No, it wasn’t “touch” that Jobs saw in that first demo

Touch screens had already been around for ages on that day in 2005. He was well aware that if you had just put one on a phone, it wouldn’t have been worthy of the Apple logo

In fact, it would have made the phone harder to use, not easier.

Jony Ive had a crude but workable prototype ready…  feared that Jobs “might say, ‘This is Sh*t’ – and snuff the idea.”

But he took the gamble and set up a private demonstration for Steve.

Steve immediately loved the idea.
“This is the future,” he exulted.

From an article by Jack Purcher in Patently Apple called:

‘Steve Jobs Secret Meeting to Explore an iPod Phone is Revealing’

Where Jack discusses an episode in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.

Although this demo is presented in the context of multi-touch, I personally think the ‘touch driven physics’ is what makes the whole thing intuitive, and that as impressive as ‘pinch to zoom’ happens to be, the ‘inertia-based motion response’ was what actually blew Steve’s mind.

The fact that up until now this has been regarded as a subordinate feature of the multi-touch functionality that was included in the original demo should not detract from its importance, although it’s possible that it has never been considered separately in this context and consequently trying to objectively determine exactly what persuaded Steve is purely speculation on my part.

That pre-iPhone screen demo did something that traditional touch screens didn’t. And no, I’m not talking about multi-touch.

What Steve Jobs saw, when he saw the demo that convinced him to proceed with the technology that eventually became the iPhone, and which electrified him in exactly the same way as the GUI had excited him when he saw it at a visit to Xerox PARC over a quarter of a century earlier, was something far more striking than pressing a virtual button on a screen.

Stroking the screen, and watching everything that you could see on it ‘float away from you in the direction of your finger’s movement’ was what did it.

Why?

Because it seamlessly combines the natural (an intuitive way to make things behave as you’d expect and want them to) with the insanely unnatural (until you’ve actually experienced it, you simply cannot conceive of this happening outside the world of movie special effects).

Making unnatural things seem to happen is not something we’re at all unaccustomed to seeing: science fiction and super hero special effects on TV have made this kind of imagery an intrinsic part of our everyday culture, but unless we actually get to do them ourselves, we think of them as being exclusively consigned to the realms of fantasy and magic.

Turning a pathetically trivial little gesture like the flicking of a finger into something which makes things on a screen move in the same way that they would in real life gives you an instinctive sense of uncanny power.

It’s one of the reasons why spinning a globe-map of the earth has endowed such a quaint and antiquated artefact with enough sustainability to retain its status as a best-selling knick-knack down the centuries, even up to the present day (maybe an entertaining touch-screen app for one of these would be where you could spin a physical globe, but the map on it would stay still, or even more cantankerously, move backwards? I’ve got a feeling this device would need a large amount of ‘deformable interactive display surface’ in order to build it, and cost millions, but I can also imagine a few billionaires who would still buy one!).

Pressing buttons to make things happen is not very natural, despite being one of the easiest ways to do things ‘automatically’. But pressing buttons on a screen was the standard ‘control feature’ of touch screens (e.g., on ATMs, ticket vending machines and interactive public displays) before the iPhone.

What Jobs saw was something which ‘transcended the limits of the button’ not just in terms of obvious simplicity or convenience, but in terms of the kind of naturalness that characterises that globe-spinning feeling of indescribable potency.

Naturalness seems easier and better, even when it isn’t easier

I clearly remember the bitter early condemnation of the GUI by almost all computer scientists, who were adamant that the GUI was an infinitely more cumbersome interface than typing in lines of text, because programmers could (and still do) work faster that way.

The epiphany that Jobs had felt at that fateful moment wasn’t touch screens and it wasn’t just ‘swiping’ or ‘stroking-based screen controls’.

He had seen how finger movements and on-screen dynamics could now be synchronised to seamlessly conform to our innate models of reality (which was what the developers of the multi-touch interface were obviously trying to achieve – see the sidebar to find out a bit more about why I think the multi-touch part of the multi-touch demo was not as important).

He immediately recognised that this hitherto unattainable level of intuitiveness in the mind of the user was precisely what was needed in order to overcome the seemingly intractable inadequacies of the controls which made existing mobile phone interfaces so disappointingly clumsy.

For Steve, he knew he’d just seen GUI 2.0

The thing on the screen moves as I stroke it, but as my finger-stroke ends, the things on the screen carry on moving ‘until the finger-imparted momentum of the globe is exhausted’ (known in Newtonian physics as an ‘inertia model’).

The promotional material for the iPhone somehow failed to get the presence of this feature across to me, so I never felt inclined to buy one until a year after its launch.

I had probably seen ‘flick scrolling’ of contact lists in demos of the iPhone (and I had definitely seen pinch to zoom) but perhaps the ‘two dimensional ‘ aspect of flick scrolling (up and down the screen-page) had not done anything other than confirm to me that the ubiquitous praise for the ‘feel’ of the interface was not just complete hype.

Those features alone were certainly not enough to make me want one.

But in the split second that I experienced the sensation of a web page floating away from my finger and I noticed how quickly that sensation made me feel more in control of the web browsing experience than ever before, the iPhone magically drew my wallet out of my pocket.

I’m not sure whether an absence of the other multi-touch features would have been enough to dissuade me at that point and I’m pretty sure that this would also have been true of Jobs when he saw the Jonathan Ive demo that got the project started (although I suspect that all of the multi-touch features were actually included in that demo).

A kind of ‘counter’ to my speculation about precisely what it was that triggered Steve’s responses on this (i.e., that Steve had different reactions to mine) would be if the original demo did not demonstrate the ‘stroke and float away effect’ and instead only demonstrated the other multi-touch features.

However, if the demo didn’t include the ‘stroke and float away effect’, I would be surprised, because that effect (requiring only one point of contact on the screen) would have been less technologically challenging to implement than pinch to zoom, which was in fact the essential multi-touch feature.

Jony Ive, have you kept the original historic demo, and can you settle this by doing a video with a running commentary recounting for us exactly how Steve reacted to each of the features as you showed them?