Tech Tips: iPhone iThoughts

Dan Comden, DO-IT staff
Picture of Daren and Scott at a laptop.
Intern Daren with Phase I Scholar Scott in the computer lab at Summer Study 2007.

iThought using the new iPhone would be an interesting experience (and it was). The DO-IT technical staff team spent some time with Apple's much hyped iPhone, their latest addition to the crazy world of consumer electronics. Here are our thoughts on its overall design, functions, and accessibility.

Overall Design

The case is solidly built and feels comfortable to hold in one hand with its rounded corners and smooth yet durable glass front. There are few external switches-one relatively rare feature is a switch that puts the phone in silent mode. Many other phones require the user go through menus to turn off the ringer. Other switches include increase and decrease volume and wake/sleep. The circular button on the front of the unit is used to access the phone's software. All of the programs installed on the phone are available through the phone's touchscreen. Speaking of this interface, users will constantly be cleaning it as it quickly picks up fingerprints and smudges from use, making it difficult to see the screen after a little bit of use. One annoyance is Apple's design of the headphone jack. You cannot use standard headphones with the iPhone, as the hole is too recessed. The earbuds that come with the iPhone have an integrated microphone, which is likely the cause of their design decision.

Phone Performance

In completely unscientific tests, the iPhone did not receive a signal in some areas when compared to other phones that use the same AT&T service. However, during calls voice quality was excellent.


Part of the service with the iPhone is the ability to browse the Web anywhere you have cell service using EDGE. The built-in browser is a flavor of their Safari browser, which cannot display pages that use Flash. Other new web technologies, such as Google documents, aren't fully functional. Pages load in full-screen mode, which can be slow for large complex pages, and each page requires zooming in, which is a two-finger process.

Access to WiFi, a wireless network for Internet access, is an iPhone feature. WiFi capability seems quite good, and the browsing speed improves dramatically from EDGE. We had little problem accessing a variety of WiFi networks on and around the U.W. campus.


The iPhone offers little new in terms of phone-based applications. The calendar, email, photo-sharing, and music software work best with Apple-based desktop software. Text entry on the virtual keypad takes practice, due to the lack of tactile feedback. Users with large fingers will have a more difficult time entering text and numbers. Unlike phones with standard buttons, there's no way to slide one's fingers across the control surface to achieve positive feedback in key selection. Repositioning the cursor is achieved by holding a finger on the phone's surface until the magnification loupe appears and then sliding the finger around for large movements or rolling it for short movements.

Built-in memory is generous, with 8 GB. Most of this storage capacity will likely be consumed by music files.

The use of the Safari browser allows developers to create Web 2.0 applications for use on the iPhone. Most applications are still in development or in beta, but you should expect the options to expand dramatically in the future.


Potential users with visual or mobility impairments will find using the iPhone difficult or impossible. There is no alternative input option provided, making the phone entirely inaccessible to people who are blind. The system cannot be modified to use larger fonts, so it will also be of limited use to those with low vision.

Very good dexterity is required to operate the touch interface. Any tremors or spasticity will make use of the phone very challenging. Text entry on the keypad displays requires good coordination, aiming skills, and the ability to avoid resting the fingers on the screen while using the phone keypad or keyboard features. Pinching or spreading motions with two fingers are required to zoom in and out for web pages and maps.

Word prediction does not operate in the same fashion as other phones; it functions much better as word correction. For best results, the user must ignore incorrect letter(s), continue typing, and hope the software figures out the correct spelling near the end of the word. If it does offer the correct word, it really pays off. If not, one has to back up all the way to the incorrect letter(s) and retype the word.

iTunes software, not known for accessible design, is required software for moving images or music to and from the phone.

Complaints about the inaccessible iPod can be transferred to the iPhone. It's regrettable that Apple does not include a self-voicing feature for audio prompts within the operating environment of their consumer devices to benefit potential users with low vision or blindness.


The iPhone is a high quality device that offers good basic functionality to some users at a high price. It offers an environment that is relatively easy to understand, even if the experience isn't entirely consistent or accessible.