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The iPhone fingernail problem

June 12, 2008 | 11:34 am

UPDATE JUNE 25: For those of you catching up to this just now, here's a new post looking at some of the criticism that our coverage of this fingernail problem has generated.


Hillary Clinton broke new ground in her race for the White House. Yet some iPhone users complain that when it comes to the hot gadget from Apple, women are still being treated like second-class citizens.

Apple said this week that on July 11 it would upgrade the iPhone software for free with new features for all current owners. On the same day, it will start selling a new version, the iPhone 3G, that runs on a faster data network, includes GPS and costs as little as $199.

iPhone and fingernailsBut Erica Watson-Currie of Newport Beach was frustrated that the improvements didn't solve the fingernail problem. She and other women who have long nails -- as well as people of all genders with chunky fingers -- have real trouble typing on the iPhone. The 39-year-old consultant and lecturer, who says her fingernails are typically between one-eighth and one-quarter of an inch long, wants the iPhone to include a stylus.

"Considering ergonomics and user studies indicating men and women use their fingers and nails differently, why does Apple persist in this misogyny?" Watson-Currie (whose fingers are pictured at right) wrote in a comment on our post Monday about the iPhone launch.

But many people assert that one of the iPhone's best traits is its ability to function without a stylus, the often-misplaced mini-chopstick required by the Palm Pilot and other earlier hand-held gadgets. Apple created the iPhone with a multi-touch screen, navigated by presses and swipes of the finger. Unlike a BlackBerry or Treo, which has a separate keyboard, the iPhone requires you to type by pressing a virtual keyboard that appears on the screen.

Problem is, the iPhone's touch screen responds to the electrical charge emitted by fingertips. And pretty though they may be, fingernails don't emit one. When the first iPhone came out nearly a year ago, tech journalist Russell Shaw at ZDnet identified the fingernail problem and predicted that Apple might find a tough market with teenage girls (nevertheless, the company has sold 6 million iPhones and remains on track to sell 10 million by the end of this year, a goal that should be helped by the $200 price cut).

The New York Times, citing Nielsen Mobile, reported this week that the number of women using smartphones more than doubled last year, to 10.4 million, growing at a faster pace than men.

Those iPhone users who have chunky fingers might hanker for a stylus too. Some experience problems ...

... typing on the touch screen because their fingers cover too much space, said Gavin Lew, managing director of User Centric Inc., which has studied the iPhone user experience. "There's tight real estate there," he said. "You are asking your finger to hit the letter just right and no others. You may be trying to press the W but you accidentally hit the Q."

Apple's software automatically corrects typing mistakes, a feature that many people like. But it does sometimes guess the wrong letters.

Apple declined to comment about fingernails and the iPhone. In the past, the company has said that it's more natural to use the pointing tool you were born with: the finger.

Adding a stylus would disturb the very essence of the iPhone, said Anthony Andre, founding principal at Interface Analysis Associates, a usability and ergonomics consulting firm. A key feature of the iPhone is that, unlike other devices, it doesn't respond to anything except touch. That lets it tell the difference between a deliberate swipe of the finger and an accidental brush of, say, a pocket lining. "If you put my Treo in my pocket, I'm making phone calls," Andre said.

That's not the only problem our readers found with the iPhone. In the comments, they complained that Apple should have fixed another issue that has caused grumbling since the device hit the market a year ago: Users can't cut and paste text to save time. Other items on the wish list included a video camera and the ability to view Adobe Flash Web pages.

As for the fingernail problem, there have to be solutions, right? A company called Ten One Design sells an aftermarket iPhone stylus for about $20 to $25 apiece. Watson-Currie hasn't been impressed by the reviews and thinks Apple should offer a stylus on principle. Why not just cut her fingernails? "It's the machine's job to accommodate its users, not the other way around," she said.

Those who don't want to choose between fingernails and an iPhone can learn to type using the sides of their fingers. That might be good enough for surfing the Internet or making phone calls. But doing serious e-mailing or text messaging that way can be onerous.

"Why are they still discriminating against those of us with fingernails?" another woman posted on our earlier story. "Guess it's a Blackberry for me :("

Speaking of the BlackBerry, what about typing with your thumbs on the iPhone? Heidi Roizen, a prominent Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur, says she gets around the fingernail problem that way. "My thumbnail does not hit it," she said. But she adds that the approach doesn't entirely solve the problem because there's barely enough room on the iPhone screen when held vertically (see big finger issue above). On Roizen's iPhone wish list: that the virtual keyboard would switch into "landscape mode," or spread out horizontally as it does in displaying photographs, when she types e-mail so that the keys are wider across the screen. 

Andre, the ergonomic consultant, says he has a win-win solution: Fingernail polish with a material that activates the iPhone touch screen.

Brilliant! VC firm Kleiner Perkins is offering a $100-million iFund for iPhone-related businesses, so maybe someone should get cracking. Might we suggest a few names for the nail polish hues: iPhone Indigo, Oscillator Ocher or Touch Screen Taupe.

-- Michelle Quinn

Photo: Erica Watson-Currie