iPhone’s missing killer app: social networking
The reviews are in, hundreds of thousands of proud iPhone owners are playing with their brand new toys over the July 4th weekend. The hype has been (very) high, but the wonderful internet resources of today – digg.com, google, mac forums, youtube, etc – have responded with expediency in weighing the pros and cons of Apple’s foray into mobile platforms. This in addition of course to more traditional reviews and commentary such as those by Walt Mossberg at WSJ, David Pogue and John Markoff at NYT, and Steven Levy at Newsweek.
So we know the industrial design is solid from PC World’s harsh testing, the guys over at ifixit.com have taken it apart, over at macrumors.com literally hundreds of reviews are looking at the device from all angles, and several wikis have been started (at least five by my latest count). Smash has documented the 10 things that suck, we now know that it wasn’t a sellout (except at the poor smaller AT&T stores), and that the poorly recessed headphone plug doesn’t work with most 3rd party headsets. The inevitable mobile phone pundits have compared it with the N95, Blackjack, Curve 830, and Treo, AT&T accumulated some bad press with all the activation issues, and predictably all manner of opinion abounds about the lack of a tactile keyboard.
People have even dissected precisely how the design of the iPhone has changed since Jobs presented it at MacWorld in January. Not to mention sites that assemble a COMPLETE gallery of every single user interface aspect (I’m not even linking to that).
Steve Jobs is positioning the iPhone as the third leg of their strategy chair. He is saying that the iPhone will reinvent the notion of a cell phone in the way that the Macintosh reinvented the notion of a computer.
I disagree. I don’t think the iPhone fundamentally innovates over and above the existing offerings, in the manner that the iPod, the Macintosh, and the Apple II all did in their day.
The iPhone is AWESOME
Before I start slamming the iPhone, let me make one thing clear up front. It is a fantastic device. I am in love with it.
In fact, I happily engaged in iFriday together with many other tech enthusiasts in the bay area. I drove to several stores during the day, including stopping by Valley Fair and interviewing The Woz (I might make a YouTube posting with that). I set up and managed the bay area twitter group, and all day and evening we messaged each other with updates on the lines etc.
Thanks to technology like Google Earth and speed dialing on my (Sprint) Treo, I found the one AT&T store with a really short line as late as 2:30 pm. I was in the first batch of customers let in through the doors, and I bought my iPhone at 6:15 pm. My MacBook Pro was prepared with the iTunes patch, there was free wifi in that neighborhood, so I sat down outside the AT&T store to hook up and activate my phone. Amazingly, lots of people came out of the line to photograph me (!) to send to their friends. Before 7 pm I had my new AT&T number, and was syncing contacts, videos, music, etc.
Much of this blog posting was in fact written before iFriday. But I didn’t want to post anything until I had had some serious quality time to play around with a production version of this new marvel.
And as far as I’m concerned, I love it. I’m already buying more music and videos. And I’m busy discovering all sort of nifty things. Like in the kitchen – I finally can listen to loud music without risking not hearing the egg timer! Yeah, it’s got an egg timer built in, and it will (obviously) pause the iPod music when the alarm goes off.
The YouTube integration is excellent – I’ve watched more YouTube in the past 72 hours than since YouTube launched. It’s an excellent night digital book reader. Web pages that are specially designed for the iPhone are popping up all over. The web browser works great; I can actually read news extensively on this device. The photo album function is the first one in a portable device that I have used to show other people pictures of my kids. The battery behavior is incredible – I can watch hours of video and the battery is still over half full.
I even did a few hours of “operate with one hand while driving” testing. With a little practice it was straight forward to bring up Google Maps to where I was, enter a search for some nearby business keyword, select a business, and hit the “dial” button on the contact info. All with one hand, and all while at the same time the iPod part of the phone was dishing out great music.
So before the Apple stalwarts start flaming me in the comments section, let it be known that Peter Loves the iPhone. Truly. Any technology enthusiast needs to get this. And don’t even get me started on the quality of the industrial design. This thing is a work of heart.
Apple Doesn’t Get Social Networking
Ok. With that out of my system I can get back to slamming Apple.
Here’s my theory. Apple can only do really interesting products if Steve Jobs understands the end user. And Jobs does not understand the 21st century computer usage paradigm. In this century, people don’t send memos to each other. And that’s what email is – electronic memos.
Today, people chat; they blog; they share multimedia like pictures, video, and audio; they flame each other on forums; they link with each other in intricate webs; they swap effortlessly between different electronic personae and avatars; they listen to internet radio; they vote on this that and the other; they argue on wiki discussion groups.
At it’s heart, the iPhone is a projection of the original vision of bringing clunky desktop applications like email, contact databases, to-do lists, telephones, note taking, and web browsing to the palm of your hand. Because that is essentially Steve Job’s generation – transitioning from the mainframe office environment to the PC-based office. Jobs can’t quite get rid of the notion that a mobile device is nothing but a really small personal computer.
For example (and boy are there many examples), there is an ENTIRE distinct widget (or whatever it’s called) for tracking stocks!
Yeah, the internet generation really spend a lot of time checking their stocks. My eight-year-old actually does own gold, but it’s in the bank in Ironforge, not on ETrade.
(Oh, yeah, there’s SMS. And it’s actually labeled “SMS”.)
Meanwhile, outside Apple’s reality distortion field …
There are a couple of Big New Things going on in the tech space that Apple (and Microsoft and many others for that matter) have by and large not understood. First there’s grid computing and related things like virtualization. Then there’s this whole web 2.0 thing. Then there’s mobile platforms. And lastly there’s the whole digital entertainment thing, which is sort of half old news and half new news.
Now, Apple seems to be getting it mostly right only in the digital entertainment side. They’re leveraging the Web 2.0 thing mostly as a side effect of simply having the best unix-like development platform. They didn’t plan that, it just sort of happened that way since Apple failed at one attempt after another to do their own OS and finally decided to do yet another Unix. (Well, technically they bought it, and anyway it’s a good thing that they did.) The grid computing side they’ve missed entirely since they insist on being vertically integrated.
The iPhone, of course, is intended as their mobile platform play, leveraging off their strengths on the desktop and in digital entertainment. As quoted above, the “third leg” in their strategy. Let’s have a look at those strengths.
Flashback. The original iPod (released in October of 2001) had a couple of key things going for it. Everybody emphasizes “ease of use” to explain the iPod success, but that’s a cop-out. It was more subtle than that. I bought the very first iPod and remember clearly the key technology strengths at the time, namely:
- It was hard-drive based, 5G, allowing a significant number of songs (on the order of 1000). iPod wasn’t first with a hard drive, but the alternatives were really clunky. At the time, the best flash-best players had 128M. That’s a big difference.
- The interface was Firewire and not USB. Remember, this was way before USB 2.0. Thanks to Intel and others not wanting to pay Apple $1 in royalties for Firewire, the users were doomed to slow serial interfaces for many years. Firewire was standard on Macs, and FW400 (as it’s now referred to) is MUCH faster than USB 1.x.
- The software on the “server” side (laptop/desktop) was excellent. Other consumer players like Sony simply did not know how to write software for PCs (or Macs for that matter). There was nothing remotely like the rip/mix/burn paradigm as clearly evident in any other app.
- The iPod had a small number of useful productivity applications as part of it’s OS – a clock, some games, and some other tools; these quickly fleshed out to include contacts and calendar support. Not to mention early FAT32 support. This distinctly added to the value.
- Yes, a very easy-to-use interface. Most importantly, it was responsive, and was designed to actually help you deal with the notion of 1000 or more songs on your device.
There were all sorts of other aspects as well that helped Apple. For example, Intel was actually one of the strongest contenders for the mp3 market at the time, with products like the Intel Pocket Concert. But the usual corporate screw-ups at always-asleep-at-the-wheel Intel decided around then that that was a good time to shut down the home electronics division (!).
Plus Apple did lots of small, but important stuff, right, like supporting a wide range of audio formats; and they were reasonably quick with supporting PCs.
And of course, their next big strategic step, the iTunes Store, which opened in April 2003, was very well executed.
The point is, these were Really Significant Advancements. Apple invented the space of the premium portable music playing device. I could do a similar analysis for the Macintosh and, before that, the Apple II.
Social Networking and the Mobile Platform
Ok let’s flash forward again to iFriday, when the iPhone, accompanied by almost hysterical media interest, made it’s US debut. Enough had leaked about the device, and enough major media players had been permitted to publish extensive reviews prior to release, that it was pretty straight-forward to size up the product before you got it in hand.
What struck me already from the early reviews was that Apple seems to fundamentally not understand social networking, and the potential that a brand new mobile platform could have for that. It’s a generational thing, I guess. Steve is even older than I am, and I’m having a real hard time keeping up with the times. Plus he’s busier than I am.
Unless you’ve been spending time with all the new communication flavors out there – stuff like Flickr, Twitter, Myspace, Facebook, last.fm, the RSS universe, etc etc – you won’t notice the egregious strategic blunder that Apple is in the midst of making. The mainstream reviewers certainly haven’t picked up on it.
The thing is, the use of mobile devices for social networking is something that has been forced into the current platforms out there. There are all sorts of obscure ways to leverage text messaging infrastructure to support higher semantic notions like chat rooms, instant messaging, bulletin boards, classifieds, etc.
I was actually in the room when Steven Jobs first announced the iPhone at Macworld earlier this year. I was immediately struck by his emphasis of desktop/iPod-oriented features; using the telephone, using the calendar, todo lists, listening to music. That’s the stuff the 1990s generation did, and they do it on their desktops. The 21st century kids – and workers! – have other frameworks. They chat; they blog; they share their music playlists; they listen to internet radio; they play text RPG-like games on wikis; they argue on bulletin boards; they exchange pictures and phone/webcam videos; they watch youtube; they post video responses to youtube.
The new generation doesn’t use the phone. They don’t call somebody to discuss a document. They just change the wiki entry and they know any subscribers to changes will be notified. They chat. They update their emo trackers with mood and location like “wd market, nw” [walking down market, nice weather]; and so forth.
Yeah, they got youtube. But only because Google had bought them. And you can’t post to youtube from the iPhone. Even if you could post, you can’t actually make a video with the iPhone.
You can’t even leave a friggin comment on the youtube service.
So why was the iPod different? Very simple: Steve Jobs actually understands music and related technologies. He’s an artsy guy. He’s even known to have a real good musical ear. That’s why the iPod was awesome. Jobs actually understood the target customer.
Ah well. What could have been…
What the iPhone would have looked like if I was Steve Jobs
Social networking would have been front and center. It would have been a social networking device from the ground up. One that – oh, by the way – can also be used as a “telephone” or a “web browser” (yawn). And of course as an iPod and a video player etc.
It would have supported dozens of social networking concepts from the get-go. iTunes would have been expanded to take your user name and passwords for major social networking services, and then it would just suck down all the meta data it needs for the corresponding functions to work on your device.
Or, perhaps even better, Apple would roll out it’s own Web 2.0 alternatives, ones that are fully coordinated with the Mac, with iTunes, with iPods, and with the iPhone.
Photos would automatically sync with your selected photo sharing device. Instant messaging would manage multiple groups and friend lists on top of SMS, hiding control data in SMS messages from you and just showing the socially relevant data.
Location-aware signaling would be built it. The phone would sense if you were in your favorite coffee shop and flag that to friends.
The wifi software would support peer-to-peer; it would let you know what people in your vicinity are listening to; it would include a bunch of multiplayer games that you can play right away with friends (or strangers!) in your vicinity. Or anywhere! In fact, it might include traditional games like chess with direct support for a global iPhone chess ranking.
Calendar would sync with online services, not wait to be connected with a big, ugly PC. It would be extended to support stuff like movies, shows, bands, local events, etc.
Video, of course, with automatic syncing with my own location on the web for storing and editing them.
Messaging would be integrated into a single view, with iconic/font/color indicators to separate news items, blog entries, text messages, chats, etc. You have full control to organize all the streaming sources into one or more distinct “pages”.
My own personal web page would be set up and be accessible from the phone or anywhere else. My own blog, of course, with direct in-phone support for updates; plus simple options for making my location visible to friends. Maybe even share on my blog my 10 most played iTunes songs during the past 72 hours.
Personal podcasting would be seamless. In fact I can stream my audio to my web site to friends who want to listen. Group (buddy) audio conferencing would be easy, and would be separate from the notion of “calling a phone number”.
There would be an official Apple iPhone wiki that all iPhone owners are immediately subscribed to for communal sorting-out of issues.
There would be official Apple iPhone support forums that are directly accessible from the phone.
The Google Maps function would plot all the iPhone owners with a little red dot; you can click on the dot to send a message to them. Or click on yourself to make a “talk” comment that nearby iPhone owners can “hear”. Or click twice on “yourself” to “shout” to iPhone owners that are within a few miles. A simple “/ignore” function would allow you to silence pesky shouters.
Etc. You get the picture.
But seriously. All of the crazy and not-so-crazy ideas above would not make sense to have in a single device; or at least it wouldn’t be practical to figure out how to integrate everything in time for a 1.0 release.
Now, with lots of enterprising people out there, it’s possible the iPhone will be pushed in the right direction (people like iPLing are already showing the way). It’s not as if the other cell phone manufacturers are ahead of Apple. At this point, the iPhone is simply an (excellent) embodiment of the desktop computing paradigm, adjusted as well as can be expected to a 3.5 inch touch-sensitive screen with no keyboard.
Which is wonderful. And I love it. And it’s not a bad starting point.
But, as opposed to iPod, Macintosh, and the Apple II, at this juncture the iPhone is not a vision of the future for mobile devices.
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