select all

The Week Apple Broke the Alphabet

The past week summed up in one photo.

My sixth-grade English teacher was fond of marking up my paragraphs with angry red notes about my overuse of the personal “I” in formal writing. This week, she got some validation when my iPhone decided that I no longer needed to be able to type I at all. Instead, thanks to an iOS 11 glitch that affected users around the world, anytime I tried to type I, my device replaced it with a capital A and a question mark in a square symbol.

And so, for a week, my iMessages — and Instagram comments and Twitter DMs and any other of the dozens of ways my friends and colleagues and I communicate via my phone — have been full of people unable to type a lowercase i. “My hairdresser just told me A � need to find a nice boy 🤦🏻‍♀️😑,” one friend texted. “Sorry A � missed you during the marathon,” I apologized to another.

Apple, to its credit, offered a hilariously elaborate work-around to the problem almost immediately: Create a text-replacement shortcut that would force the phone to turn a lowercase i into an uppercase I instead of the weird symbol, almost like a reminder to your phone that the letter i exists. I didn’t bother, assuming — wrongly — that the fix from Apple would arrive quickly.

It didn’t. For nearly a week, the word I barely crossed my iPhone, as though it had been excised from the alphabet forever. And, honestly, it didn’t matter. The glitch was frustrating and confusing for the first few minutes I encountered it — and from then on it was fine. I never bothered to explain or to apologize each time I texted or tweeted with an errant symbol. Not even to my most tech-challenged friends. Nobody did. We all just used context clues — another favorite phrase of my sixth-grade English teacher — and rolled with it. Oh, hmm, weird. Okay, I guess this is just how things are now.

This isn’t surprising: Semiotically, i doesn’t have to look like i for people to understand what you mean. The key in this case was ensuring that enough people using and recognizing the new symbol gave it the denotation its predecessor had. And the hundreds of millions of people who use iPhones — encompassing most of my friends — are more than enough to enforce a new letter in the alphabet. Once we collectively decided we didn’t need i that was it. We really didn’t need it anymore.

The thing is, though, we didn’t really decide anything. Our phones did. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber reports that he’s heard it was “a machine learning problem — that, more or less, for some reason the machine learning algorithm for autocorrect was learning something it never should have learned.” Our phones had decided that “A �” was better — more accurate? — than i, and we just rolled with it.

This time it was accidental, a bad bit of code that sent Apple scurrying to fix an obvious issue. But it’s not that difficult to imagine a different scenario — an intentional change, a more subtle issue — that affects the way we talk in a deeper and more lasting way. For many of us, basic day-to-day communication is entirely wrapped up in Apple’s software environment — its devices, its operating systems, its ubiquity. The thought of extricating ourselves from the Jobs-Cook ecosystem is out of the question; the very thought of trying makes me tired. Instead, we adapt and move on. We did it when Apple removed the floppy disk from its computers and the headphone jack from its phones. Why wouldn’t we do it for the alphabet, too? Surely there’s a letter than offends Apple designer Jony Ive’s delicate aesthetic sensibility. Maybe he should just get rid of it. After all, it’s Apple’s world and A � am just living in it.

The Week Apple Broke the Alphabet