San Francisco: If there is a billion-dollar gamble underlying Apple's iPhone, it lies in what this smart cell phone does not have: a mechanical keyboard.
As the clearest expression yet of the Apple chief executive's spartan design aesthetic, the iPhone sports only one mechanical button, to return a user to the home screen.
It echoes Steven P. Jobs' decree two decades ago that a computer mouse should have a single button. (Most have two.) His argument was that one button ensured that it would be impossible to push the wrong button.
The keyboard is built into other phones. But the lack of one could be a clever industrial design solution. It allows the iPhone to have a big 3.5-inch screen, which makes it attractive for alternative uses like watching movies. And that could open up new revenue streams for Apple and its partner, AT&T.
The downside is that typing is done on the screen with thumbs or fingers, something hardly anyone outside of Apple has experienced yet. "The tactile feedback of a mechanical keyboard is a pretty important aspect of human interaction," said Bill Moggeridge of Ideo, an industrial design company in Palo Alto, Calif. "If you take that away you tend to be very insecure."
Jobs and other Apple executives argue that the keyboard that pops up onscreen will be a painless compromise. But it requires users to learn the new system, a task that Apple executives acknowledge may require several days.
Last month, Jobs dismissed doubts about relying on a virtual keyboard, saying that users only had to learn to trust the keyboard, "and then you will fly." Yet in the days before the phone is scheduled to go on sale, designers and marketers of electronic devices centres are having a spirited debate about whether consumers will have the patience to type without the familiar tactile feedback offered by conventional keyboards.
Apple is making other compromises. The AT&T Edge cellular network transmits data more slowly than those of rivals, but the iPhone will be equipped with Wi-Fi for Web access. The phone will not accept memory cards.
The keyboard, however, is the biggest worry. At worst, customers will return the phones, and any significant number of returns could undermine what until now has been a remarkable promotional blitz that culminates in the phone's release on 29 June.