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What Apple could learn from Nokia and Google

Apple's upcoming iPhone OS 3.0 brings many innovations, however the convoluted settings menus that control annoying beeps and buzzes leave much to be desired.

Apple is well known for its simplicity, but the upcoming version of the iPhone's system software is exhibiting usability weaknesses that companies like Nokia solved years ago.

Earlier this week, as part of the ramp-up towards releasing this software to the public, Apple began running a stress test of push notifications--the hallmark feature of the new operating system. This system sends notifications to your phone whenever there's an update from an application, even when it's not running.

To manage the onslaught of notifications from each application, Apple added a new menu that lets users manage push notification settings for each application, as well as providing a quick switch to turn them all on or off. While handy, this introduces an annoying problem for business users that Nokia solved a decade ago by providing a quick way to toggle multiple settings without the hassle of menu hopping.

User sound profiles, something that Nokia has had in its phones for over a decade, do just that. These let you change multiple settings on the device with just two button presses, and include things like ringer volume, vibration, keyboard tones, and control over how much attention each type of alert can get.

The best part is, you can switch between these profiles by quickly tapping the power button and choosing from a pop-up menu. You're also able to make your own custom profiles with settings you choose. There's even the option to have them automatically turn on and off during certain times of day, so you can have it switch to silent after 10 p.m. so it won't wake you or your significant other up when you're trying to go to sleep.

On the iPhone, you have one profile, and one profile only. Even if you turn the ringer sound off by flipping the volume silencer switch, you will still receive alerts and vibrations for incoming calls, e-mails, text messages, etc. Worse, with iPhone OS 3.0, Apple has embedded some of the options to turn these things on and off a little deeper than they were in version 2.0.

The new notification settings now live where the e-mail push notification used to reside. That menu has been pushed ever deeper into the mail settings, which means that to tweak things like how often it fetches e-mail and pops up with calendar items and invitations, you have to dive three settings menus deep (not including the two or more actions required to wake and unlock the phone and get to the settings menu).

A small tweak to Apple's handling of e-mail fetching has a big effect on usability for business users. CNET

So here's my problem with all this: when I start my work day I want to turn all this stuff back on after having to have turned it off so I wouldn't hear a buzz or have the screen light up every few minutes while I was asleep. I want it to get my work and Yahoo e-mail via push, and fetch all other mail every 15 minutes. I want to flip the push notifications back on, too. Now I have to go through two different settings menus, flipping each one of those things on, when there really should be one where I can manage both.

Even better would be a system similar to Nokia's where I can set up the phone to do these activities at certain times of the day, just like I'm able to set up with timed alarms. Or how about making use of these $30 and $50 plastic charging docks by having the phone automatically switch to certain settings when it's in a particular dock. Heck, that would make me want to buy one for work and home.

What really surprises me about this is that Apple's CEO Steve Jobs has been a notorious stickler about the details in the software and hardware found inside the company's products. An anecdote about Jobs in Steven Levy's Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness, mentions that he badgered the engineering team of the original iPod repeatedly when he couldn't get to the song he wanted in a certain number of clicks, something which led to the original iPod's simplistic text menu structure.

Jobs wanted to get to a song in just three clicks. I just want to turn my e-mail and notifications on and off in less than nine.

Third party innovation

The SBsettings menu for jailbroken iPhones lets users quickly change settings for multiple apps and services.

Just because Apple has not addressed this issue with its own software releases doesn't mean it hasn't been worked on by others.

A third party iPhone developer known as BigBoss solved half these problems eight months ago with an app for jailbroken iPhones called SBsettings. This is a menu that drops down when you slide your finger across the top of the iPhone, and provides quick on/off access to various features like 3G, Bluetooth, and the phone signal. The closest Apple's iPhone software gets to that is with the airplane mode, however that's an all or nothing solution, and still requires exiting whatever application you're in.

What's nice about SBsettings is that it follows you no matter what app you're using, which is exactly the kind of system-level control Apple needs to bake into a future firmware revision.

The company has already done this with some of the hardware buttons, and special software-controlled combinations like clicking on the home button twice to call up things like iPod controls, phone favorites, and soon the phone-wide search. But where it's really lacking is when you need to make a quick change in an app, and don't want to exit it to do it. This happens to me all the time when I need to hop over to a different Wi-Fi network, or am reading something in bed and want to turn the brightness down. It's just a pain to exit whatever I'm doing and dig through Apple's ever-growing settings menu.

In comparison, Google's more open approach on its Android mobile platform has led to a handful of genuinely useful apps that let you accomplish exactly the type of functionality I pined for earlier. One called Toggle is very similar to SBsettings, and puts most of your phone's antenna controls right in the status bar, so you can very quickly swipe your finger down and adjust Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, screen brightness, volume levels, and airplane mode. Like SBsettings it can be set up to be systemwide, which means its available whenever you need it, from any app you're using.

Another, called Locale can change a number of settings when you get within a certain geographical radius. I used this app to very quickly set up a radius for my work here at CNET in San Francisco and at my house over in the Oakland. When I get into either one of these two zones it can change things like screen brightness, ringtone, the wallpaper, and which phone antennas are turned on and off.

This innovation already exists, and it could make the iPhone OS that much easier to use. While Apple has often remained steadfast on keeping things overly simplistic to appeal to the masses (see the Mighty Mouse, buttonless Shuffle, one-input cinema LCD displays, et al) it's making the business of getting business done on the iPhone a more complicated affair.

Any business users who intend to use the iPhone for work and play have many things to look forward to with the upcoming iPhone OS 3.0 update, but juggling notifications, e-mail fetching, and other settings could add up to quite a headache.

Apple did not respond to calls or e-mails for comment on changes to these menus.

Update: Developer Mario Intelliborn pinged me to let me know about his MyProfiles app for jailbroken iPhones. It lets you do most of the things I'm talking about and more, including a way to make calls and notifications from certain parties get through. To use it you need to have a phone that's been jailbroken to allow for unsigned, third-party applications.