The Curious Case of the iPhone
When the iPhone launched on June 29, 2007, the lines to get one were tremendous. I waited on line for about 8-10 hours to get mine. A lot of people waited a lot longer, and in New York City if you didn't get yours before the weekend was over, you had at least a one-week wait to get your hands on your own. No sooner did people get them in their hands than a disgruntled group of non-buyers began explaining to anyone who would listen that the only thing selling the iPhone was hype. Accompanying that argument was the repetitive pointing out that there was "nothing new" about the iPhone and that everything we were seeing in it had been done before.
In essence, those arguments are at least partially true. Apple isn't the first company to have used a touch screen. For years, companies like HP, Dell, Toshiba, and HTC have been cranking out device after device with touch screens. I'll even ignore the fact that Apple was one of the first to ever use a capacitive touchscreen on a mobile device, and is definitely the first to cover their touch surface with glass instead of plastic.
Many people who never bought one bemoaned the interface. It was too simplistic. It didn't offer "skins." You couldn't customize anything. it was just "there." According to the so-called experts, this was Steve Jobs' way of ramming a user interface down people's throats that was his vision for how a phone should work and people had two options: take it or leave it. Others bemoaned the lack of third party applications, a to-do list app, note synchronizing, Exchange support, a physical keyboard, video recording, cut and paste, the fact that it wasn't a 3G phone, and the fact that it couldn't make a cup of coffee merely by dialing it in the middle of the night.
Oh yeah, and it was "too expensive" for the average consumer.
By rights, the iPhone should have fell flat on its face from minute one, and if any of these objections that were raised were serious, we'd be reading about how Apple shareholders voted out Steve Jobs and cancelled the iPhone project altogether. Of course, that didn't happen.
What did happen, however, was a minor revolution in the phone market. Despite their lumbering nature, many phone companies were slapped in the face with the fact that their objections simply didn't matter to Joe Consumer (a distant relative of Joe the Plumber). Companies responded, as they usually do, with poor knockoffs of the iPhone that completely missed the point. Toward Christmas of last year, Verizon was touting its Voyager as the best touchscreen phone on the market. "Touch does more when it's on 'The Network,'" the ads reminded us. In the end? The Voyager flopped. You couldn't get one at all around Christmas, but you could easily get one now. Verizon then launched the Samsung Glyde, the LG Dare, the Venus, and so on. Again and again touting that "touch" does more on their network. Again and again, these competitors fell flat on their face, enjoying minor success on day one and complete nothingness thereafter.
Sprint tried to go after Apple, also. They launched a gigantic ad campaign for their Instinct, the phone that was going to knock Apple off its pedestal. It had everything. Turn by turn directions, mobile TV, picture messaging, and so on. The hype machine was in full force. If you got this phone on the "Now Network," you'd be the envy of the neighborhood, and yet today, a mere few months after its launch, I've barely seen one on the NYC Subway. Despite the number of competitors, I still see way more iPhones; first generation ones as well as 3G ones.
How can this be? How can all these competitors show up with more features on better networks and yet people are still buying the iPhone?
Today, on Boing Boing Gadgets, Joel Johnson makes an excellent introduction to a recent Consumer Reports article pointing out how satisfied iPhone owners actually are with their purchase:
"According to the 2008 "Business Wireless Smartphone Customer Satisfaction Study" by J.D. Power & Associates, Apple's iPhone - a smartphone with no turn-by-turn directions, copy-and-paste, physical QWERTY keyboard, user-installable programs, expandable flash memory, or removable battery - rates a perfect five-out-of-five in the "Features" category, winning out over HTC, Motorola, Palm, RIM, and Samsung. There's only way to interpret that data: for iPhone owners, Apple has provided every feature that matters, even if that means leaving some features out"
The reason Apple keeps succeeding where others are predicting failure is that most of the iPhone works the way it's supposed to consistently and reliably. The UI in version 2.1 generally doesn't crash much. It's not immune from crashing, but it's very stable. The E-Mail app works. Sorting messages, downloading them, responding, attaching pictures, and working with multiple accounts is all relatively painless. Adding a new account is a click or two and a username and password.
The much-maligned "push" synchronization with MobileMe just works, despite some initial hiccups. No complicated setup, no server adjustments, just a username and password and you're on your way.
Without going feature by feature, the iPhone simply does what it's supposed to do and does it really well.
Where other companies fall flat is that they over-promise and under-deliver.
They promise you feature after feature after feature, only to have a customer find out that the feature isn't that great. They promise synchronization with your desktop computer only to tell you that you have to use MS Outlook on Windows XP or better. They promise video capture and later you find out that their idea of video capture is 260 x 74 QIF video that's unwatchable on anything less than your phone. They promise music downloads, but charge $2-$3 a track (or a monthly rental fee) and the "download" is locked to your phone for all eternity. Lose your phone? Tough. They promise a "touch" screen, but it's usually either plastic (the Voyager / Glyde / etc.) or needs a stylus (Windows Mobile). They promise "push e-mail" and then tell you that you need a special server and corporate e-mail. They promise you a "replaceable battery," when in reality you won't need to replace it before your contract is up and you're buying a new phone anyway (and if you do grab a new battery it'll set you back $75). They promise picture messaging, but then in some cases you can't send the pictures outside of your own carrier's network. They brag about giving you access to your IM lists, and then tell you that every incoming and outgoing message will cost you one SMS message. They offer 3G service, but don't mention that it isn't available everywhere and don't offer WiFi on their phones to compensate (Verizon, I'm looking directly at you!).
You're probably starting to see the point.
The iPhone's success isn't that it's another touch screen phone, only this time backed by Apple's mythical "hype machine." Its success lies in the fact that it has a UI designed for your fingers, not a stylus, and the team that developed it actually had a goal of making the best and most usable device on the market, not the one with the most features.
in a few weeks, we'll see the launch of RIM's effort to climb out from sameness and produce something new; the BlackBerry Storm. It'll only be available on Verizon at launch (wow, you mean a one-carrier phone? I thought only evil Apple did that?) and will have all the features you've come to know and love about Blackberry handhelds with the addition of a web browser that's finally more than a glorified WAP browser and an on-screen keyboard that sort of kind of simulates a real one. I guess RIM's assertion that no "serious business user" would go without a physical keyboard went out the window now that they're trying to cash in on the "I don't want an iPhone" market.
Will it sell? Probably. Like most "iPhone killers" it'll do really well in the opening weeks and then fizzle like a can of soda that's been left open for a week. RIM still doesn't understand that features aren't what sell phones; well-implemented features that don't overpromise and underdeliver do. As long as RIM is not singularly focused on the Storm, it'll be just another also-ran in the great dustbin of touch screen phones that never really attained mass-market appeal.
I'm not saying Apple got everything right with the iPhone. I am, however, wholeheartedly agreeing with Joel from Boing Boing Gadgets. Apple's success is grounded in the fact that for most users (ie: the mass market at large), the iPhone is everything they need and want in a device. That, and not the hardware, is going to be the hardest thing for its competitors to overcome. Churning out features is what they're good at, but churning out well-thought out features, even if there are fewer of them, is what makes the iPhone great.
Vincent Ferrari is an Apple fan, videoblogger, blogger, writer, and all-around geek from the Bronx. He works in the IT Department of a cellular phone company that shall not be named, and lives in a very comfortable apartment with his lovely wife, two lovely cats, three Macs, two iPhones, and God-knows-how-many iPods of varying age.
Current Apple Stuff: 24" iMac, iPhone 4, AppleTV (original), 4gb Shuffle, 64gb iPad 2.