03 July 2007

Of Course it's the UI!

The Fly makes a quick mention of his first live iPhone experience, and he comments as follows:

I got my hands on an actual iPhone over the weekend, and I'm now buying into the hype. It's not so much the phone itself that deserves the hype as the UI.

My response: of course, of course, of course. Most of the critics and some of the fans miss the point: the iPhone doesn't really perform all that many functions not already performed by other phones. That's not why it's important - indeed, revolutionary.

Remember, it's not as if the original Macintosh was so amazing because it ran applications or performed functions that no computer had ever performed. It did pretty much the same stuff as an IBM machine running early DOS did. It's how it did it. And the how effects the who and the future what. (I'm thinking of Trademarking the 'future what'.) Because of the way the Mac did what it did (because of the mouse and the GUI) the personal computer revolution was possible. Now almost everyone uses computers, and they use them to do things almost unimaginable 25 years ago.

With the iPhone all this means that so-called smartphones that were once the preserve of geeks and Business-Types (different kind of geeks), will go mainstream (but please let us hope we stop calling them 'smartphones'). The device is revolutionary because at a certain point down the road everyone will think it is normal and necessary to check your email, surf the web, and watch a movie on your 'phone'. And we will do all sorts of other things on our 'phone' that I can't really think up right now, but with the iPhone UI in place I'm confident that lots of other clever people will think up.

I also wonder if we can't speculate about the iPhone and its followers in their capacity to eventually encroach on the laptop market. For people that don't write a ton of text, there will no longer be any reason to have the laptop with them when they go places. It's thus conceivable that the iPhone will replace the personal computer for many people for many tasks.

Much of this gets lost in the hype, because the hype focuses so much on marketing, sales, and money, on the one hand, and on the personal consumer choice to buy an iPhone, on the other. But the revolution that the iPhone is launching will go ahead whether or not Apple makes billions of dollars on it, and it will go ahead whether or not your or I buy an iPhone. Most importantly, these three dimensions (1. Apple sales 2. consumer choice 3. revolutionary status) must be separated when judging the iPhone. I can only speculate wildly about the first as I don't know the ins and outs of the phone market, of Apple's business model, etc. I'm sure Ryan could give us a guess that is much better educated. My guess is that they will make tons of money, but there are a million ways that they might not. And I want them to make money simply so that Steve Jobs can invest it in the next great thing he's dreaming up. As for the second, I doubt I'll buy an iPhone within the next 8 months, as I don't want to pay the price premium, and as I remarked earlier, my current uses for such a device are extremely limited. I know that the fly won't buy one within the year, and I'm sure that many people's parents will never buy one.

But I'm confident about number 3. One day in the future folks will wonder how all of us ever got on with life without the ability to tap and pinch and drag our fingers on our 'phones'. (Also be sure to check out Dan's great iPhone-related entries, here, and here. It's probably not my place to out the guy, but I have to tell you: 12 months ago he'd never even owned a Mac.)


tekne said...

this is, I believe, McLuhan's point as well: the medium is the message. the frame is what orients our understanding/experience towards something new...the UI is the electric light, man.

[there are three lights!]

Transient Gadfly said...

The combination of iPhone and some sort of ubiquitous touch-screen docking station would pretty much kill the laptop. And probably the computer in general. Maybe I should say "will" instead of "would."

I'm buying stock in the first company that figures out high-speed wireless internet to go along with the iPhone or its equivalent.

fronesis said...


Do you mean some sort of new-fangled 'high-speed wireless internet' that I can't quite wrap my mind around?

Because 3G mobile network data speeds are already very much 'high speed' and very much 'wireless'. And the winds of rumour tell us that the European iPhone will be 3G.

Ruth said...

So, this is what I want in life. Very, very, badly:

A fairly large (say, 12x12 -- or 30x30 for you metric types) touchscreen mapreader. I say "mapreader" rather than "GPS," because although the "you are here" feature would be a nice add-on, what I mostly want is the actual map display. Instantly and easily rescalable, as well as turnable (for when I really get confused about which way I'm heading).

A Google Earth-type overlay of roadmaps with satellite photos would be nice -- as would the Google Earth points of interest, etc. Hell -- even just the points of interest endlessly featured on my existing paper atlases -- but with one-touch dialog-box pop-ups that give me actual information about them (so that I don't have to, say, scratch my head over the cryptic "Crash Hill (Oct. 3 1956)" notation on my Newfoundland and Laborador map, and wait until I get back home, thousands of miles away, to do the research to find out what "Crash Hill" was. Oh -- and that high-speed internet access to allow me to look up slightly less obvious sites (as in: "there's a small liberal arts college in this charming seacoast town? How delightful! What's it like? Is it hiring?").

Some of the iphone features -- "call ahead to this B&B I've just discovered exists 50 k up the road, and see if they've got a room" -- would also be nice -- although in a pinch, I really don't mind picking up a separate phone to do it.

Five years ago, this would have been pie-in-the-sky dreaming. Today, it's technological reality. Unfortunately, it may not be marketplace reality, as every GPS system I've seen is clearly designed with someone other than me in mind: tiny screens, strangely angled map views, instructions on how to get someplace, rather than the raw tools needed to select a route yourself. I'm both excited by the possibilities, and saddened by my sense that everyone just wants to be a Tom-Tom.

Is there any hope for me?

Jack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack said...

Put my hand to an iPhone today and I must agree that the UI is the thing. The finger stroking and pinching is nice, though I'm looking forward to Freudian interpretations of iPhone finger usage. The turn the phone to change webpage perspective is amazing. Perhaps I'm just too much of a non-techie, but I didn't even have to touch a little button on the screen, just rotate and voila.

I will say that the revolution will be hampered in the US by the lack of reliable high-speed wireless connectivity just about anywhere but in major cities. I'm presently in a small city in Northern Illinois and I saw the phone in a AT&T store and the download time for a webpage on google was so long that I simply gave up waiting. If they can't guarantee good signal in a AT&T store, there's no hope for someone outside the store.

Having just left Taiwan, the revolution there, and probably in Japan, will be swift and furious. There were already several copycat devices for sale in Taiwan. I never saw any of them in use and don't know what the UI was like, but they are away of the coming tide and trying to ride it into the promised land. At ground level in Taibei you have complete high speed digital coverage for cell-phone. They even have repeater stations in the subway so that you can start you're call above ground, walk down 30' underground, get on the train, hurtle along at high speed in the tunnel and never once lose a single word. Very impressive. Of course, once you get out of the subway you have to walk out into 35C weather with 80% humidity. It does tend to make you want to stay underground all summer long.