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The iPhone fingernail issue redux: Adapt or resist?

June 25, 2008 | 12:00 pm
Woman with fingernails attempting to type on an iPhone

Radio disc jockeys have howled in derision, as have commenters and bloggers, about Erica Watson-Currie's critique that Apple was being unfriendly to women and "misogynistic" by not making its new iPhone 3G easy to use with fingernails, particularly when typing messages.

They said: Cut your nails! No one is making you buy the phone! Yahoo's Tech Diva suggested that we instead discuss the lack of a video camera in the new iPhone.

We were also lambasted for printing the comments of Watson-Currie and others who admitted to having trouble typing because of fingernails or just big fingers. Readers argued that the fingernail complaint was a symbol of something larger wrong in society. "I guess this makes it official: We've arrived at a time when each person expects the world to adapt itself to meet his or her needs," George Kaplan wrote in a comment on our June 12 post. "I'm 6'4" and I don't fit easily into a Porsche. I fully expect Porsche to change its design to allow someone of my height easy access."

In one of the few to come to Watson-Currie's defense, RandyTB wrote: "Asking Apple to be tuned into its potential customers a bit better is completely legit. I love my iPod Touch, but it's not beyond improving."

The reactions got me thinking that the debate touched on the age-old struggle between tech lovers and regular people over how user-friendly gadgets and computers should be -- and who is to blame when things go wrong or a new gadget sits in a corner gathering dust after a few tries. Is it user error? Or user interface error?

I called up ...

... Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster, for his thoughts. No, Apple isn't misogynistic, he said. But he added that it would be interesting to know how many female engineers with long fingernails work at Apple. "Geeks loved the screen phone," he said. "And Apple has taken a geeky idea into the mainstream."

Digital technology carries with it the promise that it will adapt to us, Saffo said, and often it does. He pointed out as examples software that anticipates what you'll type and the way Google search learns from past searches you've done to better tailor results.

And when the technology frustrates us? "The computer industry has done a marvelous job at creating the Stockholm syndrome," Saffo said. "If something goes wrong, I believe it's my fault."

Gavin Lew, managing director of User Centric, has studied consumers and mobile devices, including the iPhone. He sympathizes with the long-nailed folks. If they can't use their fingertips, they are forced to type using more flesh, which then increases inaccuracy. One idea he had for the iPhone -- make a second setting that people can choose in which the touch zones under the letters on the screens are not as precise as the outlines of the keys.

"It's not the user's fault how their fingers interact with the keyboard," he said. "I want to add to the iPhone to make it more accessible."

In the meantime, what should Watson-Currie and other long-nailed users do? Cut the nails or leave them? Adapt or resist? "A product should fit into a person's user experience," Lew said. "You shouldn't have to adapt and change how you groom yourself because of a product."

Saffo at first agreed. "No matter how much of an inconvenience, do not cut your nails just yet," he said. "Someone will come to your rescue with a new product."

Then again, he said, the iPhone itself is the marriage of function and fashion. And to make a fashion  statement comes with tough choices: High-heels or flat shoes? Let the gray hair show or color? Long nails or iPhone typing?

For those who choose their nails over the iPhone, a word of warning: Discussing the unfairness of being forced to choose between the two could invite ridicule.

-- Michelle Quinn

Photo of Erica Watson-Currie trying to type on the iPhone. Credit: Courtesy of Erica Watson-Currie

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