posted by Michael Reed on Wed 21st Nov 2007 14:13 UTC
IconWhen computer company Apple announced that they were planning to make a phone, most pundits felt sure that Apple would produce something a bit different from the crowd. An Apple phone would have to be a plush, prestige unit and the product of a thoughtful design process.

Apple are on a run of good luck: their computers have never been so popular and their iPod music player is the benchmark against which other music players are judged. This momentum of consumer goodwill has sufficiently emboldened Apple to chance its hand at a mobile phone. On their first go at making a phone, Apple have decided to be the technological trend setters as opposed to conservative followers. I know Apple and I had expected nothing less.

Apple compete on style, and they make good computers because their form of style is not style-over-substance. Most of the rest of the computer industry regard style as a dirty word and they shouldn't, because although style can mean bling, it needn't. Style can refer to ease of use and ergonomics - in other words, how something fits into a person's life. Style can be the difference between "plug in and play" and "become frustrated while fiddling with drivers, settings and connectors". In short, style can mean putting the user before other considerations.

And at this early stage, it looks like Apple have another winner on their hands: the press and public love the iPhone. It's not quite the market leader in terms of technology and feature-set, and no matter how well it does at the beginning, it's going to be years before they can hope to win a substantial fraction of the mobile phone market.

So, why don't I want one?

The first thing that makes me suspicious of this thing is the nature of the promotional hype. Most of the previews I have read espouse the circular logic that its main appeal is its desirability; apparently, as soon as I see one, I'll want one. And this diagonal leap of logic says as much about what Apple make and sell as it does about malleability of consumer desire.

Let's be clear, the Apple faithful are extremely faithful but they are not gullible, nor are they fools for being Apple enthusiasts. I ask you, is a person who buys a two seater, open-top, sports car a fool? Does such a car beat a sensible car in terms of pure utility? Of course not. But in twenty years time, when that person reminisces about the glorious hours spent bombing about in the two-seater, and the frustrating, expensive job of acquiring spare parts, is he or she filled with regret? Of course not, because they got something valuable for their money. And this is what Apple are selling, it's a product that is more than just simply a product: it's a product plus something else.

As good as it is, I don't really want an iPhone.

Despite being a great product, it falls down in a few areas, and as it happens, these are the areas that I am concerned with. For one thing, it's very closed. Apple would claim that it is carefully integrated: everything has been engineered to inter-operate smoothly, due to the fact that one company created the whole thing. However, being a closed platform, the iPhone makes it very difficult for third parties to develop software for it. I'll give you an example: on my much older hand-held computer, I was able to download a piece of software that let me revisit some of the classic computer games from my youth by effectively turning my hand-held into circa 1984 vintage computer. Great fun, but this is the sort of thing that the iPhone isn't very good at. It's not very customisable because Apple want to impose a carefully engineered, standard experience onto everyone.

The iPhone is expensive and for less money I could get something slightly more powerful and with greater geek-appeal. While the iPhone is well-featured, it's not bristling with features. Rival machines exist that have greater scope for customisation through running niche applications, and might even feature a little slide out QWERTY keyboard that I can use to do a spot of writing while I'm on the move. Further more, Apple have deliberately restricted the choice of mobile service providers that work with the iPhone, and if I'm buying a phone, I want to be able to choose from all of the packages on the market. These points highlight the iPhone design ethos: in places where it could get complicated, they've opted to make it slick instead.

Something as expensive and flash as an iPhone can never be fully rationalised on purely pragmatic grounds, and this presents a problem: how do you handle an encounter with someone who is completely under its spell? You can't reason someone out of a position that they didn't arrive at through a reasoned process. The solution in any such clash of faith is to counter the enthused rapture of the other person with a respectful declaration of disinterest. Avoid direct confrontation. Turn the head slightly, look thoughtful, and while nodding, say that actually, you're not going after an iPhone. This a sophisticated way of carrying on. To respectfully allow the other person their contrary position is the action of the true free-thinker as it engenders an environment of free exchange of ideas. As baffling to an Apple loyalist as the very concept of not wanting an iPhone is, subconsciously, thanks to your mature approach to a tricky debate, that person is now open to your whacky ideas. Problem side-stepped.

This raises the question, how can Apple have made so many blunders in terms of the feature package and approach that they have settled on? And the answer is that they haven't made a mistake. They've made a great phone but one that doesn't suit me; I'm not their target. In the same way that wearing a sports jacket with a t-shirt and jeans makes some people look cool and some people look like they were unexpectedly roused from their bed in the middle of the night, the iPhone isn't for everyone.

About the author:
Michael Reed is a writer, musician, and geek, but not always in that order. Read more about him and his adventures on his website.


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