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In the olden days of personal computers it made perfect sense to open your application first and then start working. The application you needed was usually just a word processor or a spreadsheet. There wasn't much to choose from.

Fast forward to today. Now I have dozens of apps on my phone. And my phone is very smart. I think it's time to turn the interface model backwards. And by that I mean I would prefer to start entering text first and let my phone figure out which application I intend. I'm impatient. I want to start doing my task right away; I don't want to search for my app icon first.

Imagine a smartphone that presents a blank text-entry box as your home screen. And suppose you type the following:

Henry
Project meeting
The room changed to the Zebra conference room. See you there.
Scott

Your phone can guess from the text you entered that you mean to send an email to someone named Henry on the subject of the project meeting. If you had intended this to be a text message there would be no subject line. If you intended to enter a search string for your browser there would only be one line of text in total. Your phone can almost always figure out the app you intend by the content you enter. And if there is more than one possibility, a list of apps pop up automatically after you enter your text and click the DONE button.

Let's say you want to enter a calendar entry. Your smartphone could easily recognize your intent because calendar entries have dates and times.

If you wanted to use your map app, just enter an address and the phone guesses you want to see it on the map.

If you intend to set your alarm, just type "wake up 6:30 am".

If you enter a valid URL, the phone knows you want your browser to go there.

If you want to use your flashlight app, just type "fl" and the flashlight app opens. "st" would bring up my stocks. "w" would give me weather, and so on. If there are two apps that start with the same letters, both choices appear for you to pick.

With the current smartphone interface model I have to play Where's Waldo and search for my preferred app icon before I can start working. I estimate that I tap the wrong app about 20% of the time which is just enough to bug the living shit out of me and make me dream of a better system. My smartphone interface miscues are only partly my fault. My Phone icon and my Text icon both have identical green backgrounds and white symbols. When I'm in a hurry, they look the same to me. And I'm always in a hurry. I can't train my brain to recognize my icons by reflex. I have to actually think about which one I want every time. I also often confuse my Text icon and my Email icon because they are somewhat similar in function. I use my phone all day long for texting, calling, browsing, and emailing, so the frustration accumulates. I prefer using my limited brainpower for more interesting tasks than searching for icons.

The app-picking step probably bothers me more than most people because I so often need to capture an idea for later, and in those situations a few seconds of delay is enough to forget the idea, or to be sidetracked by an interruption. Case in point, the topic of today's blog has occurred to me and vanished at least a dozen times before I had a chance to capture it on my phone.

If you prefer your phone just the way it is, let's say you have the option of keeping your Classic interface. All I'm suggesting is that I can change my phone settings to give me the Backwards Interface option if I want it.

 

 
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Dec 27, 2012
Have you tried a Windows Phone? Instead of the app-centric model of the iPhone, they use a data-centric operating model where you operate on various types of information (people, photos, messages, etc) and any apps you install just slot in as 'tools' for manipulating the information (eg. select a photo, click 'Share', and you get a list of all the apps capable of transmitting photos). It's a novel approach and somewhat along the lines of what you're discussing.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 27, 2012
This has already been tried: http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/D/DWIM.html
 
 
Dec 26, 2012
There you go again. You want a system that has ESP. One that can figure out what you want, and do it for you.

Fortunately for you, such a thing exists. It's called a "secretary." A secretary, for those of you who do not understand the word, is a human being who is skilled in administrative tasks. As a matter of fact, the politically correct word for secretary is actually two words: "administrative assistant."

The advantage that the secretary has over the smart phone is that secretaries have human intelligence. They get to learn your needs, keep track of your schedule, understand your idiotic shorthand and they never give you the BSOD.

In Scott's example, here's how the interaction would go:

Scott, as he's running into his office to pick up his notes for the project meeting: "Hey, tell Henry that the project meeting has been changed to the Zebra room."

Secretary: "Done."

His secretary then checks the schedule and finds out when the project meeting is. Finding out it's happening in twenty minutes, she (in this case, we'll assume it's a she) decides email won't work because he may not check it in time. So she picks up the phone, and calls Henry's secretary. "Hey, Joe," she says, "the project meeting room has changed to the Zebra room. Is Henry there?" Joe answers, "He's in the head. I'll grab him and let him know."

Now the problem is that secretaries cost more money than smart phones. At the same time, they're a lot better than smart phones. Corporate America has decided that secretaries are too expensive, so only upper-level executives get them.

Any one who has been in the corporate world understands how horrible written communication has become. Schedules get confused; conference rooms get double-booked. Changes don't get communicated effectively. The amount of wasted time and money is staggering.

My recommendation is that we go back to utilizing secretaries. I'm married to one, and I can tell you, my schedule is always correct and my correspondence is proofread. In Scott's case, he has two choices: either hire a secretary, or send S h e l l y (I remembered your bad word chatcher thinks your wife's name is a bad word) to administrative school.

As an aside, Scott's complaining about having to (gasp!) tap an icon before sending an email brings to mind the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon show "The Jetsons." For those of you not old enough to remember it, it was set in the future. The show's imaginary wife was named Jane Jetson, and she hated housework. She'd complain about it as she did it: pushing a button that said "vacuum," and moaning as she had to hit the other button that said "wash dishes."

The cartoonist doth protest too much, methinks.
 
 
Dec 26, 2012
I wrote an iPhone app that follows this basic philosophy, called Drafts. Launches to immediate typing, tons of output options (Social media, email, text, other apps, Dropbox, etc.) – the idea being you don't always know what your plan for that text is before you capture it.

http://agiletortoise.com/drafts
 
 
Dec 26, 2012
"If you want to use your flashlight app, just type "fl" and the flashlight app opens. "st" would bring up my stocks. "w" would give me weather, and so on"

Congratulations, you've invented the command line interface. In thirty years time, post a blog entry telling us how great it would be if instead of having to type letters you could just poke little pictures of what you wanted to do...
 
 
Dec 26, 2012
This is sort of like what Siri does (and probably similar to some Android/Samsung features - I just haven't used those)
 
 
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 26, 2012
Scott, you've had this idea at least once before:
http://dilbert.com/blog/entry/doslike_interface_for_smartphones/

Seems like a good one, though, somebody should get on that. Though personally I don't have the same issue, as I'm still successfully resisting getting a smartphone.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 26, 2012
Mitch Kapor dreamed of this once. The result was "Chandler", the little self-organizer app that never could.
 
 
Dec 26, 2012
Just like autocorrect says some very funny things, you will input "Craig meeting at sports bar 3pm thursday", and your hyper-intelligent phone will have a large anchovy pizza delivered to Craig every couple of weeks until you have to get your service disconnected.
 
 
Dec 26, 2012
Have you considered ADD medications?
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 26, 2012
Google Voice Actions pretty much works almost the way you describe. Typing on a phone is a pain in the ass anyway. Might as well jump to the next logical step. Voice recognition has improved a lot. Just hold down the Search button for a few seconds.

Although you'll have to remember its vocabulary and syntax of available actions. http://www.google.com/mobile/voice-actions

I use it all the time for navigation.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 26, 2012
@toddmedema:

Searchlight sounds like the Windows Search function, where you just start typing the name of the app you want. I see the value in it (and have since Vista), but I think Scott's trying to avoid calling up the app first.
 
 
Dec 26, 2012
Actually makes a lot of sense - on my laptop, I always use Spotlight (Mac's search function) to call up apps instead of hunting for their icons. Might be a bit slower on a phone keyboard, but I can definitely see the elegance!
 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 26, 2012
I have a lot of these capabilities on my phone already, especially with Google Now (Android Jelly Bean). I just say "Text Tracy I'm coming home" and it does. I enter an address (by text or voice) and the phone shows me a map with options to navigate there or call the phone number associated, and right below that are web search results.
 
 
Dec 26, 2012
So if you get pissed off at your phone and type in (bleep) you, does it put sex on the calendar for you and your significant other(s), does it just take you to a !$%* site, or does it just start vibrating?
 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 26, 2012
I think Microsoft called this "Clippy."
 
 
 
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