine if there were no elasticity; you might try to scroll, but nothing happens. Does this mean you’re at the edge of a list, or that the scroll did not work? The ambiguity is gone with the elastic visual.

0:17–0:27: The narrow, disappearing scroll bars from the iPhone are here. Unlike using a cursor on a desktop, the scroll bars on an iPhone are merely there for reference, since the entire screen is scrollable. The bars appear when you start to drag your finger to scroll, then fade away when you remove your finger. No extra space is wasted on resilient scroll bars. The Garmin’s bars do not fade, they just vanish. The scroll bars in the Nuvifone do not look translucent, like the iPhone bars, but it’s hard to be sure on this video.

0:21: “It’s not a multiple touch screen, it’s a single-touch … including the scrolling function.” I assume this means no double-finger tap to zoom out, no pinching or spreading, none of the multi-touch features that make the iPhone UI utter fun to use.

0:36: Applications and widgets on the iPhone zoom in and out when launched or closed, but the Nuvifone uses a sliding transition. On the iPhone, the sliding “drills down” into lists and such, giving you a visual clue as to which way you are moving into and out of pages and lists. We can not tell from this video how the Nuvifone will handle such drill-downs.

1:30: Screen rotation was not invented for iPhone, but it sure was stepped up a notch. The Nuvifone screen rotation is orientation sensitive, but the graphical iris out transition is pretty low-rent. The iPhone could definitely benefit from using the landscape orientation mode in more places in the UI; however it’s not as good an idea to use it for the home screen as the Nuvifone does. Why? Because you want your launch buttons to always be in the same place to aid in motor memory. The home screen icons will be in different places if you rotate your home screen. You would also have to set up two sets of custom layouts. Not very easy to use. This is more of an issue for the iPhone home screen grid layout than it is for this Nuvifone sliding pane layout.

2:04: The Web browser “experience is very like iPhone Safari.” Without multi-touch? We shall see! Multitouch is the most useful tool when browsing the Web on an iPhone.

2:20: Ah, a keyboard demo! The Nuvifone’s keyboard slides up from the bottom of the screen, just like the iPhone’s. This is a pretty obvious behavior, whether it started on iPhone or not. The Nuviphone copies the iPhone pop-up letters when you type. I’ll be very curious to see how the predictive text works. The iPhone’s “reversed” predictive text set-up is fantastic, allowing you to continue typing as correct suggestions pop up and requiring you to stop typing only if you disagree with a suggestion.

2:27: “You can see there is no [sic] any button in the front panel. It’s even better than iPhone.” But no, it’s not. You’ll notice that there is no way to just get right back to your home screen on the Nuvifone without touching the arrow icon to back up through multiple “open” screens. (There could be a side button on the Nuvifone that accomplishes the same thing as iPhone’s home button, but I’m guessing that’s not going to be the case.)

3:13: Damn is that navigation/map app one ugly chicken! The ocean is DOS Blue. And those plus and minus buttons! Good UI design is hindered by bad graphical design.

3:36: That Home button in the navigation/map app… is it a sign of inconsistency, or maybe just a sign of an unfinished product? The return arrow icon we saw in the rest of the UI should be here instead. (Or, I guess you could argue, there should be a Home button everywhere else in the UI! Oh, wait, wouldn’t a physical button on the front be a great solution?)

4:32: Seems the screen has haptic feedback. The day the iPhone gets haptics will be a day I rejoice. There is no better way to improve the confirmation of a virtual button press than a physical event. Haptics on an iPhone will be complicated to include, though, when you consider the feedback will be different if you are touching and holding or touching and dragging. I obviously do not know how the Nuvifone will handle these situations, but I’m sure Apple is putting a lot of thought into that very thing. Assuming they are working on haptic feedback to begin with.

I think we will be seeing a lot more of this kind of borrowing in the smartphone field. Of all the interfaces and UIs from all other PDAs and phones, Apple’s is the most graceful, the best-looking, and, most importantly, the most thought-out. There’s a reason why the iPhone is such a pleasure to use. None of my other handheld devices have been nearly as fun and useful. Oh, except my Newton. I loved the Newton!

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