Years ago I ridiculed my mentor, a brilliant systems architect among other things, for being impressed by the clock in the status bar of an application. I think it was that Word-to-SGML mapping and conversion tool that Frame assimilated right before Adobe assimilated them and killed the product. Now I have to embarrass myself with a similar oh-look-a-butterfly moment: The iPhone’s standard Clock application has become my favorite app.
Maybe I exaggerate a little. It has all the usual benefits of a well-designed iPhone app, but it’s not such eye candy that I want to lick the screen when it’s active. That’s a good thing for me though, because its interface never distracts me from its utility. It also has a certain UNIX-like simplicity that comes from focusing on one thing well: time.
Why? I tend to keep my iPhone on me or within reach. The user experience makes me want to play with it just for the sake of play, and there’s always some app or function where it’s easier to use what’s at hand than go back to the Macbook Pro or pull out a notebook. Some modes are better than others, but all are useful and useable:
World Clock Mode is itself unremarkable and almost superfluous since the iPhone displays time on the unlock screen and on the status bar. Since I rarely use my iPhone to actually call people, let alone friends in other time zones, I don’t really need to know if my friends in London or San Francisco are likely awake, asleep, or otherwise occupied. This is standard chrome for all clock applications nowadays.
Stop Watch Mode does exactly what you’d expect, although it’s my least favorite since the lack of a physical button means looking at the device to trigger an event, the real Achilles’ Heel of the iPhone. I know Steve hates them, but the pragmatist in me is willing to spoil the aesthetics a little for those times when you need to manipulate the device without looking for it. No touch screen, even the Storm’s (reportedly awful) click screen, can substitute for priming your finger on a physical button when blind reaction time is a factor.
Timer Mode gets the most regular action. I’m notoriously bad at remembering to take some short-term medication every four hours or how much time is left on the parking meter. There may be better ways to solve this problem, but a reasonable solution in the pocket is better than two in the backpack, apartment, or cubicle. I’ve had other portable devices that could do the same thing (PalmPilot, watch, other mobile phones) but they either weren’t always on my person or their interfaces were gnarly enough to make it too much work if I was in the slightest hurry when trying to capture the event.
Oh, Alarm Mode, you have finally given me a great implementation of the one thing I’ve always wanted in an alarm clock, different settings for weekdays and weekends. I’m not one of those people who always gets up at the same time automagically–not a morning person in the least. It’s almost impossible to find an alarm clock that supports one wake-up time for weekdays and a another one for weekends despite seeming like a most obvious Good Thing(tm). The schedule option on the (arbitrary number of) iPhone alarms does this, and I’ve been thinking about keeping it next to my bed to use it as my primary alarm clock.
Exaggerations aside, iPhone’s Clock works well because it does one thing reasonably well, has just enough interface sugar to make using it desirable, and it’s on a device that’s almost always on my person. It’s not perfect but it’s good enough to become a tool I use almost every day. This is a strategy Apple really gets; they include good-enough applications with their devices to make them useful out of the box–just another reason this caged bird sings.
A between-the-lines point worth explicitly repeating is that I don’t think of the iPhone as a tool. The Clock app is a tool and the iPhone is a platform. Ooh, goosebumps!