No, I Don’t Want to Copy Now, but Thanks for Asking…Again

When upgrading my iPhone recently to the 3.0 OS, I finally had at my fingertips what I’ve read so many people clamor for since the original iPhone debuted…copy and paste. Now, I’m glad it’s there, even though it’s limited for now just how far away you can paste your copy, and even though I haven’t actually used it for any real purpose other than to see how it worked—I’m sure it will come in handy before long. But what this “new” functionality reminds me of the most is just how much touchscreens, or touch-sensitive inputs in general, can be as limiting and frustrating as they are freeing and delightful.


When I say that I haven’t used the copy and paste on my iPhone yet, I don’t mean that I haven’t encountered it. In fact, I encounter it quite regularly, usually as I’m scrolling down a web page. Apparently, in my pre-3.0 iPhone days, I developed a habit as I was reading a web page of resting my finger on the screen momentarily in anticipation of starting another delightful finger-swipe scroll. Back then, this did nothing but activate an occasional side-to-side scroll if my finger wavered a bit. But now in this bold new world of iPhone copy and paste, this innocent resting of the finger highlights the word I’m unintentionally nudging and causes a little copy menu to pop up.

To be precise, it’s more involved than that. The resting finger first brings up a magnifying glass showing what I’ve highlighted. Only upon lifting my finger from the screen do the selection and copy menu take place. So when I notice the magnifying glass, I have to first raise my finger to get the selection and menu, then tap somewhere else on the screen and lift my finger again for these to go away before I can finally get back to my scrolling anticipation.

Don’t Cry for Me, Blogosphere

I recount this minutia not to garner sympathy. If I end up with carpal knuckle syndrome, it will be from the unblinking hours spent playing such bewilderingly addictive games as Quordy, Blocked, and Paper Toss, not from repeated false-positive copy retraction. I am sure that my finger will soon train itself to hover higher or rest just below the screen as it waits for the next swipe.

I bring this up instead as a reminder that touch screen interfaces, like most everything, have both pros and cons. The iPhone’s touch screen has enabled easier and more extensive interaction than any previous mobile device. And adding new inputs such as the gyroscope tilt-sensor and GPS is enabling all kinds of fascinating interactions as people come up with new ways to use them. However, by removing most of the traditional physical inputs like buttons, the iPhone runs into limits in how to implement many traditional behaviors, such as copy and paste.

Tap, Tap, Twirl in the Air, then Flick? No, We’ve Used That Already.

They can always come up with new combinations of touches, gestures, button presses, etc., but in order to do so, they either need to make them more complex or shrink the boundaries separating different interactions. In the case of copy and paste, Apple went with a fairly simple interaction, tap-and-hold, which comes very close to existing ones such as tap-and-move-your-finger-very-slightly to scroll the screen a little.

Again, I’m not trying to complain about Apple’s implementation of copy and paste on the iPhone, (although I certainly wouldn’t mind if I could copy from and to more places.) I just wanted to point out that there are trade-offs.

My iPhone just wants to help, but like an overeager puppy, it just doesn’t naturally know when to do so and when to stay back. It’s my dog now, though, and like most pet training issues, it ends up coming down to training the owner how to interact with them. So I’ll just keep practicing holding my index finger up off of the screen until I’m ready to scroll. I’m sure it’ll soon be second nature. Good boy!

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