Right from the very start (July 2007), the voices clamouring for Copy and Paste functionality on the Apple iPhone have been growing stronger and stronger. Is this really big deal? Why have Apple not already implemented this in the operating system? How could they include it without complicating the UI too much? What other implications might this have? And is it likely to happen? What about workarounds in the meantime?
Yes, Copy and Paste IS a big deal. Ask anyone who’s tried doing actual work on an iPhone and they’ll tell you. Better still, try it yourself. Admittedly, the lack of a basic Office suite restricts the scope of Copy and Paste slightly, but the flexibility of being able to selectively lift bits out of an email or text for inclusion in another communication is significant. And I’m one of several million iPhone users who are rather keen to see it in place.
At first glance, it’s initial (and then continued) exclusion seems puzzling. After all, every other computer or PDA or smartphone since the dawn of time has had a ‘clipboard’ onto which text (or even rich items like images) can be copied and then pasted elsewhere later on. And Mac OS X, ostensibly the same OS as the iPhone, has full Copy and Paste, of course.
A little thought shows that Apple, in trying to simplify the touch interface to not need conventional menus and other screen furniture, also reasoned that, without the aforementioned Office document editing, use of clipboard functions would be fairly low. They presumably reasoned that they could get away with not including Copy and Paste at all. After all, with a purely Touch based system and no main hardware buttons, even selecting text (or other items) for copying was going to be tricky. Well, trick-ier, anyway!
In the short term this has proved a good call for Apple but they’re now running up against the wrath of power users in the phone world, many of whom are also prominent bloggers, for whom copying and pasting text, URLs and images is part and parcel of their everyday workflow. And not being able to do it on their phone of choice, the iPhone, is just plain annoying.
So – what’s needed?
- A way to choose items for copying. At a simple level this could be done with existing iPhone on-screen buttons.
For example a ‘Copy’ button next to an item. No precision, but then items can be trimmed down later after pasting in.
Or, slightly messier, the draggable paper metaphor in the UI could be switched into a ‘Copy mode’ using an on-screen button, after which you can select text or other items by simply dragging your finger over them.
Most elegant would be an integrated solution similar to the ‘tap and hold for the magnifying glass’ system. For example, tap and hold to magnify the area concerned and select a starting character and then use the much-vaunted multi-touch to double-tap within the magnifying glass (using another finger, obviously) to start highlighting text. Dragging the magnifying glass cursor around with the original finger would then let you choose the selection itself.
In Safari, copying text could be done in similar fashion, by tapping and holding – in this case, the magnifying glass wouldn’t represent an editing cursor, but the selection principle would be the same.
- A way to paste items into another application. Somewhat simpler, this one. A ‘Paste’ icon/button added to the pop-up keyboard, to insert the contents of the clipboard at the current flashing cursor location in a text entry screen. And perhaps a past icon at other relevant places in the UI if appropriate and depending on the contents of the clipboard – some intelligence, identifying the data there – text/image/URL/etc – and offering only what’s needed, when it’s needed.
Not too difficult, I’d have thought, and I’ve honestly no idea why it’s taking Apple so long. All I can surmise is that they’re working on implementing Copy and Paste along with a basic common file store, something that ‘serious’ applications can use to save files to and open files from. Perhaps the two are interlinked and will appear together?
For all the iPhone’s superior media handling and UI responsiveness generally, the lack of a file system and clipboard do mean that the likes of Nokia’s S60 system and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile are clear winners for anyone wanting to go further down the ‘professional use’ route. At the moment, any any rate. I cannot conceive of Apple not working on these areas, so it’s just a matter of time.
Looking around the web to see what others have written and produced in this area, I’ve since found a mock-up video from ‘lonelysandwich’ that shows a similar technique to my suggestion, using the magnifying glass as the kick-off point for selection, but also using it for pasting in too. And the folks at MagicPad have also come up with some suggestions in video form, involving double-tapping in a text field or (mirroring my thoughts) tapping and holding in Safari.
In the meantime, there are workarounds with limited functionality. For example, iCopy, which works (somewhat laboriously) for copying and pasting web page text and URLs to other web text forms.
As one of the other pages on this topic mentions, the way Apple finally, finally decide to implement text selection, copy and paste using multi-touch will probably end up being the ‘standard’ way to do this for some time to come, so I guess one silver lining to come out of the delay is that the gestures you’ll learn for iPhone in this area should also work for subsequent devices on this and other platforms.