Bad Thurrott == Good Design

by Joshua Scott Emmons

We are all, I think, used to Paul Thurrott rolling out some ludicrous mac-bashing post any time he finds he can't retain readership. This week he picks on the iPhone's calculator. Yup. That's right. The calculator.

Now I've used the calculator on my iPhone. I punched in numbers. I punched in operators. I hit the "equals" button. Not only did the calculator respond with a sum, it responded with the correct sum, so I'm not really sure what fault one could find with it.

But I'm not Paul Thurrott. He says, "The iPhone calculator should look like an iPhone application at the very least and ideally offer a number of skins. Obviously."

Obviously. Geeze. Thurrott's gotten so formulaic, it's getting hard to distinguish him from Fake Paul. But in this case I think Real Paul has a point. Well, not really. But I think that looking at the ways in which he is wrong will illuminate some interesting principles of design.


2007-08-21 12:12:19
However, it should be noted that using a calculator is in fact an *abstract* task, and that the interface of most real world calculators frankly sucks. Much like the interface for most cell phones.

So designing a great interface for a calculator would break people's expectations of it, and would probably include easier editing, tape roll, etc. It's not very different than how the interface for the iPhone breaks people's expectations of using cell phones, and it is still a great interface.

Just because the calculator has been around for so long, doesn't mean it can't be done better. Just like how cell phones have been around for (granted, not so very) long, but Apple still managed to make them better.

Not that I think Thurott was right on this one, I just think it's the least of his crimes.

2007-08-21 12:31:32
here we go again, bashing thurrott because he dared to (slightly) diss an apple product. have you got nothing better to write about?
2007-08-21 12:42:06
I'm just annoyed that they shipped a calculator app that once again does not include (as far as I've been able to find) useful trig functions and bin/hex/dec conversion. A true scientific calculator app would be a less device at my desk!
That said, the calculator app on the iphone is beautiful and quick and easy to use without having learn yet another interface.
Andy P
2007-08-21 12:52:40
If it doesn't do RPN, then it's not a real calculator!
2007-08-21 13:02:12
Nice post; my god that Vista calculator is awful. See also the Apple / Braun co-branded calculator.
2007-08-21 13:05:07
You RPN people...
William D. Neumann
2007-08-21 13:21:25
I'm with Andy and red. Give me a calculator modeled on the HP48 and I'm a happy camper.
2007-08-21 13:48:25
For the record, this story originally came from

2007-08-21 14:28:14
I think it's interesting that Apple DIDN'T just emulate the Braun calculator. Take a close look at the Braun's keys, then look at the iPhone. Some are missing completely (square root), some are in different places (+,-, etc.).
2007-08-21 14:28:57
The argument for using a consistent interface in simple applications (like Calculator) is so that when you learn the harder (more abstract) programs, you take what you know from the simple apps and apply to the more complex ones. It's a way to build up one's intuition about the user interface. The simple apps like a calculator "train" you in the standards so you have a prayer of understanding the complex ones.

With that said though, I don't see anything that you could change from Calculator to ease the iPhone's learning curve. As it stands, it demonstrates the fluid nature of a "software keyboard" and a dynamic display. Additionally, it doesn't look like the iPhone's keypad for dialing telephone numbers so there's no confusion there. It's functional. It serves its purpose. And changing it wouldn't appear to make other aspects of the iPhone interface easier to understand. Though I'd like a scientific calculator, I think Apple did fine with what they implemented.

2007-08-21 15:26:21
Check the calculator on Windows Mobile, a more fitting comparison. Its atrocious.

2007-08-21 15:26:29
Please also consider that all software implementations are limited by human resources and if you were Apple's project manager would you expend resources on the calculator or other applications that would be more heavily used?
2007-08-21 18:36:22
You know the Windows world is dying when most the Windows analysts spend time on Apple stuff.
2007-08-21 19:25:26
aaron's right about that apple/braun co-branded calculator. i wrote to thurrot alerting him to the co-branded calculator just to let him know that apple wasn't just ripping off braun blindly. he replied:
"LOL. Well. That's an Apple logo on a Braun calculator, indicating that
Apple paid Braun so it could sell or give away an Apple-branded
calculator. This is what we call "swag" not some cooperative branding
initiative. :)"

but wasn't his post about apple ripping off braun? when did it become about "cooperative branding?" i'd respect him a lot more if he had just said, "oh, i didn't know about bad." but no, it has to be about "swag" and "bad design" now...:rolleyes:

John "Z-Bo" Zabroski
2007-08-21 21:40:21
Great points, but I disagree with "Microsoft is focused on making everything standard for standard's sake, as if conformity were a goal in and of itself." Microsoft can't make everything standard due to anti-trust suits.

With respect to that, Office's interface is such a black eye on the rest of the Microsoft interface - but how do you solve such a weird problem? Compounding this, Ribbon is so different from previous versions of Office that it goes against the idea of standardizing abstract concepts.

2007-08-21 21:53:10
Thurott is a hits wh*re. And a tool.

Best idea - don't go to his site.


2007-08-21 22:19:28
I was just trying to use the calculator on my WM5 phone (Treo 700wx.)
OMG! I bring up the calc app, with its very ugly design and on screen touch buttons that are too small to touch. I decide to type my numbers with the QWERTY hardware keyboard that all the smartphone freaks insist that the iPhone had to have. And I type a number... Nothing... It thinks I'm typing the LETTER on the keyboard! I have to push the "option" key twice to lock the number mode to type numbers, in calculator! The option key is helpfully labelled as [a black spot.] It is wrong in so many ways. I hope that we all can learn from Apple's design concepts. PLEASE.
2007-08-21 22:23:37
Shouldn't you be blaming yourself for even taking Paul seriously at all? I must say I am quite disappointed that you considered that tripe he posted up worth an answer at all, especially one this long. This is a lot like feeding the troll.
2007-08-22 02:20:54
One of the best things about the original Newton (so maybe only good thing) was it's calculator. You just wrote the sum down, and it did the rest. Very clever bit of software.
2007-08-22 03:09:15
"It should look and behave like the best calculator ever made."

There are only so many ways to design a calculator before it becomes overly decorated and usability becomes questionable. I agree with the whole post.

2007-08-22 04:18:56
He sounds like he used the same logic Apple fans used against the Zune, Vista, etc. For example, a commenter mentions the Vista calculator in this post. Why? I think Thurott makes a good point about the customizability. However, and going by your iPhone pic, I don't see anything wrong with the current 1.0 version of the calculator. Like all new products, have to start somewhere. Why not keep it pretty basic?
2007-08-22 11:29:09
I was just trying to use the calculator on my WM5 phone (Treo 700wx.)...I decide to type my numbers with the QWERTY hardware keyboard... Nothing... It thinks I'm typing the LETTER on the keyboard!

Too bad about that. Maybe you should have bought a Palm-based Treo instead. On my Treo 650, the calculator knows that I'm typing numbers without pressing the Option key. Plus I can press the letters that have the math symbols (/, +, -, *) and it knows what I mean.

(Of course I usually use a 3rd-party RPN calculator.)

2007-08-22 19:43:42
Joshua is completely right in this article. Even about configurability: anyone who has ever used both WinAmp and iTunes should realize by now that the only use for skins is to come up with yet another hopelessly unusable (but """cool""" looking) mess.

Perhaps Thurrott should simply buy some other brand.

Randy Smith
2007-08-23 12:50:46
Thurott is just a MS Shill. He will take credit away from the Mac on features yet praise Microsoft in the same sentence for adding the same feature. He considers MacOS X as only having minor upgrades and never a Major one but MS Vista is groundbreaking. He does get things right once in a while but soon his foot is lodged deeply in his mouth again so it is hard to give him credit for anything. The iPhones calculator can correctly answer the problem 2.00 -.02 which took the Microsoft calculator years to get correct. His point that the calculator is not very Mac look might be a point if it were on a Mac and not a Phone. Microsofts attempt and bringing the world of home phones and Windows together failed big time because who needed a home phone with the complicated and sometimes backwards MS OS interface on it!
2007-08-25 18:36:03
principles, not principals!
Joshua Emmons
2007-08-25 18:46:11
@Gary: Whoops! Fixed now. Thanks for the catch.
2007-09-10 13:05:58
For all Apple fanatics here: Apple designer Jonathan Ive's parents had a lot of Braun stuff at home where he grew up.
Dieter Rams was the chief designer at Braun, Germany, and Jonathan Ive's designer hero.
All Apple hits, such as the iPod, iMac, loudspeakers etc. are actually German design. Go back 40-50 years and discover the stunning similarities of vintage Braun and brand new Apple design. You'll be surprised