I’m not frightened of flying. Or spiders. Nor, like one friend of mine, do I have a crippling fear of tomatoes. But I do suffer from mild koumpounophobia — the fear of buttons.
I should add that, in my case, it is more a mild distaste than a full-blown phobia. While I wouldn’t care to be ravished by a pearly queen, I am really only bothered by loose buttons, not those attached to clothing — so I can wear shirts happily enough.
Recently, though, on the ‘takes one to know one’ principle, I have begun to wonder whether Apple’s Steve Jobs might suffer from a more extreme form of this condition. Photos of Jobs suggest he has a remarkable distaste for visible fastenings, seams or other attachments on his clothing. Moreover my search on Google Images for ‘Steve Jobs + pearly king’ created a conceptual tear in the cyberspace continuum, linking me for no reason at all to a Swansea City fan site.
If my theory is right (and a 1997 article suggests that it is) then it seems possible his condition will have a momentous effect on the course of technological history: the consumer-electronics equivalent of Henry VIII’s syphilis, Hitler’s IBS or Eden’s botched gall-bladder operation.
Already his peculiar horror of seams, hinges and fastenings has caused the iPhone and iPod to have non-replaceable batteries — leading some people to criticise them on environmental grounds. It has also led to the irritating omission of a folding stand from both the iPod and, I assume, from his forthcoming iPad/iSlate thing. If the intention is that we watch video on these devices, it would be pleasant not to have to cradle the screen in one’s lap for the duration of a two-hour film.
Significantly, this phobia may also lie behind Apple’s steadfast refusal to allow attempts by accessory-makers to create Bluetooth or wireless keyboards for use with the iPhone. It is a policy which seems inexplicable on economic or technological grounds. If anything, as Mike Elgan comments at http://snipurl.com/wikiman, the decision is driven not by electrical engineering but social engineering. Jobs, driven by his quest for world domination, his raging koumpounophobia — or a mixture of both — is trying to drive us all towards the bright, sunlit uplands of a button-free future, where all inputs take place on the screen.
I have mixed feelings about this. For sure, the standard QWERTY keyboard is due for replacement. Yet, whatever its successor might be, the point-and-peck system present on the current iPhone certainly isn’t it.
One possible alternative — seriously — is Morse code. It has long been remarked how telegraph operators could write faster than touch-typists, so why not devise simple two-button keyboards? Another alternative is the ‘chorded keyboard’, so called because you form letters by pressing a small number of different keys in combination.
A pioneering example of such a device was the British-made Microwriter, which had a brief following in the early 1980s before ceasing production in 1985. I had long assumed this was another example of a plucky, pipe-smoking British boffin taking on the Yanks only to be unsportingly defeated by their market power. Not quite. In fact the keyboard’s inventor was American-born and was only living in Blighty because he had been blacklisted by Hollywood as a commie. He was Cy Endfield, better known as the director of Zulu.