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Why the iPhone is a success

Not for the reasons you think

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Column Two weeks after the iPhone virus started spreading, the verdict has to be that Steve Jobs has got it right.

The trick with launching a new phone is "keep it simple". He's done that. No, this is not the phone I want, and neither is it the right MP3 player, but it will be a success, and that success will grow as new variants appear - like the 3G version. I think the key to its success will be the fact that this is not a 3G version.

Start off from the iPod, and think back to the Motorola ROKR phone. At that time, the question marketing people were struggling with was: "How can we make a phone which is as good as the iPod at playing music?"

The obvious trick was to build the MP3 player into the phone - a ploy with a long history (I think my first MP3 phone was a Samsung, nearly seven years ago) and a lot of casualties. The ROKR was the first attempt to build an iPod into the phone.

It failed for reasons which have to include the fact that the ROKR was not a good phone, and it was an even worse iPod. Actually, it wasn't an iPod at all, it was a very ordinary Motorola phone with the ability to interface to iTunes.

The Steve Jobs magic was let loose on it, and it simply burned up and disappeared. Even his legendary demonstration skills failed when he tried to take a call while it was playing music. And it didn't have enough capacity for music, and it didn't have enough battery life - but above all, what people want to be seen with is the iPod - that "perfect thing" which transformed the world of music.

So the iPhone went the other way around. Instead of putting the iTunes engine into a phone, Apple put the phone into an iPod. It's a brilliant example of the "keep it simple, stupid" principle - if you are going to innovate, make it a small incremental step. Don't introduce five new features at once.

And the small, incremental step was not the phone. That's typical Steve Jobs magic - "Watch my fingers carefully!" says the stage magician. What he's really doing is something entirely different...he's re-designing the iPod user interface.

If Apple had announced that it was abandoning the spin-wheel for the iPod, and had just launched iNew iPod there's a real chance it would have gone down like New Coke did. People understand the iPod. They can scroll through their songs with their hands in their pockets, or while running or in the dark. Why change?

The short answer is because the Walkman was a success.

I think that initially, the Apple consensus was that it was perfectly possible to simply add phone commands to an iPod, or add iPod functions to a phone. ROKR showed this was not all that easy. And, at the same time, the Sony Ericsson Walkman range showed that people did prefer to carry just one dual-purpose device, rather than a player and a phone.

The thing is, the controls that work really well for driving a music player aren't very good for texting; they're not intuitive for operating a web browser, and they really aren't versatile enough for doing all the other control settings and phone number entry functions that a good phone simply has to be able to do. So a spin-wheel phone was probably not a great idea.

The ordinary mobile with play, pause, FF, and skip had been done. I think Sony Ericsson has done it about as well as it can be done. If Apple went down that route, all it'd have would be another Walkman, with an Apple logo on it. It wouldn't be an iPod.

A nasty dilemma, isn't it? If you fix the iPod UI so it works for phone users, you risk alienating the faithful iPodders; if you borrow the phone UI for the iPod you produce a fake Walkman.

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