Why Not a Swiss Army iPhone?

I recently bought an Apple iPhone model 6s. My old 5s made an unexpected exit when it fell unnoticed in the middle of a busy intersection and then proceeded to be run over countless times in the course of 2 hours, before I noticed it was missing and used the most-impressive “Find My Phone” feature to find it (impressive in that the phone was completely destroyed but continued to send out a GPS “find me” signal). It was found, but it wasn’t coming back.

I’m enjoying the new phone I bought more than I thought I would. But I think that Apple (and pretty much all of its competitors) are missing the boat in an area of possible innovation. They’re all thinking of the phone primarily as a computing platform, which of course it is (and a device for calling people, obviously). Almost everything that happens with the phone does so after waking it up with a button push that invokes the home screen, where all of the settings and apps can be accessed. And while I appreciate how cool or useful many of these apps and features are, there are still some pretty basic (and obviously not obvious) capabilities that apparently Apple has not yet thought about.

Why should almost everything happen through an onscreen app? I’d like to see Apple go down a new direction — useful hardware-related applications.

The basic shape of the iPhones have not changed much since their introduction in 2007. They’ve all remained flat, rectangular, sometimes with rounded edges and sometimes not. That’s all fine. But almost everything happens on the inside. On the usually beautiful outside, the few buttons on the case continue to either turn it on or off, change the volume or invoke the home screen. But that’s about it, and it seems a waste of perfectly good button real estate. I mean, why not put those buttons (or new ones) to work, providing functionality I could really use — at the touch of a button, without lighting up the phone.

Here are 3 new useful features that could be implemented with only slight modifications to iPhone hardware (either with modified side button software that responds differently with a different number of pushes, or a new button or two with dedicated functionality at a single click or push):

  • Flashlight. I use the flashlight app a lot, but why make me push a button (usually in the dark) to bring up the screen, then use 2 hands (one to hold the phone) and another to slide the hidden bottom screen upward, so that I can find the flashlight icon and push it to start the flashlight? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply have a discreet button on the side of the phone that I could find just by touch, and then with a single push (or two) turn on the phone’s LED flashlight? It would be a LOT easier. Kinda like having a flashlight in my pocket! No doubt, a 3rd party app developer could write the software as another new app, but I suspect any such code linking to hardware would require access to a layer of Apple’s code that is probably not available to developers. If it is available, get on it, app developers. If it isn’t available, Apple could introduce this as a unique feature, native to iPhone functionality.
  • Voice Recorder. Same as above. If something is happening that I want to record, I shouldn’t have to go through 3 or 4 steps to get to the recorder, especially if it is an Apple recorder that comes with the phone. Just let me turn on “record” with 2 or 3 short finger presses (or one press on a new button). The next press turns it off. I can still open the app later to see and listen to what I recorded, but at least getting the recording was a single step, not several. The idea of using a specific sequence of button presses can be applied to both this and likely other hardware applications (connected by software, of course).
  • Pocket-Dial Defeat. Too often, though I think I’ve “locked” my phone after using it, I slip it into my pocket, and it then just randomly calls someone on my “Favorites” list, without my knowledge, while it’s still in my pocket. This annoys many people receiving these pointless “calls” where all they hear is background noise of me talking, or not. Others send me pocket dials as well, but it’s still a bit embarrassing that I can’t keep my own phone from calling people. Apple could fix this by connecting the circuitry for outgoing calls to the existing button on the side that mutes the volume. In other words, if I used the side button to turn the phone to “vibrate” while it were in my pocket, the same button move (or a modified one, to allow the phone to still ring in my pocket) would also prevent any outgoing calls from taking place, unless I had subsequently unlocked the phone (which would obviously happen if I wanted to make a phone call). No more pocket-dials.

While the insufferable Siri tries to simplify my life with her high-tech AI, why not just offer these relatively simple improvements. It would make the phone a bit more like a Swiss Army knife — handy and useful, while definitely thinking different.