What the iPhone means

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Two years ago, I wrote a story in The New Paper envisioning what our Tech team’s dream phone was like. It would be a full touchscreen device, have screens that change according to your needs, was a full MP3 player with no compromises, and some other usual features like camera and sync-ing capability. Most importantly, it mustn’t have a keypad.

Basically, we described the Apple iPhone.

No, we’re not visionaries, we’re not sour grapes and we wish we owned Apple stock.

We were basically consumers imagining a phone out of the box, which is something all phone manufacturers have failed to do. As usual, it took someone with the vision and guts to do it and immediately create priceless mindshare and massive headlines for its first phone.

Name any other phone in history which has had the same impact.

Lack of radical but effective designs

Phone makers big and small have stopped radical innovations for many years. Oh, you tell me that they did come out with refreshing fashion phones and form factors.

Listen honey, there is no better form factor than a monoblock. Anything that requires you to slide, swivel or flip open for use is simply wasting energy.

But that is one point the market doesn’t believe in. Nokia actually lost market share in 2004 for refusing to go the way of the clamshell.

Indeed, but the lesson of the iPhone is that it’s not what people want, but whether you can create something people want….or better, desire.

The problem with all the offbeat designs so far (think of the lipstick case-like Nokia fashion handphone which required you to dial a knob to make a call, and made SMSes impossible) is that they were born to show off but not to be used easily.

On another tangent, why have people failed to create the perfect MP3 handphone until now? Music handphones often don’t come with a headphone jack, and those that do provide unclean audio. Did the engineers ever use MP3 players?

Now, it’s obvious that the Motorola ROKR E1 was Apple’s guinea pig to see if people really wanted a conventional phone with iTunes support. The results were crystal clear.

And touchscreen was always the obvious way to go, but the phone makers didn’t have the interface or features good enough for a fullscreen handphone. The closest example is the Motorola Ming, or its predecessor the E680.

Honestly, the E680 isn’t bad, or people like Jochew or Ronald wouldn’t have bothered to use it for the past two years. The problem was its Linux interface and poor English handwriting recognition.

The interface has hardly been improved between the E680 and the Ming, because engineers are probably confident that since it works, it’s good enough.

Horse carriages work, but do we still use them?

As such, the mentality that we should have a keypad phone for eternity got stuck in the engineers’ heads. Keypads are cheap to make, but they can’t be customised for different hands. But who cares right, they work.

That is also one of the main reasons why the N-Gage was such a massive failure. How can you design a gaming platform based on a conventional phone’s vertical screen and keypad?

What about the PDA-phone guys?

The iPhone could just kill them off in a few years time if they don’t wake up.

Look at Palm – an easy-to-use smartphone that comes in a big bulky package. Took them quite a while to figure out they didn’t really need to have a stubby antenna. The Palm OS development went into stasis and they were forced to use Windows Mobile 5.0, which isn’t easy to use.

Win Mobile phones are mostly made by HTC, and you know what happens when one company dominates the niche. Even if they could improve the form factor, the problem lies with the OS – I don’t want Windows on my phone. I want simple-to-use and effective programs that won’t make me squint and poke with a stylus.

What Apple has done is to simply reverse-engineer all the thought processes going on at all these phone companies. As such, they will ask – Why are phones designed this way? Why do all phones have similar features? Why can’t phones play music well? And so on.

The iPhone is of historical importance to everyone. Remember today as the day that the phone industry woke up to their inertia, and our handphones will never be the same again.

And also the day everyone forgot Steve Jobs’ involvement with the options saga of course.

Predictions

The iPhone good news for everyone actually, even though some have already criticised it for being too complex and un-iPodish. I predict three things for the high-end phone arena

1. Symbian’s gonna get pressured by Nokia and other phone makers to improve its operating system by leaps and bounds. The Symbian menu system moves like a snail if compared to the demo version of the iPhone. I expect the first full touch-screen, keypadless Nokia phone in Q1 2008, no earlier, powered by a strong processor. The rest will follow.

2. Motorola will move away from slim phones, because the RAZR series has run a really long course. It may improve the Linux Ming platform, or redesign it from ground up. Asians are really hot about touchscreen phones, and the China market will probably be the first test platform.

3. Sony Ericsson’s Walkman phones are going to become more Walkman-like and less phone-like. The W950i was a swing towards the complex-usage scenario, but I suspect the music component will swing it the other way.

Let’s see if my predictions come true in the following year.

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