I don’t think the long term future of the much-hyped iPhone will ever match that of Apple’s iPod or even the Macintosh, despite the spectacular early sales, the great expectations of the company and its investors, and the enthusiasm of a small group of early adopters and iPod groupies.
The great strength of Apple (AKA Apple Computer) has been in its ability to make computing invisible. According to Donald A. Norman, former vice president and Apple Fellow at Apple Computer as well as the author of “The Invisible Computer,” there are at least three elements necessary:
(1) A human interface that hides as much complexity as possible from the end user; (2) Keeping the underlying computer system as simple as possible and (3) Turning the computer into a dedicated appliance, something that is good at doing a few things very well.
On all three counts, the iPod, iNano and similar dedicated music players Apple has produced are prime examples of this strategy. And the sales of these devices reflect its success. From the builder of a desktop dedicated to a specific segment of the market, Apple has risen to a dominant position in the broader consumer market for music player appliances.
On the iPhone, Apple again has veiled the complexity of the underlying hardware and software processing that was needed to make it work, and so the iPhone has received high marks from almost everyone on style and the user-friendly interface and design. And with the iPhone’s touch-screen user interface, Apple has outdone its efforts on the graphical user interface (GUI) on the Macintosh.
But in “The Invisible Computer,” (subtitled “Why The Personal Computer is so complex and information appliances are the solution”), Norman qualifies the good things he says about the Macintosh and the use of a GUI to make the computing invisible:
“In the GUI generation (of desktops), the primary philosophy is ‘ease of use,’ making complex machinery of the personal computer relatively easy to operate,” he writes. “And therein lies the rub: The machine is indeed complex, and the GUI goal is to sugarcoat this complexity so that it won’t be noticed.”
His prescient solution, written in 1999: rather than trying to make a complex machine easy to use, make a simple machine in the first place.
Apple’s introduction of the Newton, which spawned a generation of specialized handheld information appliances and its later creation of the iPod, triggering a flood of specialized handheld and network-connected audio and video media players, has proved that Norman’s insight was right on target.
Another example of the success of this formula is the original simple, limited function cell phone which had the single goal of providing users with a mobile, wireless form of communicating with one another – by voice, email or instant mail. It is this dedicated functionality that has driven the number of mobile phones in use worldwide into the billions.
But now handheld mobile device makers are moving away from this tried and proven formula for market success. In addition to Apple’s iPhone, the market is being flooded with handheld communications devices that suffer from what Norman described as “featuritis.”
Like the desktops that proceeded them, they all offer the ability to do any number of things, none of them particularly well, and certainly not as well as a dedicated device. These devices offer not only wireless phone service, but internet access, instant messaging, email, MP3, video capability, GPS, and built-in cameras.
Though Apple has done an outstanding job of hiding the underlying complexity of iPhone, Norman’s critique of the multipurpose desktop PC holds true for it as well: “Make a device do everything, and each task will be done in a manner that is adequate, but not superior,” he writes. “A multipurpose device cannot be optimized for any single task; it has to be a compromise.”
Despite this limitation, the desktop computer market was a success for two reasons. First, semiconductor manufacturers were able to get the costs of the basic hardware down to rock bottom. As a result, builders of PCs were able to include a lot of features – compromised though they were – at a price that appealed to a broad audience.
Second, because the desktop was based on a plug-in board modular design for most of its capabilities, a user – or an enterprising system integrator – could transform it from a compromised general purpose anything machine into a dedicated system with optimal characteristics.
Multifunction handheld devices such as the iPhone will be a long-term success only to the degree that such all-in-one compromise devices can be offered to the broad market of consumers at as low a cost as possible. The modular options users had with the PC are not available here. What you see is what you get.
When I am in the market for a new desktop or laptop. I look at all the new features and functions with four questions in mind: 1) Does it offer functionality that I really need? 2) Does it offer me the performance I need? 3) Will it be possible for me to modify the system at a later date if I need additional performance or specialized capabilities? 4) If none of the above, is it priced at a level that makes it worthwhile to accept compromises?
Often desktop and laptop vendors offer a range of features such as audio and video, wireless access, and 3GSM capability to make their offerings more attractive. If they come “free” – that is, if the price is roughly equivalent to a base system with all the functionality I need – I will buy it.
At the prices Apple and most of its competitors are charging for their mobile and handheld multifunction compromise devices I don’t think the vast mainstream of potential users – except for a few true believers – will go for the pitch. I know I will not.