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Understanding the icons on your iPhone screen


When I first started teaching computer software, in the 90s, I was surprised to find that many times I really couldn't explain why a particular icon looked the way it did. I was just used to using them, and when I clicked on them, certain things happened. Once I started teaching, and training, I stopped to take the time to look more closely at icons, and I still do.

An icon, by the way, is a little tiny visual representation of something, usually on a computer. Or it could be on the dashboard of a car, or anywhere that space is limited. And I will admit that many times they make no sense to me, I just know that a particular little squiggly shows where to turn on my windshield wipers, for example. And really, that's how most people do it. Very few people stop and ask what a particular icon is supposed to represent. But I do. And if you're curious, let's take a look at the icons on my iPhone this morning.

Starting at top left is a series of dots, some of which are white, some of which are just an outline. This indicates the strength of my signal from my cell phone carrier, which is Verizon. They used to be bars, but now they're circles. Don't ask me why. Next to that is the Wi-Fi icon. It's a series of curved radiating lines, which is supposed to represent how a Wi-Fi signal goes up into the air.  It's 7:39 AM, which is the time. The tiny little arrow (you can barely see it) that angles up to the right indicates that I have my location services turned on. Next to it is a very strange geometric symbol which indicates Blue Tooth, which is another way that devices like my phone communicate with other devices. I don't use that much. Next to it is the icon for the battery, which looks like one of those batteries that I never seemed to have enough of when I was a kid at Christmastime, along with the amount that it's charged. I turned on the number in Settings as I like to see more exactly. If you haven't done that, the battery will just show its charge by the amount of white in it (kind'a like those dots over there to the left).

On the next line is the icon for the App Store. App is short for "Application" which is a piece of software that is installed on your phone in order to do certain functions. All of the rest of the icons here are Apps. By the way, if you're wondering if I use the App store a lot, I don't. Its position as top left may may it seem important, but on a phone this is a poor location, well away from my thumbs, which are towards the bottom. That's why your most-used apps are towards the bottom, and if you're right-handed like me, the right. The A, aside from standing for App, is made up of a pencil, a paintbrush, a crossbar, and a circle.

Next to it is weather, which is shown as a sun behind a cloud against a blue sky. This one seems to make a lot of sense. Next to it is the clock, which shows an old-fashioned analog clock. The Google maps icon shows a lot of stuff - the G is for Google, the red thing is a pin (which you see when you are searching for something, and in general it shows some criss-cross stuff that is supposed to be a map.

On the next line is settings, which is exactly the same icon that I have on my desktop computer. I'm guessing it's a bunch of gears, like inside of a bicycle gear, but I'm not really sure. The Drive icon takes me to Google Drive, which is where I have my documents and my Google videos that I have downloaded. It's a triangle. I have no idea why. Me, I would have made it a "D", but no one asked me. The photos icon is just a series of overlapping colors. If you're old enough to remember when NBC introduced color broadcasting on TV, it's similar to the peacock's tail. The next icon is Facebook. This one makes sense.

On the next line down I have the app for Blogger. Although if you look at it a certain way it's a deformed pretzel, or maybe an outlet in a foreign country, I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be a B. The Google Earth app shows the world with white swirls around it, presumably clouds, the way that astronauts would see the world. The Music app shows two tied quarter notes. The G with a plus next it is Google+, which I use in addition to Facebook. It's Google social media site.

The next line shows a red triangle facing right, which is for YouTube. That's the play button that you have to push to watch a video. It's been a symbol for playing for a long time. I even remember that symbol on my old Walkman. The video icon is a "take one" slate. When a scene is shot for a movie, information is written on that, and someone opens and closes it and shouts "take one!" (or take-twenty seven, if they can't get their lines right). A "take" just means a fairly short amount of filming. The Messenger icon is the Facebook version of Messages. The icon is a cartoon word balloon encircling a lighting bolt - saying that you can send a message as fast as lighting. The blue G is for the Google app, which is a simplified way of searching for stuff on Google on your phone without having to deal with a browser.

On the next line is FaceTime, yet another video-based icon. This time instead of a play button, or a take one, they are showing an old-fashioned video camera. Next to to it is Crackle. They have chosen to have the word Crackle and the orange color that they use on their site, which is nice. It's a video site, and they may have run out of ideas for a video icon. The same with Netflix, another video site. Just the word Netflix. The icon next to it is for iBooks. The icon shows the pages of an old-fashioned paper book, opened and curving backwards slightly.

On the next line is Instagram, which shows an old-fashioned Instamatic camera. If you're old enough to remember these, you can an advantage. If not, it's just what these cameras looked like thirty years ago. I'm studying Spanish (which is a great thing to do in the spare time you always seem to have with your phone handy). Not sure if it's a green owl, or a squared-off parrot. I like to check my Adsense account, and that's the next one. The icon shows a blog, with the green thing being an ad. And next to it, at the premium position for the upper part of the screen is the icon for a camera. This is a 35 mm camera, and although people still use 35 mm camera, most people haven't used a camera of this shape for decades. I use the camera on my phone a lot.

At the very bottom are the most important apps on my phone, starting with my calendar. The icon is supposed to look like a calendar, where it's always the 31st, and you can view your calendar several ways. They actually have packed a lot of stuff into that tiny icon! Messages (not to be confused with Messenger above) is a cartoon word balloon. If you read as many comic books as I did as a kid, or the funnies in the paper, you know what that symbol means. It's for sending text messages, by the way. It would have been nice if it said "Text Messages", but again, no one asked me. The symbol for the phone is an old-fashioned hand-held phone. I've seen this shape of phone in movies, and at my grandma's house when I was a kid, and they're still pretty much this shape in businesses. And lastly, my email, which is InBox, shows an envelope with a checkmark on it. It would have been nice it the description was email, but it's not. If it were me, I would have put the name of the app on the icon, and the word email below it.

I hope you enjoyed this. I doubt whether anyone is gonna walk up to you on the street, grab you by the lapels, and demand that you explain the icons on your phone. And since so many icons are based on what things looked like years ago, many times young people, who are very comfortable using these icons, really have no idea what they're supposed to stand for. How many teenagers today have ever seen an Instamatic camera? They know what the icon for Instagram is, though! See what I mean? I suppose it would be like having an icon for a gramophone player? So if you're like me, and you're not a kid anymore, you actually have an advantage here, understanding how to use this technology. How about that?

OK, this took me about an hour to write on a Sunday morning. And since the icons on apps change suddenly, and for no apparent reason, this blog post may already be out of date. Aren't computers fun?