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One-handed computing with the iPhone

The easy single-handed operation of the iPhone1 is not one of its obvious selling points but is one of those little features that grows on you and becomes nearly indispensable. A portable networked computing and gaming device that can be easily operated with one hand can be used in a surprising variety of situations.

Eating is the most obvious potentially one-handed activity most of us engage in. If you must do something other than just enjoy your food ferchristsake, you can answer emails, read Twitter, or catch up on the latest at while munching on that salad.

People carry things. Coffee, shopping bags, books, bags, babies, small dogs, hot dogs, water bottles, coats, etc. It’s nice to be able to not put all that crap down just to quickly Google for the closest public restroom (aka Starbucks).

It is very occasionally necessary to use the iPhone while driving. No, not for checking your stock portfolio, you asshole. For directions. Glance quickly and keep your thoughts on the road ahead.

My wife spends about five hours a day breastfeeding our daughter and has only one hand available for non-feeding activities. That hand is frequently occupied by her iPhone; it helps her keep abreast (hey’o!) of current events, stay connected with pals through Twitter & email, track feeding/sleeping/diaper changing times, keep notes (she plans meals and grocery “shops” at 3am), and alert her layabout husband via SMS to come and get the damned baby already.

Straphangers in NYC and elsewhere know what a great one-handed device the iPhone is. Riding the subway and reading has never been so easy, especially during rush hour when pointy hardcovers become weaponized. (Getting shived by a hardbound Harry Potter on the 6pm 5 train is no joke.)

Tim Carmody, one of the shopkeeps over at Snarkmarket, recently broke his arm but is getting plenty of use out of his iPhone: “They should have an ad โ€” ‘If you’ve got a broken arm, this is the perfect phone for you!’” Broken arms are uncommon, but plenty of people have more permanent physical conditions necessitating one-handed interaction with the world.

And a list of one-handed computing activities wouldn’t be complete without at least quickly mentioning, well, you know. It rhymes with “whacking off”. I think I’ve said enough.

Two areas where the iPhone really shines in its one-handedness are gaming and typing. One-handed gaming is pretty much impossible with the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, but the App Store is full of games that require only your thumb for input. I’ve been playing lots of Shake & Spell and Strategery lately. Typing with one hand on the iPhone is almost as easy and fast as with two. You can actually *write* on this thing with one hand; not just SMS messages and tweets but also blog posts, emails, meeting minutes, and the like.

Update: Tim Carmody, he of the broken arm above, makes a couple of key observations about the one-handedness of the iPhone:

I think it’s fairly easy to dial and answer any cell phone with one hand. It’s the fact that you can almost perfectly use smartphone functions with a single hand that set the iPhone apart. I used to have a Blackberry Bold - it bit the dust around the same time my arm did โ€” and while I really liked a lot of things about the hardware, you really couldn’t use it well with one hand


Your cheerfulness about [being injured or handicapped] varies almost directly with your autonomy โ€” and the iPhone is GREAT at making you feel autonomous. Innovation in interface design isn’t just about creating a cooler experience. It’s about giving more and more people a shot at that experience to begin with.

And this is exactly how I use my iPhone 95% of the time (except I am left-handed).

[1] This footnote still applies. (Yes, that was a reference to a footnote within another footnote. (And that was a parenthetical within a footnote. (…))) โ†ฉ

Update: One-handed iPhone? That’s nothing. Check out this guy using the iPhone with his feet.

I met Keith on the Red line, heading to Cambridge from Boston. We had a nerdy conversation about the new iPhone, which he swears by. He operates his with his feet because a disability limits the dexterity of his hands. He said his kid is nuts for the games on the iPhone, but that he prefers more functional aspects which would be harder for him to use on any other mobile device.