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This is not a review of the iPhone

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 18 Nov 2007.

Last week, when the iPhone was released in the UK, my housemate James came home beaming with delight and cradling Apple’s shiny new toy, probably the most influential product release of 2007. Since then I have had a few opportunities to play with it too. It’s certainly nice.

But about everyone and anyone has written a review of it already, and there is no need for me to add yet another one. Still, there’s something special about it. If I mention the words ‘mobile’ and ‘user experience’ to anybody in conversation, I almost inevitably get ‘iPhone’ back. Why?

“First Apple made the hype, and released the hype as a product. Then they released the iPhone as the follow-up product.”

Charles McCathieNevile (Opera Software) at FoM2007

Maybe the right question should not be why the iPhone is so good, but rather why the handsets of much more established manufacturers are so bad (in some respects, notably usability). Some interesting insight came from Tom Hume and Marek Pawlowski on a FoM2007 panel discussion:

  • The mobile handset industry has a structural problem. The manufacturers are very focused on R&D and on features, and within a single company there may actually be different groups advocating different technologies and features, all competing to be integrated into the next line of handsets. The design process is fundamentally bottom-up, rather than starting from high-level requirements and working down towards the features. The result is a user experience which consists of a bundle of fairly detached features, and is not at all consistent or well structured.
  • Another problem with handset manufacturers is that they are extremely risk-adverse. This is because managers’ bonuses are calculated based on the number of defective handsets returned to the manufacturer – a direct incentive to make their products robust and reliable. So far it sounds good. The problem is that there are certain features which carry a higher risk, but have potentially huge benefit – the most notable one being automatic software updates – and these features get omitted too. Currently it is still the case with most handsets that once it has left the factory, its software is never updated. As phone software begins to become extremely complicated and time to market is extremely short, major bugs in the software are inevitable. And without software updates, those bugs will only be removed if you manually update the firmware (which hardly anybody does), or when you get a new phone.
  • Finally, handset manufacturers don’t usually have their own retail (or have you seen a Nokia store anywhere?). They sell through the mobile operators, and entrust the sales process to people completely outside their control. Moreover, since they don’t have much direct contact with consumers, they get hardly any useful feedback about their products which could feed back into the design cycle. Instead, they just continue to produce more and more phones based largely on speculation of what people actually want.

All three points are different with Apple. The user experience is clearly the most important part of their design, and features are secondary. They regularly update the software, and in fact they have already released a number of improvements which would have never reached the previously shipped devices without this update facility. And they have their own shops, in fact a whole fan base which they actively nurture – what better way to learn how to improve the next version?

And the model clearly works. The iPhone really is a pleasure to use, the experience is consistent and well thought out – it simply feels right.

But what will its longer-term effects be?

The iPhone is just one product, and even if Apple’s highly optimistic sales forecasts were to come true, they would still have less than one per cent market share. I think that the true value of the iPhone lies not in itself, but in the knock-on effects which it is having on the whole mobile ecosystem:

  • It has raised the bar in terms of design and usability, and other manufacturers will be rushing to improve their own designs similarly. (For example, Nokia announced a similar touch screen user interface only a few weeks ago.)
  • It is helping enormously to raise awareness for the mobile internet – people are beginning to see the potential in having internet and web access on the go.

These effects are both rather good, and although I probably won’t be getting an iPhone myself anytime soon, I think these are very good developments.