The phrase, “It’s just a big iPod touch,” has been repeated ad-nauseum since the iPad announcement. In some superficial ways, that is true. However, the much larger display opens the door to capabilities, requiring more complex interactions. Perhaps the most significant part of last week’s event was the demo of the iWork suite.
Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are not dumbed-down versions of their desktop counterparts as one my expect. They each contain complex functionality. However, the team at Apple has designed sophisticated user interfaces specifically for touch input. They have extended their multi-touch gesture language.
I was especially impressed by their solution to multiple selection. Phil demonstrated how you can rearrange slides by simply dragging them with you finger. But what if you want to move several slides at once? On the desktop, this can be accomplished by holding down a modifier key while clicking slides to select them. With multi-touch, you can drag a slide with one finger, and then tap additional slides with your other hand. Each slide you tap stacks itself under the one you have already dragged. Now you are dragging all of the selected slides and can drop them where you want.
They have invented new UI conventions, such as what Phil called the “page navigator,” a replacement for a scrollbar that will show you a thumbnail of each page as you drag your finger up and down the screen, allowing you to quickly find and jump to a particular page in your document. In Numbers, we saw scrolling tabs. There were more tabs in the spreadsheet than could fit in the width of the screen. Phil dragged his finger horizontally across them and they slid sideways to reveal more tabs that had been hiding off-screen. It’s an elegant interaction, but I wonder how apparent it is that there are additional tabs. I was also intrigued by the interactions shown in Numbers as Phil was editing a spreadsheet. The table was outfitted with areas above and on the left side that displayed buttons for adding rows and columns, and when a column or row was selected, provided handles by which they could be dragged to rearrange them.
Direct manipulation is the key. Rather than today’s plethora of toolbars and menus on the edges of the screen that affect the currently selected object, we are seeing controls applied directly to the objects, an approach that I would argue is much more intuitive. We’ve been seeing futuristic interfaces in the movies for years—displays that respond magically to simple movements of hands and fingers. Apple is now defining the specifics of how this is going to work. It’s going to be sophisticated. It’s going to be elegant.
It’s going to be great.