Putting the Phone Call in its Place

The iPhone, as is evident from its name, started life as a phone.

Despite Steve Jobs clever reveal of the iPhone as three separate but equal products in one package (an iPod, an “internet communication device”, and a phone), most consumers saw it as an evolution of the mobile phone. It was a phone, plus a bunch of other stuff.

But the iPhone is no longer a phone, it’s a mobile computer (a post-PC device, Jobs would say), and iOS needs to change to reflect that.

Phone calls are still given primacy in the OS. If I’m in an app and a call comes in, my entire screen is taken over by the incoming call UI. I have to either decline the call or wait for the call to end[1] to get back to what I was doing. If I choose to accept the call I’ll be dropped into the phone app when the call ends, not into the app I was using when the call came in. This was especially irritating before iOS 4 and multitasking. Similarly, if I’m in an app and I click on a phone number that initiates a phone call, I’m taken out of the app and into the phone app for the call.

Text messages are slightly better but not by much, the key difference being that an incoming text message does not take over the whole screen, instead displaying a notification. Otherwise text messages exhibit the same behavior as phone calls: answering and initiating a text message takes you out of your current app and into the messaging app.

Contrast these with the email interface of iOS. If I’m in an app and an email comes in my phone buzzes; that’s it. Besides the vibration and audio chime, I’m not interrupted in any way. If I’m in an app and I click on an email address to send an email, an email “sheet” slides up where I can type my email. Clicking “Send” sends the message and dismisses the email interface, leaving me exactly where I was before I clicked the email link.

The email interface of iOS used to work differently. Prior to iOS 3, clicking an email link in an app would switch you to the email app to compose and send your message. But Apple realized that this was not optimal (especially before multitasking) and so devised the email “sheet” method.

Apple should switch the phone and messaging interfaces to work like email.

Better yet, all three should be unified into a standard communication framework that third-party applications can also link into. If I’m going to get pie-in-the-sky here (if I’m not there already), this new framework would hook into a new notification system.

My dream is that I have the same options for each method of communication: I can choose whether I get a notification that interrupts to some degree (the current pop-up message or some future implementation), that alerts but does not interrupt (vibration or audio cue), or that neither interrupts nor alerts. And responding or initiating each method of communication would use the “sheet” method, allowing me to stay within any app I may be in.

Some may argue that the differences between the OS’s handling of phone calls, text messages, and email reflect an inherent difference in the nature of each type of communication. I disagree. Today an email may be more important than a phone call or a text message. For some people a Skype message or AOL IM could be more important than any of the natively supported methods of communication.

Apple loves to be the first company to drop old technology and old ways. Treating phone calls like they are more important than other communication methods is the old way.

  1. Waiting being my preferred choice as declining a call sends the caller directly to voicemail, tipping them off that I chose not to answer. ↩︎