(Disclaimer: I originally wrote this posting on January 12th after the launch of the iPhone and while I was traveling. I posted it a few days later (posting date) once I had the bandwidth to find the links and post)
It’s been a few days since the Apple’s announcement of their latest foray into the consumer electronics realm..the Apple iPhone (not to be confused with the Cisco iPhone). Those that know me well (especially any Product Manager that has ever worked with me…) know that I’m a stickler for design and usability. That being said, I fought the urge to be like every other technologist out there and write about the new iPhone. But, as I sat here tonight on a cross country flight, my mind kept creeping back to the iPhone. So I caved…
Sidebar: one of the most interesting things I found online about the iPhone was the iPhone Concept Blog. This blog has numerous postings from people who envisioned and mocked up the iPhone. There are both some truly uninspired entries as well as some that will beconsidered by other cell phone manufacturers for the inevitable slew of iPhone knock-offs.
First, some background info about me: At an average of 1500 minutes a month, I am a power cell phone user (don’t tell my wife, but I’ve estimated that some extreme months I’ve probably talked to my cell phone more than to her…hmm, can you say New Year’s resolution?). I have been a Palm user for almost 10 years now…and I have information in my palm that I can date back to 1997. I have also been a Palm Treo user for almost two years (and have gone through three of them).
As a review of an unreleased phone, I will break my thoughts on the iPhone into two categories: Design & Usability and Market Strategy.
Design & Usability
As no surprise to Apple fans, the iPhone looks to be a work of design art. And with over 200 patents filed for the phone, it is definitely setting some new usability records. Here are some of the aspects of the phone that jumped out at me the most:
Touch Screen: The sexiest thing about the iPhone is the touch screen. The new interface must be where the majority of Apple’s patents on the iPhone live. I can also see this being the biggest usability issue for people…especially power users. First, the lack of any tactile feedback could be a deal killer for a lot of people. Image trying to dial you phone while driving (and ideally keeping your eyes on the road…I know, call me crazy!). This was one of things that annoyed me the most with my Treo, luckily the Treo address book interface solved that problem by allowing me to jump to within a few entries of a person by typing in 2-3 character of their name. I don’t see that as being possible on the iPhone, you have to scroll around the phone to get to a name in the address book. The most obvious way for Apple to get around this would voice recognition capabilities; just say the persons name and phone finds the address book entry and/or dials the number. Honestly, I’m surprised this feature isn’t available on more cell phones (especially “smart” phones). If this feature doesn’t appear in the next iPhone (or as a software upgrade within a year) I will be shocked.
The touch screen also is shocking with regards to the text communication aspect of the phone. Have you ever tried typing on a soft keyboard (one that has no physical keys to it)? Not the easiest thing. Luckily it should be easier when “thumb typing” on a cell phone. Again, Apple is not the first to have this on a smart phone; there has been a project going on for a while on the Palm platform called thumbboard. I at least hope that the button sizes are large (or even better, configurable in size) on the iPhone. One of my biggest complains about smart phones, specifically my Treo, is the small buttons. Yes, I admit it…I have fat fingers. The number of mistakes I make on my Treo when typing a message is frustrating. If the iPhone misses this mark I will be shocked and saddened.
Expandability: The fact that the iPhone only comes in 4GB or 8GB capacity surprised me at first. I thought that a device designed to be an iPod/cell phone hybrid would need more storage than that for the music along. Then I looked at my 30GB iPod Video. I am only using a little over 5GB on it for 1140 songs and 51 videos (most of the videos are video podcasts that I find difficult to keep up on watching). Still, for a iPod fanatic even 8GB is going to be small. I’m surprised that they didn’t put in some sort of expansion capability into the iPhone. Every smart phone I can think of accepts expansion cards (typically for memory). It’s smart that Apple stuck with only flash memory (moving parts draw more power and fail faster …especially when you drop your phone…time and time again.). But to limit the phone to the built in memory is painful. Memory cards are now coming in 8GB and 16 GB (with only larger ones on the way). Why restrict your customer?
Durability: Speaking of dropping your cell phone–why do you think the average lifespan of my Treos are less than a year–I am concerned about the durability of the device. It didn’t take long before my iPod Video had numerous scratches across the screen with very light usage. Eventually I got smart and bought a protective case for it, but the feel of the device just wasn’t the same (nor was the cool factor). I am assuming the iPhone will be designed in a similar fashion. The metal band around the edge of the phone should help protect it, but for adequate protection most people will want to get some sort of cover for it. While this helps to spur the accessory market for the iPhone, it does hurt the cool factor. I wonder what type of protective case will come with the iPhone? I think it was the protective sleeve that came with my iPod Video that caused most of my original scratches.
Wireless Access: Providing Wi-Fi support is a great step forward. With the large screen, the phone is targeting internet access. If your within reach of a Wi-Fi hotspot, why not allow the user to use the faster connection? However, the lack of any forward looking capability like VOIP from the iPhone over the Wi-Fi is a bit surprising. VOIP cell phones are already appearing. So the lack of this capability makes the iPhone seem a bit behind the times on this capability. However, I expect you will hear about some VOIP (Skype?) capability for the iPhone within about 9-12 month of availability.
Support for data download over the cell network is a must; this is where the EDGE support comes in. What is surprising is that the choice of EDGE. According to Cingular themselves, EDGE is more than 5 times slower than the HSPDA technology. Additionally, HSPDA allows for both voice and data transfer at the same time (ever try talking to someone while looking something up on a web page or accessing an new email?). In Apple’s defense, EDGE is supported over a wider portion of Cingular’s network.
OS X Support: In some respects, what else would you expect the iPhone to run as an operating system but OS X. The cell phone market has been talking and working on Linux based cell phones for literally years and there are a number of them currently available. Since OS X is a derivative of Unix, this in it’s own right is not that impressive (just don’t say that to a Mac Fanatic). Seeing OS X be converted to run as an embedded OS is very interesting. This opens up the potential for OS X to be used in other places…I can image some Apple engineers working weekends to hack their Toyota Prius’ to run OS X!
The downside of OS X support is the lack of applications available for it. There will undoubtedly be a slew of OS X mini applications to run on the iPhone in the near future (assuming Apple provides a way to install them). This is one of the areas that Apple has succeed with OS X, embracing the Open Source community and the weekend coder. But it will be a while before any decent amount of business related applications appear for the OS X on the iPhone.
Sensors: The ability for the iPhone to sense its environment and adapt is hands down cool! With the wide display automatically switching perspectives based upon how you are holding is such an Apple design. Especially when you combine this feature with web browsing or email, it (should) increase the usability of the iPhone for both of those tasks considerably. The auto adjusting brightness also has potential. The key here is to see how it works in the real world. Laptops still aren’t able to be used in really bright light…and trying to just eats up the battery.
Camera: Of course every cell phone has to have a camera in it today. A fact that I only partly understand (as a avid photographer, there have been very few times that I have ever really needed to use the camera on my cell phone…). Apple places the new standard in cell phone cameras in the iPhone: 2.0 megapixel. Again, there are cell phone cameras on their way to market (and might arrive before the iPhone) that are pushing 3.2 megapixels.
Now, what would have been up to the Apple design standards is if the camera on the iPhone was facing the same direction as the screen (or rotatable). Next add the right software and you have video conferencing on your cell phone. (I remember a sci-fi television series by Gene Rodenberry where video cell phone with cool roll-up screens were a normal item in this future world…we could have had that in the iPhone, except without the roll-up screen.) Maybe some Apple engineer will stumble across this posting and make it happen.
Apple’s Market Strategy with the iPhone is both expected as well as confusing. It’s expected in the fact that the Apple has made it clear that their focus is on the consumer electronics’ marketplace (the old Apple devotee did enjoy the way Steve Jobs stole the show from Bill Gates down at CES). What is surprising in that Apple is still ignoring the business market.
With regards to the consumer market, there are a number of aspects of the iPhone that I feel will hurt it’s acceptance. Lack of expandability might have some small impact, but not much. Initial support for only Cingular could hurt some initial buyers, but again I think marginally. Mostly, it’s the issue about the battery uncertainness, durability, tactile feedback, software support and high cost ($500-$600) that will limit the acceptance. Of course there will be the rash of buyers with high disposable incomes who have to follow the trends with the latest and greatest whatever along with the Apple devotees. The interesting thing to watch will be if and how quickly the spike of initial buyers will taper off (assuming it does).
I’m predicting that the iPhone will not make any noticeable impact into the business smart phone market. The fact that there is no business software (yet) for the iPhone is the key hold back. Most companies live off of the Blackberry or GoodLink services for email (some have generic VPN mail access directly from the phone). None of that is available for the phone yet. The fact that most business’ mail servers are not located outside of the firewall limits the usability of the phone for business email, still the key driver for business smart phones. Thought I’m sure there will be some interest from companies that have moved to web based apps, the iPhone could be best platform for mobile access to them…especially if the browser “zoom” feature works as shown on the Apple website. The browser zoom feature smartly solves the problem of surfing the web on a small screen.
In the end, while the old time Apple devotee in me would love to have an iPhone, the more pragmatic business technologist needs more out of it than what’s there right now to justify the time and energy to move to a new platform. But I will be keeping my eye on it.