Bad for Palm, Good for Typography

070110_iphone_ui.pngThank goodness for, right? Because without it, there would be only a gaping maw where there might otherwise sit a surfeit of news coverage and analysis of Apple product announcements. And certainly without, there would be no possible way of learning what I’m telling you right now: that Apple has, just yesterday, fulfilled years’ worth of wishes made while snuffing out birthday candles, crossing fingers behind backs, and tossing pennies into water fountains. Stop the presses, you heard it here first: there is an iPhone, and it’s magnificent.

Almost as if just to spite me, it does everything I could’ve dreamt of asking of it just last week: it’s a phone, it’s a camera, it’s a personal digital assistant, and it’s a platform, too. An honest to goodness computing platform, from what we can tell at this early date; an Apple-authored operating system that fits in the palm of your hand. We’ve waited a decade for Apple to redress all the shortcomings and unfulfilled promises of the Newton, and that patience looks finally rewarded.

Sympathy for Palm

Below: Helvetica calling. The new iPhone, in all its typographic glory.

I’m not going to go into every detail about the product here, but here’s what struck me immediately after playing with the tantalizing demos available on Apple’s Web site: Palm really blew their long lead time and the wonderful opportunity they had to really own the smart phone market. You can argue about the relative merits of the Palm Operating System, but at least from we’ve seen so far from the iPhone, it’s clearly rooted too deeply in a technological frontier that was cleared by the end of the last decade.

Helvetica on the iPhone

In Jobs’ presentation, he repeated Alan Kay’s advice that those who are serious about software should make their own hardware. Apple has benefitted from this wisdom for years, stubbornly remaining in the hardware business even as the market has, until recently, consistently urged the company to focus only on software.

Few technology companies can claim to make ‘the whole widget,’ and Palm, like Apple, is one of those lucky few. Given their early lead in the portable devices market, Palm should have been able to parlay their hardware and software advantage into a truly innovative device long before now. Instead, they’ve been caught apparently sleeping by this iPhone, and Apple looks set to eat their lunch. Shares in the company were down almost six percent yesterday.


I’d been disenchanted with my Palm Treo 650 for some time even before yesterday’s announcement, but now, looking at its bulky, awkward frame and interface, I’m more convinced than ever that I’ll soon leave it behind.

What sealed the deal, though, was a quiet milestone that the iPhone hits in design sophistication: it’s the first mobile device that I know of — and certainly the most elegant — to use the typeface Helvetica throughout its interface.

Everyone knows I’m a huge Helvetica fan, and you could sell me almost any device that uses the typeface, in part because there are no devices that do. But there’s a reason that this particular usage seems to signal something more to me.

Helvetica is not the most expensive of typefaces to license, but its plain elegance is easily dismissed by product managers who don’t see the percentage in using a truly elegant typeface, especially when much cheaper and ostensibly more distinctive typefaces can be had easily.

Someone on the iPhone’s product team had to go to bat for Helvetica, someone with a truly articulate design sensibility, and they had to argue for it in the face of the easy availability of much trendier alternatives. Digital devices have rarely been exemplars of excellent typography, and the fact that the iPhone team took the time to address such a subtle but significant aspect of the design is meaningful. We’re just turned a corner, I think; design for mobile devices isn’t going to get much easier anytime soon, but it’s going to look a lot better sooner than we thought it would.

  1. Virginia’s not far off. I share your love of Helvetica, but not for all things. Fortunately, the iPhone has unprecedented resolution, or Helv’s closed forms would make small type less than readable.

  2. Well, the last good device Palm made was the Tungsten T3. When I replaced my phone a couple of weeks ago, the Treos were not even remotely serious contenders compared to the Nokia E62 or Samsung Blackjack. I guess Palm’s culture of too little too late (and massive outsourcing of design and engineering) inevitably led to lackluster me-too products.

    I have my doubts about the virtual keyboard, but I’m sure iPod accessory makers will fall over themselves to make flip cases with built-in Bluetooth thumbboards for the ApplePhone (surely you didn’t think Cisco would let them get away with trademark infringement?).

  3. As far as “honest to goodness computing platforms” go, it seems that the iPhone is pretty neutered. Unfortunately, despite Jobs’ claim that the iPhone runs OS X, it’s not OS X proper. Gizmodo spent an hour with the iPhone and Eddie Cue, Apple’s VP of Applications and confirmed that “like an iPod, it won’t be an open system that people can develop for.”

    The exclusivity with Cingular, required 2-year contract, and relatively small amount of storage (my 8GB Nano suits my needs, but it would fall far short if I wanted to use it for video) will all keep me away.

  4. I love Helvetica as well, and it’s not something you can explain to the eye-rollers who call us old-fashioned. Chicago was great for the Mac Classic screen, but Helvetica is truly easy on the eyes. I have to agree with Khoi that the proper display has finally arrived to do it justice.

    When I was studying these typefaces, I remember something about Microsoft’s Arial being hodged in order to emulate Helvetica, albeit coarsely, within the technical limitations of the Windows 400×600 pixel environment. Does anybody know more about this?

  5. “my 8GB Nano suits my needs, but it would fall far short if I wanted to use it for video”

    Really? At iPhone screen res, you could easily cary several full-length videos and still have plenty of room for other stuff. If you intend to use the iPhone as an extended video storage device, you haven’t grasped the notion of a “smartPHONE” for lack of a better term. Please stop throwing these insane numbers around. You sound as foolish as the people who deemed the first iMac a failure because they didn’t come with floppy drives, or the first iPod that had only 5GB storage, etc. Forest. Trees.

  6. Helvetica, hmm has always been the font I’m eschewing the most… First of all its legibility is quite bad. The numbers all look the same in Helvetica. 3 and 8 have the same roundings above and below, the swashes of the 9 and 6 also are rounded too similar to the 3. Especially in a Phone where numbers and their legibility are crucial, I think Helvetica is just only slightly better a choice than Comic Sans ;-P.

  7. So do we think the move away from Lucidia Grande is coz it’s too fussy at small font sizes? And is this a sneak peek of the new Leopard UI that’s still to be announced?

  8. Jeff, you read my mind – Helvetica in Leopard all the way.

    iPhone’s UI is absolutely stunning, and in a way that doesn’t quite reflect the Aqua of today. Where it does, it reflects the latest semi-public changes – the grayblue and the round-cornered buttons of iTunes 7. The old-school elements stick out in a way they wouldn’t have if iPhone used the Unified look or something close to it. Look at the Voicemail badge – a badge on an icon on your phone, people.

    I can’t believe I said “not too shabby” about the latest Blackberry now…

  9. @anona

    “At iPhone screen res, you could easily cary several full-length videos and still have plenty of room for other stuff.”

    I think you’re off the mark there. According to the iTunes store Pirates of the Caribbean is 1.73GB. That’s 22% of the capacity of the device for a single movie. For this to be really useful to me as a video device I’d want at least 16GB. (Keep in mind that 30GB is the smallest amount of storage in any video-capable iPod thus far).

    I probably wouldn’t use the iPhone much for video, so the limited storage alone isn’t why I won’t be buying one, but it contributes.

  10. For everyone derailing Khoi’s post about the elegant choice of Helvetica for the UI, remember the reasons for 4 and 8GB versions of the ApplePhone – FLASH MEMORY.

    Given the device needs to run an OS, check email, flip between EDGE and WiFi for access, browse websites, chat, take pictures, check weather, get directions and take notes on … oh and make phone calls … on one of the batteries, putting a 30GB HD would mean you would get exponentially less battery life and a much larger form factor.

    As for Helvetica in the UI, I think it will go largely unnoticed and unappreciated by 99.99% of the world, which is what great design choices should do.

  11. the apple iPhone is just one step closer to being able to have a device that can “scan for life-forms”. we never really did get to see the UI on the various generations of star trek tri-corders, but it seems that even if the didn’t use Helvetica, we can assume that they would have.



  12. I wonder if the font choice was Steved? It’s integral to the look and feel the iPhone carries in svelte abundance. Fingers crossed indeed for Leopard to take a few cues from what we have just seen. I’d love my Mac’s remote to be able to let me into a 10′ UI for a whole host more things than currently supported by Front Row. The Mac could be about to take another leap forward regarding useability and access. Or I could be fantasising, both are likely!

    > I’d been disenchanted with my Palm Treo 650 for some time even before yesterday’s announcement, but now, looking at its bulky, awkward frame and interface, I’m more convinced than ever that I’ll soon leave it behind.

    Reminded me instantly of hilarious incident befalling a certain popular webcomic author’s experience with his shiny new Zune.

    (He’s a recent switcher, forgive him the scale of this mistake!)

  13. It strikes me that Dashboard was a sneak preview of the iPhone’s UI in many ways. Open the “manage widgets” panel of Dashboard and compare the icons to the ones on the iPhone. If you scale them down to 160 ppi, they are exactly the same size even.

  14. Benedict – thanks for the link to the excellent article on Arial by Mark Simonson. I’d read a version of that before, though it wasn’t as good.

    For all we type-geeks banter about the choice, probably the most true statement above about Helvetica is Julian’s, that it will do its job and go unnoticed…”by 99.99% of the world, which is what great design choices should do.”

  15. I just have to say, to the person who called the iPhone’s screen resolution “unprecedented,” that — well, it’s not. I’ve been using a Nokia 700 Internet Tablet for the past year that has a 220dpi four-inch screen. It’s absolutely the most beautiful screen I’ve ever seen on any device. Incredibly tiny text is perfectly readable.

    The iPhone’s 160dpi is plenty good enough for a device like this — but it’s not “unprecedented,” and it doesn’t even come close the the resolutions Nokia is dealing with in their most iPhone-like device — the 770, or it’s newer sibling, the N800.

  16. Yes, Jeff, but it’s not from Apple, and not blessed by Holy Steve, so Mactards must ignore it.

  17. 8 gb does seem limiting but I am sure there are reasons a small device like a phone could have limits when it comes to using a moving harddrive like the 60 gb they use in the ipods.

    “iTunes store Pirates of the Caribbean is 1.73GB.”

    Video can be scaled down and optimized for playback on the iphone to help with the size. If you look around you will find will find the movies half that size or a quarter of that size that will look just as good on a mini screen.

    What I like about the direction the iphone is taking is that is seems like a perfect satellite to orbit my home and work computer and keep me connected at all point between. I’m not sure I will dish out the 500 to get one plus the hundo a month to keep it going. I’d like one and I’m pround of Apple for offering it.

    This product is sure to go staight to my list of top five products I lust after but will never use!

  18. I’m running Lucida Grande on my Sony Ericsson P910, and an OSX widget set too. It’s just a theme. You can change the font, colours, graphics to just how you want it.

    SE even give you a free theme designer to play with to change it. You can do this on pretty much any SE or Nokia phone, especially if they’re running Symbian OS.

  19. “$100 says we see Helvetica in Leopard. :)”

    Try removing Helvetica.dfont from you System/Library/Fonts folder and see what happens to iCal (including the number in the dock), Mail, iTunes, and most of your Dashboard widgets! If it’s all over Tiger, so I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be all over Leopard. Will we see more of it? I hope so! Lucida Grande is too humanist and Frutiger-like. Helvetica Neue eschews such weakness!

    Speaking of Neue, my bet is that the Helvetica on the iPhone is Helvetica Neue, which as you all know, isn’t really “Helvetica” Helvetica, but it is more practical and versatile in most cases (and is the Helvetica used in MacOSX).

  20. I thought so — so not Lucida Grande nor Myriad?

    I wonder why? I would think that keeping a consistent interface across the board — even subtly — is particularly important. After all, if they need a whole suite of weight (particularly, light) and a true italic, Myriad is a fine alternative.

  21. I too am confused by the tiny storage quantities they’re offering, and I am likewise concerned about the contract AT&T will be offering. I know the iPhone won’t be sold by itself, and I’m pretty certain AT&T will attach some sort of standard contract to the service. I just shiver at the thought of a costly contract just to use a wonderful device.

    And those comments about it not being robust enough for businesspeople? They carry some weight, since business people are huge about e-mail and files via their Treo’s (or whatever they carry). Apple is good at removing what’s unnecessary and leaving just what people need, so I’m certain this device will prove useful and enjoyable for a good quantity of business and non-business people.

    Again…my fears lie in the contract.

  22. I have always loved Helvetica, too, so much so that when I had to create a typeface for Lucire, I was very inspired by Miedinger and Hoffman (some of my work can be seen in Lucire’s online edition, at I’d have either theirs or mine on my tombstone: those light weights are irresistible, and the proper italic (not the obliques) is so balanced.

  23. A phone/PDA/browser does not require a “truly elegant” typeface, but one that is proven to be readable and legible (two different things) for a wide variety of groups, not just Web designers.

    An all-Helvetica interface is like an all-Mistral interface. It is style over substance. It’s an ideology, not an interface.

  24. Joe “positivity” clarke strikes again – I suppose Zapfino is more suitable for screen use?

  25. Khoi, I totally agree with you on Helvetica. And everything else about this wonderful gizmo.

    Well, not that I suspect you’ve missed it, but just in case, I’d like to point you (you as in all of you) to:

    Can’t wait to see it!

  26. all you crazy people complaining about the size. don’t you kno you can hack a device and compress video size? for example you can hack a nano and add on ur own firmware which I have done. You can then play with the compression of the video. the screen size is like a couple inches on the apple phone so you don’t relaly have to worry about lost of quality 😉 and the point is it’s a phone not a portable digital entertainment center. get a laptop if u want that…

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