The Real Genius of Apple's iPhone

Word is the newly announced phone from Steve Jobs will transcend superficial design and deliver user-friendly function and limitless adaptability

Apple's (AAPL) introduction of the iPhone on Tuesday (see, 1/10/07, "The Future of Apple") underscores the lesson Motorola (MOT) learned with the Razr: A sleek, sexy design can create lots of buzz and drive sales, but without smart, usable interface design, consumers will end up angry and disinclined to buy your next "hot" mobile-phone offering.

Design has nominally been a priority of cell-phone makers for a while now, at least since Nokia took the No. 1 spot in the market, thanks, in part, to its focus on color and style. Samsung played the design card in its rise. Then came LG, with its "Chocolate." But design, as these companies have embraced it, is little more than styling. It is design in the service of product lust, rather than user experience.

In truth, the handset makers aren't entirely to blame for the poor customer experience so typical of the mobile-phone industry. Not only do the carriers control the buying experience (something Nokia is trying to change, see, 6/28/06, "Nokia's Ritzy Flagship in Chicago"), the services, the network that determines the speed and kind of services that can be delivered, and the customer service, they also flex their muscle when it comes to the handset. By the time the handset makers and the carriers have fought out the fine points of a design that will work with the network, and the services that will drive revenue, the user's needs have long been forgotten.

Ready for a Friendly Phone

Now Apple must join with one of those very carriers, and its choice, Cingular, has already proven somewhat controversial with customers unimpressed with its existing service. And while Apple undoubtedly retains the upper hand, the partnership requires Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs to loosen his famously tight grip. Apple won't have the end-to-end control it has with the iPod, and when the iPhone goes on sale in June, consumers will still have to contend with the typical cell-phone experience: the unappealing store, the confusing plan options, the two-year contract, the less-than-stellar customer service.

But intuitive UI (user interface) and consumer-focused design is something that Apple does know all about—and seems to have retained control over. The navigation system of its iPod was both radical and defiantly simple—and it is with this same philosophy in mind that Apple has mounted its charge on the cell-phone industry. For some, it hasn't come a moment too soon.

"Finally we have what appears to be a cell phone designed for ordinary human beings, not just for children with incredibly thin fingers, brains of scientists, and better than 20-20 vision," says London-based designer Malcolm Garrett, creative director at the Applied Information Group. "Able to build on its proven strengths, Apple has taken the route of adding mobility and connectivity to an established and thoroughly considered operating system to give us a phone, Web browser, and media player that works well for each function."

Mac Operating System

"The clever, context-based navigational system cuts out irrelevant choices and provides the intelligent and gratifying user experience we have come to expect from Apple," agrees Jakob Trollbäck, creative director of New York-based design agency Trollbäck + Co. "By eliminating intermediary input devices such as keyboard or stylus, control has become tactile again. My Blackberry Pearl has 29 keys and you need to use complicated sequences involving modifier keys to do just about anything. Getting rid of them all in one swipe, the iPhone has an interface that is digital in every sense of the word."

Incorporating the existing Mac OS X operating system into the unit is a major step forward, one which Adaptive Path President and usability expert Jesse James Garrett reckons will provide a major headache for competitors. "Apple has been able to work backwards from its own OS, making adjustments to work on a smaller screen," he says. "This is not functionality that you can tack onto the existing phone operating systems out there. That has to be very troubling to the competition because it's going to take them years to develop similar technical sophistication. Mobile-phone Web browsers are uniformly awful." The iPhone, of course, uses Apple's own Safari browser.

Fluid Function

While for now, the functionality is not as extensive as some of the existing smart phones or MP3 players on the market—a reflection of Apple's preference for simplicity—it's clear that the device has the potential to be developed in many ways.

"Its perfectly ambiguous form can take on just about any personal-sized functionality," says Pentagram partner and interaction design specialist Lisa Strausfeld. "It's a truly chameleon device that, in theory, can become something new years after you purchase it. On a more pragmatic and even environmental note, one can now purchase a new phone, camera, PDA, MP3 player, or fill-in-your-personal-size-device-here through a simple software download."

There are a lot of neat touches that will also likely be influential. Sensors in the handset detect when the phone is in use, freezing the screen and preventing an overactive ear lobe from ending a call. Other sensors can alter the landscape of the screen, to make long-form reading less strenuous. In fact, many of the more revolutionary design aspects of the iPhone are—in hindsight—quite simple, provoking the much sought after 'Why didn't I think of that?' envy so often prompted by a genuinely good idea.

Sign Language

One of the biggest challenges the designers faced was how to provide a suitably sized usable keyboard—something every PDA or smartphone maker has struggled with. Apple bypassed the need for a button-based keyboard by providing virtual, on-screen QWERTY keys instead—and incorporated various tricks to enhance the typing experience, such as predictive spelling and what MIT Media Lab professor John Maeda describes as the "hover-expand" behavior of the keys.

"Each key can remain small and within an orderly grid at first glance; then, by hovering your finger, the on-screen key is made bigger so that you can see it better," he explains. "It's a fairly simple idea and probably not brand new, but definitely a step forward in the awkward task of typing on a tiny virtual keyboard."

"The multitouch interface is a breakthrough," adds Jesse James Garrett. "We've seen interfaces like this done as research projects, in academia, but this is the first time that someone has brought it to a consumer product. In [Jobs'] demo, the functionality they showed only scratches the surface of what could be possible."

Opening the Field

"Scratch" is the operative word here, and concerns have already been raised about the practicality and durability of the iPhone's large, unprotected screen (and how to keep it clean). Questions also remain unanswered about the compatibility of a phone (for which battery life is paramount) and a music player (which is often used for hours at a time). Putting the two together could significantly limit a device's lifetime.

"With so much technology packed in and with all its sensors and multitouch screen, there's a lot that could go wrong," says James Tindall, a British Web site and software developer and designer. "But it's clearly a radical step forward. For me, the iPhone is a Phone 2.0. Like Web 2.0, it just does everything it should do, in the simplest, clearest, most intuitive way possible."

One thing is for sure: The gauntlet truly has been thrown down. No doubt between now and June, when the iPhone is released, competing cell-phone, smartphone, and PDA makers will be scrambling to come up with devices that have the look, feel, and functionality of Apple's offering. Let's just hope that the hardware makers and carriers alike grasp the power of user-driven design and great customer experience. Like the music industry before it, the cell-phone industry needs a shakeup.

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