How Apple designed text selection for the iPhone

How text selection came to the iPhone

The original iPhone infamously shipped without cut, copy, and paste functionality, or any form of text selection. It was on Apple's list of things to do, but it took them a while to get it right. That was iPhone OS 3.0, and the man who helped make it a reality was Bas Ording. Cult of Mac:

"The idea that we struck upon was having handles at the beginning and end of the text selection that the user would be able to move around," Ording continues. "Some people called them 'lollypop sticks' and we played around with a bunch of different ideas [regarding] how best to do them. It started out with much larger visible handles. We ended up making them smaller and smaller, until they were just dots. You see, it turns out your fingers are actually pretty precise. If there's a grain of sand on your desk, you can easily target it despite it being a tiny dot. On-screen the dots are small, but in software the invisible active area is much larger, so they're easy to grab."

Since then a lot of other stuff, including font styling, definitions, and even image insertion has all been crammed into the text selection popup menu. The interview with Ording is an interesting read, so check it out and then let me know — how happy are you with how text selection is handled on iOS? It's been over 4 years now, is it still as good as ever, or does it need to evolve further?

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

How Apple designed text selection for the iPhone


I love text selection for iOS. That's never been a sore spot with me.

But what IS a sore spot is this dang on auto correct. It's the bane of my existence. >__<

Text selection on iPad felt passable but on iPhone has always been awful for me due to screen size. Hopefully a bigger iPhone brings a better experience.

You’re very welcome!;)
I do believe Vesper is going to be quite a killer little app when it will start synching with other devices...

C'mon admit it. While reading the article you highlighted a word just to see the lollipop sticks.

I did.

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Since iOS 7, at least on iPhones/iPods, the popup menu is now vertically too close to the beginning Lollypop. So when you want to move the start of the selected text, it is all too easy to choose Copy instead.

Also, the "Magnifying Glass" that appears when you long press text is next to useless for text near the top of the screen, like the URL bar in Safari.

Er, tough loss for Apple. Bas Ording has done a huge amount of UI work for Apple, from OS X to iOS. Hopefully the next man up is just as capable.

I loved it until I found "swipe selection" jailbreak tweak. Its about time Apple implements this feature or similar so I don't have to lift my finger up and press and hold for lollipop to come and then drag around. What swipe selection allows me to do is swipe on the keyboard right to left to move the insertion point to left and it works well and much faster!

That is a great tweak. In some ways it really is better/easier, especially when I want to move the cursor to a specific area to add or correct something.
Perhaps Apple could add some height to the keyboard to provide different options for contextual functions. At the very least the iPad keyboard in its current form has room to grow (^ that is), perhaps a larger screened iPhone could as well. Possibly even mesh some of the better implementations of other keyboards from various sources.

It took Apple two years to implement text selection on the iPhone because they knew it would become the new standard, and would be in use for dozens of years. Apple introduced the world to the X, C, V keyboard shortcuts for cut copy and paste more than 30 years ago!

You can keep on believing that if you'd like.. The reality was the concept of a clipboard interfered with Apple's sandbox approach to apps. I have yet to see a new "standard" outside of the iPhone that didn't already exist prior to Apple adding it to the iPhone.

I like the way the text selection is set up with iOS 7. I don't see the need to change it.

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I like the way text selection works in iOS. The irony is that Vesper - the app in the article pic - is still a bit broken when it comes to text selection. They fixed it a bit in the last update, but the Magnifying Glass still doesn't scroll up in long notes. Fingers crossed for the next update.

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I remember it was a cydia tweak called 'Clippy' that introduced this on iOS 2. I am curious in how much Apple was inspired by it. For me it was the main reason to jump from Nokia Communicator to iPhone. I couldn't live without copy/paste functions.