Linking to Apple’s three new iPhone commercials yesterday, I observed that no other cell phone is advertised by showing off the user interface. Thinking about it some more, I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen any tech product advertised simply by demonstrating how it works.

It’s a testimony to just how clever the iPhone UI is, and just how bad the UIs are on the competition. I don’t think it’s possible to make a commercial for the Mac that makes any task seem that much cooler than doing the same thing on Windows. This is more like the overwhelming usability advantage from when the Mac was competing against DOS.

These spots are also a testimony to the talents of the makers of the ads themselves; no matter how clever the iPhone is, it’s hard to make 30-second spots that are both easy to follow and yet contain so much information.

All three ads are good, but the best is the third, “Calamari”. Here’s what we see: unlocking the phone, playing a movie, locating a restaurant with the Maps app, and calling the restaurant. All this — including switching between apps — with just one slide and eight screen taps:

  1. Slide to unlock.
  2. Tap iPod icon on bottom-of-the-screen dock. List of videos appears.
  3. Tap “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Movie resumes playing.
  4. Tap main button. Movie pauses and we switch back to launcher.
  5. Tap Maps icon.
  6. Tap search field in Maps. Type “seafood”.
  7. Tap Search button. Results map appears.
  8. Tap info button next to “Pacific Catch” in map results. Information listing for the restaurant appears.
  9. Tap phone number to place call.

That seem pretty close to optimal, in terms of efficiency per tap.1 Pause a playing movie and switch to another app in two taps (main button, Maps icon). Maps results to phone call in two taps.

Each mode switch is accompanied by a pleasant animated transition. Opening an app zooms it out from the center of the screen. Switching back to the launcher reverses the zoom. The keyboard slides out from the bottom. The pins denoting map results fly in from the top of the screen. The info button for the restaurant on the map is a rightward arrow, which points in the direction from which the info panel slides out.

There’s very little room for fudging in this demo. The movie is conveniently listed at the top of the list when the iPod app opens. The Maps app somehow knows where we are: my guess is that it’s like the Mac OS X Weather widget, with a preference setting for a default zip code. (Keep dreaming if you think Apple has secretly added GPS behind the FCC’s back.)

Best of all, the experience isn’t just short on screen taps, it’s high on obviousness. It seems obvious that anyone who can use an iPod or a PC ought to be able to figure out on their own how to use iPhone. The fundamental trick to learn is the magic home button.

The Initial Apps List

The full-screen view of the launcher/home app reveals a few subtle changes from the iPhone images from January. The app list remains unchanged, but in a slightly different order (so no iChat when iPhone debuts, apparently). In the regular list: Text (SMS), Calendar, Photos, Camera, Stocks, Maps, Weather, Clock, Calculator, Notes, Settings. In the bottom-of-the-screen dock: Phone, Mail, Safari, iPod. (Note that in Apple’s January screenshots, the web browser was called “Web”, not “Safari”.)

  1. No, I didn’t count taps for typing “seafood”, and in theory the iPhone interface could try to save you some taps there, e.g., with type-ahead autocomplete suggestions or by offering voice recognition. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument here, though, that the iPhone on-screen keyboard works well, at least by handheld device standards. ↩︎