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January 09, 2007

The Apple iPhone: a revolution for mobile user experience? Part I of III

Posted in: Carriers & Network Operators, Media, Mobile Web, OEMs, User Experience Design, User Interface

I’ve tried to separate myself from my Apple fetishism, and slough off Jobs’ reality-distortion effect and really assess this mornings’ announcement from the perspective of it’s impact on mobile user experience. (Certainly, a true UI critique will occur once we can get a device in hand in *sigh* June.

At the end of his keynote this morning, Steve Jobs summed up Apple’s mobile strategy saying, “There’s an old Wayne Gretsky quote I love — ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been.’” Which felt apropos given the product they had just announced. But, is the Apple iPhone announcement truly a “revolution of the first order?”

My take is that this is not a revolution for mobile phones. No, it feels more like catching up in a major way in an industry that has been behind far too long. Features like push email are best practices (read: Blackberry), not revolutionary. Integrating mail, voicemail, sms, contacts, voice calls, photos, music and video is also not revolutionary, but Apple is able to realize it where others have not.

Why Apple then? Other manufacturers have been working on touch screen UIs. Microsoft released their desktop OS to mobile years ago, why should we expect OS X to be better? The difference is that Apple is the hardware and software developer, and by controlling both sides of the equation, they’re able to craft an experience that offers a level of integration with the tools you already use, essentially bridging the gap between your PC and mobile experiences. One of the biggest hurdles plaguing the mobile industry is misaligned priorities in hardware and software development, complicated further by long development cycles.

Is it a revolution to the traditional Carrier/OEM model, where top-tier carriers are king and manufacturers are subservient? Is it a revolution in technical hardware hardware/software integration?

I’ve written earlier that a successful Apple phone sets a strong precedent to fundamentally shift the carrier/OEM dynamic in the user’s favor. The real lesson is that when you’ve got the brand cachet of Apple you can a) release a mobile handset that is not tied to Cingular’s UI specs or high-margin features, and b) change the carrier’s network to accommodate UI innovation. These are unprecedented and I hope it’s just the beginning for Apple-Cingular and for other carriers as well. (The early evidence is visual voicemail, what Jobs called the “first fruit of the Cingular/Apple collaboration.)

Is a success for Apple a success for users? I’m optimistic that Apple is significantly raising the bar for users with things we’ve long expected from mobile phones — true lifestyle integration, multitasking, media management, longer battery life (16 hours), and intuitive input methods.

This is part one. In future posts Idlemode contributors will take a closer look at the UI itself, and dig deeper into some of the questions at the forefront of our minds: the Cingular-Apple dynamic, developer support, and more thoughts about what this announcement means for the mobile industry.

Return to: The Apple iPhone: a revolution for mobile user experience? Part I of III