A computer revolution through a child's eyes

A user interface revolution is upon us: my 3-year-old son can use my iPhone thanks more to its accessibility than his smarts.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
4 min read

I have proof from an expert that the iPhone interface really is better. Who's the expert? My 3-year-old son.

Over the years, I've seen countless newbies struggle to use the latest gadget, computer, or software. I like new technology, but it's been work hauling myself up learning curves.

But I'm convinced that after years stuck with only modest tweaks to the WIMP interface--windows, icons, menus, pointing device--real change is upon us. That's chiefly because the pointing devices now can be your own fingers.

Levi types random words on the iPhone's notepad application.
Levi types random words on the iPhone's notepad application. Stephen Shankland/CNET News

Within moments of his first crack at an iPhone, my son, Levi, had figured out how to flip from one photo to another by flicking his finger across the screen. He understood with no coaching how to steer the simulated steel ball around the holes in the Labyrinth game by tilting the phone. He loves to type nonsense words on the notepad application using the virtual keyboard, deleting them once they've been read. In the three months since I got the iPhone 3G, Levi has learned to take photos, browse them, change the phone's wallpaper, and, unfortunately, turn off Wi-Fi and switch on airplane mode.

My proudest moment came when Levi issued his first tweet, borrowing my account: "Eesfrrgjlphdvlksxnjjktwsdvnjmmkbvvnn." Though it was largely a matter of chance, of course, he could do it because he likes the cute bluebird icon of the Twitterific application, and touching it with his finger triggers entertaining interactions.

And I was intrigued when Levi tried unsuccessfully to use the phone's accelerometer to play JellyCar, trying to spur the car by tipping the iPhone so the car would "roll" downhill faster. Note to JellyCar developers: your user interface needs work.

Levi's first tweet
Levi's first tweet CNET News

As a parent, of course, it's tempting to assume that Levi's accomplishments are the result of his astounding intelligence. But of course much of the credit has to go to Apple and others who've advanced the state of the interface art.

"Human beings are a lot more programmed to manipulate things with our hands and fingers," said Dan Saffer, a founder of Kicker Studio and author of Designing Gestural Interfaces. "I was at a party with a Microsoft Surface table. There was an infant playing with it, not even a year old, pushing photos around and squealing. It's amazing how much it makes sophisticated computing power accessible to a hugely wide segment of the population."

Keyboards and mice aren't being replaced--they offer speed and precision for typing words, entering data, navigating documents, and issuing commands. But they are becoming just one of a host of mechanisms.

Touch screens, available on some Hewlett-Packard computers, are a big part of the revolution, letting people interact more directly rather than relying on a mouse, joystick, or other indirect pointing device. Multitouch sensors, which can detect multiple fingers simultaneously, add more sophistication, such as the ability to shrink a photo by making a pinching gesture on a trackpad. Newer Apple laptops offer more extensive use of multitouch, though at this stage only through the trackpad rather than a touch screen.

Levi's feet
Levi took this picture of his feet with my iPhone while he was sitting in his car seat. Levi

Computing devices also are getting ears and eyes. Speech recognition is available in rough form to power phone search on various phones with services from Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Vlingo. FluidTunes lets you control your iTunes library by waving your hands in front of a Mac's video camera.

Intuitive, physical interfaces aren't just for kids. I was stunned to see my technophobic mother-in-law gleefully bowling with a Wii last year. Sure, she couldn't have installed Nintendo's still-popular gaming device if we'd paid her, but using it was as easy as tossing a pebble in a pond.

"There are Wii bowling tournaments now for elders. It takes a sport they love, but there's no weight of the ball anymore. They can play it in a wheelchair. It's a huge hit at nursing homes," Saffer said.

It's not just that devices are easier to use when you can touch the interface, he said. It's that it's easier to learn by watching others use them.

"One interesting thing about touch screens is there's this whole realm of observation you don't have with standard computer setups, where the icons are smaller, and it's hard to tell what people are doing by watching," he said. "You can learn how to use an iPhone by watching people flip through it for a second. You can get it in a way you can't with a standard phone, where you're watching people push buttons to get through menus."

Of course, immersion helps, too. Levi's parents spend altogether too much time punching at keyboards and staring at screens, so he's got plenty of examples to emulate his elders. As a camera buff, I'm delighted when Levi pretends to take pictures--he made a toy camera out of Lego once.

A view of Microsoft's Surface device at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel shows a list of entertainment options for hotel guests. Stefanie Olsen/CNET News

But I vacillate between pleasure that he's learning how to use technology and fear that he'll grow up ignorant of the non-electronic world. I'm prone to inordinate "screen time," a term heavily freighted with negative baggage in our household, and Levi's childhood will be far more digitally immersed than mine.

And perhaps worse, there's the prospect of losing my status as resident guru. There are plenty of more technically proficient people in my orbit, but none of them live in my house, and Levi doesn't ask any of them to read his typed nonsense words.

Most families come to some sort of reckoning when their son beats their dad in basketball. Ours will come when my wife asks Levi for technical support.