is the iPhone really that special?

18 January 2007, 11:22

Last week Apple introduced the iPhone. A day later, at the CES in Las Vegas—worlds largest consumer electronics show, where Apple is conspicuously absent—everybody is talking about only one topic: the iPhone.

Meanwhile on the iXda mailing list there is a thread of 120+ (!) emails, where a faction argues that there is nothing revolutionary about the iPhone. Just regular evolution in mobile phones, reached through UI ingredients that some of us prototyped a decade ago.

iPhone: bombshell or pure hype, who is right?

‘but… you have seen all this before, no?’

True, nine years ago I was part of a mobile phone manufacturer’s UI team that was dabbling with touch‐screen input for a production prototype.

And being the interaction architect of a sprawling family of mobile phone applications, factory‐installed on about 400 million Nokia phones, some of them dealing with music and email, I have worked on just about the whole spectrum that the iPhone covers.

Yet as I followed Steve’s keynote live, via the usual suspect channels, I had to ask myself why I, like most people, was so exited by the iPhone.

‘so tell us what you really think’

First of all, they had the guts to go ahead with no‐button, all‐touch‐screen interaction hardware. The hi‐res display (in pixels: 78% of the original Macintosh display) and the state of the art touch‐screen are an integrated part of this strategy.

There are risks involved in getting rid of nearly all hardware buttons. But after unceremoniously getting rid of the qwerty keyboard, the dial pad and the click wheel (!), the interaction folks at Apple really make use of all that screen real‐estate and the opportunity to interact hands‐on everywhere.

So for instance while in call, the options for hold and conference handling are big, visible and directly accessible on the screen. That is a big enabler for getting features actually used.

There are a couple of other things that really stand out:

  • showing SMS as conversations, like gmail. When is this coming to an email application?
  • seeing an overview of your voicemail messages, and random access to them;
  • the device knows whether it is held portrait or landscape, and acts accordingly;
  • a mobile web browser that does not look handicapped: normal size web pages, zoom in to read the text.

‘any complaints?’

There is a nagging lack of integration. Voice, sms and email messages are all accessed through different departments. In the on‐stage demo, the email address of Phil Schiller had to be fetched from the address book, although he was identified as being currently in‐call with Steve.

The iPhone does not know where it is, geographically. No GPS, or base station triangulation. That is a shame, after all the work to include google maps.


At the end, the real shocker is:

  • that the iPhone is an exceptional product;
  • that everybody and his dog was looking forward for the last two years what would happen if Apple made a mobile phone;
  • that against all reasoning of developers, managers, users and other innocent bystanders to ‘not change what the user is used to’, innovation in interaction is delivered in the form of solid new concepts, solving decade old mobile interaction problems;
  • that it is exceptional that the top boss demands excellence in interaction, and structures the software development process accordingly, putting the interaction architects in charge;
  • that it is exceptional that software appears on the market that oozes strong and clear product vision.

The iXda faction almost got it right, the iPhone should not be an exceptional product. A revolution is needed to stop developers, managers, users and other innocent bystanders from preventing excellence and innovation in user interaction.

Top software managers should start making the product vision the foundation for software development, and work with interaction architects on realising this vision in UI.

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