Friday, April 4, 2008

Mobile Device Interfaces

Over at the NYT today there is an article titled "Mobile Phone Industry Takes Aim at the iPhone". There are at least two things you can find amusing in it. One is that it is an acknowledgment that Apple has done it again. The other is that, and I grant it is not an industry article, it does not mention interfaces. The main reason the iPhone is amazing (to this analyst at least) is the interface. Using Safari's handy find function, the word "interface" does not appear in the article. "Touch" does, three times, but a touch interface is nothing, the right interface is everything (be it touch or not). "Features" is present four times. 

The article quotes Geesung Choi, the chief executive of Samsung’s telecommunications network business:
[He] predicted that the trend toward multifunction mobile phones would shift over time. The market will fragment as consumers seek out mobile phones with functions that reflect their strongest needs, like browsing the Web or watching television and movies.
Except that is not entirely correct. Phones will be powerful enough and cheap enough to do everything. There will be small niches, and there will be basic mobile phones. RIM's Blackberry was a first step in expanding the idea of what a "cell phone" could be, Apple's iPhone blew that idea apart. Think different, indeed.

Choi goes on to say: 
There is a perception that the iPhone is a phone, but it is not. It is a multimedia player. Maybe they should rename it.
That is correct, it is not "a phone" in the traditional sense of cell phones. But that tradition is now dead. We are finally in the 21st century, and the iPhone is my flying car. However the iPhone is not a "multimedia player" either. I'm going to avoid the trap of needing to name, to label, everything. The iPhone is whatever it is, regardless of what you call it (a rose is a rose is a rose). But to say it is a phone, or it is a multimedia player, focuses on its features. The iPhone is not a set of features, it is a system (beyond just itself), and most importantly, it is an interface to information, and a darn good one.

The thing is, if we label something, then all of the preconceptions for that label get applied to the object, not just the label. So if we call a car a horseless carriage, well, it's a carriage that happens to not have a horse. It is safe and familiar, and we can apply the legal and economic models we have for the old label to the new object. So, if the iPhone is a phone, we know what it is. It doesn't force us to rethink things, or cause ripples in the economic models of established industries that live in the world of that pre-existing label.

As usual, the Microsoft guy gets it wrong. Robbie Bach, the president of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, says: 
It’s a consumer market. Everyone’s needs are evolving. Consumers, in the end, will get what they want.
To quote a very strategic consultant I know, "technology changes, people don't." People's needs aren't evolving at all. And it always bothers me to see people endlessly referred to as consumers, we are citizens as well. If companies forget that people are more than just consumers, they will miss out on providing goods and services that people want. Consumers are, for the most part, passive and consumptive. Citizens are active and creative: they do horrible, horrible things like write blogs.