When I was sitting with some friends recently, we began talking about Apple’s introduction of the iPhone. We all felt that this product was one with much more promise than many we had seen in the last few years.
From the most straightforward view, the features in the iPhone have been available on the Dopod 838Pro has nearly all of the same hardware features, perhaps even more in that it has a second camera for video phone calls. (Where is that iSight camera on the iPhone anyway?)
What makes this device different?
There are three things:
1. The use of OSX – this choice empowers the device to be able to run Safari, mail and widgets. It continues to unify the Apple product line, not fragment it.
2. The use of a new consumer user interface (UI) and the deletion of so many buttons and choices (this was what we did about 16 years ago with Windows and 23 years ago with the first Mac and now we are doing it again).
3. The realization that Moore’s law concerning the scaling of silicon is continuing and this makes the possibilities of integration infinite.
Let’s explore these because it is these choices that make the iPhone a radical product, not the choice of camera, quad band GSM, EDGE or other hardware.
The decision to go with OSX was remarkable if only because no one else had done anything like this. Nokia has new versions of its “cell phone OS” (called UIQ or Symbian), and every time this evolves it leaves behind all of the legacy products.
[Aside: A group I work with programmed a Sony Ericsson P910i phone running the Nokia OS, and we could not work with the SD flash card as a storage device with a file system because this was lacking in the OS. But a few months later a newer generation of phones with different features added the ability to work with the flash card as a file system.]
The same thing applies to Palm-based phones and even Windows Mobile phones. Each of these operating systems are made for small mobile devices. But as silicon continues to have smaller transistors and we can therefore cram more and more onto chips, even a cell phone can have a powerful enough processor to run a PC-level OS. That compatibility gives this new iPhone a different soul. Not because of the chips but because of the OS.
In the same way, it seems to me that designers are always adding additional direct ways of doing things in a hope of making the device easier to use. The first IBM PC had “function keys” across the top of the keyboard … they are still there today! The belief is that extra specific keys is a way for people to be more efficient.
But in most human-based interactions we find a finite set of learned primitives, and then we combine them to achieve what we want – language, gestures, alphabets. By adding more and more keys and having combinations of keys, for example cntl + shift + F3, we end up having to memorize something that is only relevant here and from which we cannot springboard to a wider arena.
The use of gestures is the opposite. For example, on the Macintosh today you can do two-finger dragging to scroll a window up and down. If you are reading some text, like this essay, and what you are reading is at the bottom of the page on your laptop screen, you place two fingers instead of one down on the pad and slide them down and the window scrolls up. What do you think you do to get it to move left or right or up? See?
The second radical aspect of the iPhone is the introduction of a new set of gestures that the user makes with her fingers on the screen to accomplish most of the intended functions of the device. There are gestures (that we know from the iPhone demo) to magnify, fast scroll. My guess is there will be others. The approach that Apple is taking is no buttons, but rather a flexible touch screen with high graphical resolution. Ultimately flexible and open to a variety of gestures.
Finally, we have the device itself. In the next five years (remember the iPod was introduced about 5-6 years ago and we can see how far it has come!) silicon geometries will enable us to put the power, memory and communications of today’s best desktop and laptops in a device the size of the iPhone. What if it becomes the only computing device we own or need?
Thus we have a simple portable device which under some circumstances we hook up to big screens and full keyboards and other times we simply talk to it or use it to find out where we are. It is this kind of simplicity we are seeking. Not a simplicity of compromised performance but rather an uncompromised single device we use to improve our performance in the world of the future.
Is this so unthinkable? One reason this may happen is that computing could plateau for the individual user. The device stays the same size, with the same outline, and functional elements change more slowly and more in terms of performance rather generally capabilities.
This happened with the automobile around 1960. Speeds reached 70 mph (110 kph) and stayed there. The same is true with tires and other elements. The car you have today probably resembles the one you drove 20 years ago (unless you drive a hybrid).
Imagine the benefits of a single computing and communications device. A single, simple-to-carry thing to maintain and backup, applications and data always with you. Not bulky, nor a burden.
And how disruptive to most of the industry out there! Apple is slowly creating an entire platform that people can use throughout their lives – both for fun and work – organizing things for you seamlessly.
I am ready, and I suspect the renaming of Apple, Inc. indicates they are too.