Yesterday, Steve Jobs and Apple, Inc. unveiled the iPhone. It’s the most important mobile technology release in years, and I believe it will have an impact on the portable computing landscape for more than a decade to come.
What’s in an iPhone?
From a hardware perspective, the iPhone isn’t absolutely breakthrough in any one single way. It’s a GSM mobile phone, a music and video playback device and a portable computing platform. All of these are technologies taken apart are established if not mature, in the form of smart phones, iPods and laptops. But of course no one has ever come even close to combining all of them into one device, let alone demonstrating the requisite engineering, design, and user interface innovations necessary to make it an intuitive and effective experience.
At the end of this piece in TIME magazine, Apple’s Jonathan Ive said,
I think there’s almost a belligerence—people are frustrated with their manufactured environment…we tend to assume the problem is with us, and not with the products we’re trying to use.
Far too many device manufacturers have been taking people’s frustrations for granted. I’ve only tolerated mobile phones in my life, I’ve never genuinely enjoyed a single one. The iPhone may just be the device I’ve been dreaming of for 4 years: WiFi, bluetooth, high-speed mobile connectivity, a full OS, slick media playback capabilities and all in a sexy package. Perhaps I can finally put my broken-record complaints to rest, and a few lucky people with iPhones can stop blaming themselves for not “getting” poorly implemented technology.
Why the iPhone Really is Revolutionary
Every mobile phone in existence today has a marginal interface at best, marginal controls, and a feature set that’s crippled. Even Windows Mobile I find frustratingly constrictive in use on modern devices like Qs and Treos.
A Re-thought Interface
Apple has broken down the walls of conventional mobile phone building by starting with an interface not built on buttons—nearly every bit of it is touch based. They call it Multi-touch. Multi-touch is unproven in the hands of the consumer, but it demonstrates the lack of real innovation in the mobile device market in the past three years. Handsets are progressively slimming and increasing in power, but the most popular mobile in the country, the RAZR, is novel only for a appealing form-factor.
The interface concepts demonstrated by the iPhone will haunt the thoughts of mobile device manufacturers for years.
A Full OS
Apple has promised a full OSX implementation. This doesn’t mean an identical interface of course, but the OSX kernel will be running on the iPhone. Conventional thinking was that this couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be done with a small computing device, considering limits in processing power and battery life. A complete operating system opens up the functionality in robust applications, not just miniaturized utilities that have become the norm on many handsets.
A Full Browser
The biggest benefactor of a full OSX kernel on an iPhone is undoubtedly Safari, Apple’s web browser. Safari on an iPhone allows full page web browsing. If it truly allows easy scaling and the device can process complex web applications smoothly, in one swoop Apple may have called into question the entirety of WAP, the protocol that allows internet access in many conventional mobile phones.
Again, this one new device calls into question the way web content has been delivered to millions of phones every day for years. How’s that for revolutionary?
Will the iPhone be a Walled Garden?
Before I’m accused of chugging the Cupertino Kool-Aid, I do have to bring up what I believe is the single biggest question left outstanding on the iPhone: Will it be open?
Many mobile experiences today are defined by content provided by specific vendors through fixed channels. No choice, no flexibility. Verizon’s Vcast comes to mind, like AOL all over again. We already know the iPhone will be an iPod, and even though an iPod is still the exclusive player for iTunes Music Store protected AAC files, it will still play standard MP3s and properly encoded un-DRM’ed video (H.264).
But what about applications on the iPhone? Will users be able to install non-authorized widgets, or create their own without delivering them to an iPhone with Apple’s blessing? Will 3rd party games and applications make their way into the Apple ecosystem? I believe the iPhone can still be an effective device even if the OS is constrained, but that it would be a much more compelling tool as an open system.
My hope is that Apple will offer a route for user-created widgets (as they do now for OSX), and create an application delivery mechanism for 3rd party programs. Any game or productivity app could be verified/registered through Apple, and Apple could take a cut of any proceeds. It may lessen the burden of support that would undoubtedly increase on an “opened” OS, but still have the power of user-created projects and 3rd party development—all while creating an additional revenue stream. It seems a decent compromise.
Make a great device, open up the platform, and watch the world of mobile technology scurry to keep pace. June has never seemed so far away.