August 12, 2008

Idea: How I would do iPhone cut and paste

I know, I’m late to the party. The internet has already had plenty of discussions about the iPhone’s lack of cut and paste, and many proposals for how it could be implemented. Some people suggest complicated multitouch gestures, double-taps, or buttons with pop-up submenus you slide your finger over. Others change the iPhone’s default behavior too much. These aren’t intuitive to me. I want a solution that’s easy to use and doesn’t get in my way. It’s there when I need it, and it disappears when I don’t.

Now that I’ve had a chance to play with the iPhone for a while, I’ve come up with my own proposal. I don’t know how to make a working demo, so I’ve made some screenshots to help explain my concept. I think it feels natural, while being simple and unobtrusive.

Let’s start with some text so we have something to work with:

Holding your finger on a word currently brings up a Magnifying Glass that helps you place a cursor where you want it. My suggestion: Whenever you go into Magnify mode, the bottom row of the keyboard is replaced by one large “Hold to Select” button.

Using this button to select text should feel familiar because the action is the same as selecting text on a Macbook’s Trackpad. I normally use one hand with a Trackpad, but I find using two hands with the iPhone feels surprisingly natural because my thumb is already in a good position to press the button:

If you only move the cursor without pressing the “Hold to Select” button, the bottom row returns to normal when you let go. But if you do select text, then the “Hold to Select” button is replaced by four new buttons: Cut, Copy, Paste, and Cancel.

After you make your choice, the action is carried out and the bottom row returns to normal. I’ve selected “Cut” in this example.

When I’m ready to paste, I once again use the Magnifying Glass to place the cursor. The “Hold to Select” button comes up again but I’m not going to press it this time (although if you want to replace text, you can select a whole block of words to paste over).

If I I had nothing in my clipboard, then the bottom row would go back to normal when I release the Magnifying Glass since I didn’t select any text. But I do have something in the clipboard, so I my options are shown again.

I select “Paste” and the word in my clipboard is inserted at the cursor. The keyboard bottom row returns to normal.

In the preferences, I can decide when I want the clipboard to be cleared out. I think it makes sense to empty your clipboard every time you paste, but other options are useful in case you need to paste the same text multiple times.

This method of cut and paste also works with non-editable text where you don’t have a keyboard. If you want to copy text from Safari, for example, you hold your finger in one spot until the magnifying glass comes up. The “Hold to Select” button slides into place from below [animated gif], temporarily covering the navigation bar. Because the text is not editable, the paste and cut buttons will be inactive.

That’s the best cut/paste implementation I could think of. It doesn’t change the iPhone’s current behavior and it doesn’t get in the way. It’s clear and easy to use. What do you think?


This is perfect.

It makes sense to me and I don’t even own an iPhone/touch.

I haven’t seen other iPhone proposals but yours feels right to me. Who knows if Apple will want to even retain the cut/copy/paste metaphor on this new platform.

Your proposal is full of win.

Very similar concept to this incredibly thought out and produced concept video:

I like the idea of building upon the trackpad metaphor. The only thing it is lacking is a visible clipboard, showing the most recent items. Lastly, does the magnifying glass come up when there is no text? Also, does the mag glass come up in any form?

I don’t think the metaphor would apply to the iPhone’s GUI, but the Newton had a great pen-based copy-paste system:

You would hold the pen for a sec and then draw a circle around parts of your drawing or hold the pen for a sec and drag on top of the text in order to select. Once something was selected then you would drag it to the edge of the screen where it would stick.

From there, you could drag it to the destination.

It worked, it was elegant, but it was more like cutting and pasting, not copying and pasting. Too bad I can’t find any YouTube videos showing it and I don’t have my Newton anymore. The Newton was quite amazing.

How would this work on a screen that doesn’t have the keyboard input, like when viewing a web page in Safari or reading an email?

#1 They don’t have the magnifying glass come up
#2 They don’t have the keyboard on screen.

Oops, sorry David. I somehow skipped the last paragraph. (The way this entry showed in my RSS reader was odd — text was overlapped with other text).

(Single) touch interface is something new only if you never used trackpad. And with trackpad the solution is simple and standardized, as far as I know. If you tap and hold, you place the caret/cursor and on iPhone you get the magnifying glass.

Now, if you double tap and hold, you’re in the select mode. Hold your finger down after second tap and drag to select. After you select something, you get the clipboard buttons, as in your suggestion.

What you propose is if you have something in the clipboard and then move the cursor somewhere then the bottom row of buttons will go away to give you the option of cut/copy/paste/cancel. However, if you only intended to move the cursor to type in that location then you no longer have the ability to use the special characters, space bar, or return button unless you first hit cancel. This creates an additional step to type that did not previously exist.

I suggest splitting up your contextual “Hold to select” button into four buttons (from left to right):
1) Hold to select
2) Cut
3) Copy
4) Paste

There would be no need for a “Cancel” button since you would only see the options when in Magnify mode. This method eliminates the problem of having to hit cancel if you want to use the bottom row of they keyboard while something is in the clipboard.

I also think this change renders the clipboard retention options unnecessary. I’m guessing the reason you introduced that was because of the problem of replacing the bottom row of keys when the user might no longer care about pasting what was in the clipboard. Introducing the concept of having to purge the clipboard would seem foreign to most users.

1.) You’re a genius. Good thinking, indeed, and it reminds me of my time beta-testing GameTap and making genius UI suggestions based on my actual use of the product.

2.) I probably wont ever own an iPhone (I like my Sidekick’s thumb-board way too much and I couldn’t possibly type as fast on an iPhone as I can on my LX) but I will go on record to say that if they implemented your suggestions here, it would do a lot to possibly convince me that an iPhone is a good option.

(As it is, my Sidekick has cut, copy, and paste, and system-wide spell check, now, so how could the iPhone possibly compete with that? Shitty camera/video though, really shitty, and a 100 txt message storage limit.)

Paul, yeah, it’s borked in a newsreader.

It’s because the article doesn’t use a table layout, but rather a simple straight-prose layout where each paragraph has a picture embedded at the start, placed partially with inline CSS & partially via an external stylesheet. The inline half gets passed into the feed, but the sheet gets forgotten, so it shows up all wonky when combined with the CSS newsreaders usually apply. Even if they don’t apply any, it still breaks: there’s only a small part of the fake table rules left.

David, may I suggest that you avoid that half-half mix in future? Sorry to sound so rudeā€¦ I have no idea how you publish this fine site. This article does break in your feed, though.

Paul, SirPavlova, et al: It’s borked in a newsreader because I used a wonky technique in this one post to get it looking right in a browser, and as you describe it messed up the RSS feed. I see now how I could have done it that would have avoided the problem, but I don’t expect this issue to come up again. However I will be redoing my RSS feed soon so that posts render in readers more like they do on the site. Sorry for the frustration! Do not adjust your set!

so far the best copy and paste solution is from MagicPad that is available on the AppStore.

It keeps the Apple UI for taping to place the cursor, single tap and drag to move it manually, and doubletap drag to highlight, they have built in a nice copy and paste bar that goes on top of the original Apple keyboard.

it works marvelously. if it could only be throughout the system :)

David, thanks for the reply. Good to hear you’re on top of it.

Oh, & while I’m at it, great idea. koan’s alteration sounds like an improvement again, but your plan was already by far the best I’ve read. This coming from a guy without an iPhone, but still.

Instead of making the bottom button disappear if you have no clipboard text, the copy/paste buttons should always be there, just grayed out, and that would be good if there was no current text, but you wanted to paste something from somewhere. I don’t have an iPhone either, but it sounds like some people would not understand the functionality when it disappears.

I think it would work. The trackpad metaphor doesn’t work for me - tapping on a trackpad works so much better than using the stupid button, holding down the button while moving the cursor around is just too awkward. Using two hands is awkward too, but only on a laptop - on a device like the iPhone, I think two hands would work out just peachy. Hopefully they get on this little issue soon…

What’s nice with it:
- hides nicely

But I see several problems with that:
- how can I copy something in an app without having the keyboard open (like in safari, but not in a textfield but from the plain webpage)?
- there’s no indicator that you’ve currently got something in the clipboard
- after using the magnifying glass, it’s easy to type a letter, but difficult to type a space (would mean to type cancel, then space). “Cancel” is also badly named, as people might think it will delete their clipboard.
- not possible to paste quickly at the end of a word, where the magnifying glass would not be needed, but your solution still requires to use it.

i think the hold button will be quite confusing. how long do i have to hold it? during the whole selection process? it might be enough to hit it just to initiate the selection mode, a select button so to say. then you couldn’t just accidentially hit the cut button (or the others next to it) so easily, especially if you operate it with the thumb when don’t really see it has changed to something else.

uh, i hope my explanation makes any sense to you?!

Some great ideas here, but it hinges on the keyboard control being available, which it isn’t when copying text in read-only mode… For example, when reading emails, text messages, or webpages.

In these cases, Apple could *only* display the “Hold to Select” button without the keyboard.

Whoops, missed your last paragraph with the animated GIF. Looks like you anticipated that scenario. Sorry!

I’m not sure any of these scenarios work when trying to cut and paste large blocks of text. Let’s say you get an email forward and you want to copy part of the message but not the entire trail. You could be scrolling a long time trying to select text that isn’t even visible.

What makes sense to me is marking insertion point similar to the in/out method in Final Cut. Mark in, mark out cut, select, paste.

great idea. We’ll get our developers on to it. We’ll send you a thank you card.

@steve pwnd! our legal guys just patented all the relevant stuff. you’ll never get it done without paying to uncle bill!

As a graphic designer and former technical manual writer I applaud your instructions and illustrations. Clear and concise. (But your CAPTCHA text needs a little work. Let’s see, what are those letters suppose to be?)

Sadly this proposal fails to understand the nature of Copy and Paste which is modeless (ie, it works the same for a graphic, any other object as it does for text). A text-only c&p is an abomination that just should not be allowed to live.

This would need to be done on a JailBroken iPhone. E-mail bigboss (search on google) he would be able to help you out.

If you’re gonna have a “cut,” you need to have an undo.

Awesome idea. Sell to apple immediately :)

I have had my Touch for less than a week and was just thinking that I miss the Newton’s cut/paste.

Thought for sure Apple had a way already to do this and I just needed to read the manual.

Two steps forward, one step back.

Hope they listen to you!

There’s already a button on the keyboard that works for “Hold to select”. I use it all the time on my real keyboard, along with the “move the caret this way” interface provided with a keyboard.

Hold to select, drag caret past the text to be selected, then swap to the “text edit commands” keyboard containing such niceties as “Change case”, “Cut”, “Copy”, “Paste”, “Erase”.

Then, just select a spot in the text and double-tap to swap to the edit keyboard when you want to paste stuff.

No need to clutter up the UI with special-purpose buttons. That’s the Windows programmer mentality.

the interface isn’t the problem, its the fact that there’s no facility on the iPhone to share information between different apps, so unless you want to copy something and then paste right back where you copied it from it doesn’t matter how nice the interface is, its useless.

Your suggestion Rocks and is needed. Hopefully Apple will comply!

This sounds like an incredibly complicated way of doing a very simple task. What’s wrong with simply dragging your finger over the text you wish to highlight then having the Copy/Paste options at the bottom. Or double tap to select a word and triple tap to select all.

This idea is perfect. I’m typing this on my iPhone and while I knew the lack of cut/paste I find i’m missing it a lot more than I thought I would. If apple would add this I could do 90% of my blogging right from my iPhone.

this idea is exactly what I would prefer for my iphone!