Apple under the gun to master the iPhone's 'second album'
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Comment When your band scores its first big hit album, your work isn’t finished. No, sir . . . your troubles have just begun.
You and the other three members of Lower GI had seven years to put together your smash CD, “Negative For Lupus.” And you got to do it with the benefit of no expectations or attentions from the record industry, a huge army of fans, or groupies under the age of 47, either.
But when it comes time for the follow up, you’re navigating some treacherous waters. If you don’t believe me, go down to the futon store and ask the assistant manager. He used to play keyboards for The Lemonheads.
And now Apple is in the position of releasing their first new device since iPhone Beatlemania struck. It’s a sketchy time. There’s a case to be made that it’s with iPhone 2.0 that Apple truly has to earn the success of this new phone platform.
I mean, iPhone 1.0 got a certain percentage of its success for free, in the same way that “She Loves You” almost couldn’t help but become a monster hit.
(I beg of you, my dear readers: please don’t make me defend or extend this Beatles analogy any further; in the past ten minutes of Googling for the Beatles catalogue, I have gone from being certain that the group’s first two albums contained all of their hits from the “four lovable mop-tops from Liverpool” phase, to wondering if “She Loves You” was ever actually released at all. I mean, they really ought to put that one out, even it’s just on their MySpace page. It’s damned peppy.)
See, the public has an automatic affection for any new product that (a) delivers a fresh new take that reminds them of what they used to love about this concept in the first place, and (b) actually works. Kudos to Apple for packing so much sugar-frosted awesomeness into such a compact package, but excellence was never required.
The first iPhone delivered a lot of groundbreakers:
1) A big, laptop-grade LCD. Gorgeous, crisp color and so many pixels that you’re correct to worry that some of them will leak out and stain your shirt while it’s in your pocket.
The LCD is nice under any circumstances, but it also supports . . .
2) The best music and video experience on any phone. Hell, any handheld. On all other phones, listening to music was like an aftermarket feature. You got an app that could play music. If you really wanted it to. I guess.
And the experience of watching video on a phone brought you back to the very early days of mobile phones, when the chief reason why you made a phone call from your car was simply to celebrate the miracle of making a phone call from you car. I kept a few episodes of “The Simpsons” on my Windows Mobile device, but just for demo purposes. As an entertainment device, the most appropriate adjective to describe the experience would be “Soviet.”
No, no. The iPhone would have been a fantastic music and video player even if it had no GSM chipset. As demonstrated by the success of the iPod Touch.
Oh, yes, and . . .
3) That incredible multi-touch interface. I think the iPhone will serve as a perfect example of how influential these tiny user-interface details can be. Doing away with hardware buttons in favor of the flexibility of controls that could change from app to app is absolutely necessary in any device this small, and the iPhone wasn’t even close to the first phone that was 99 per cent operated via taps.
But you tap with your fingers, not a stylus. In the lab, that might seem like a shoulder-shrugging distinction, but in the field, it means that you’re interacting directly with the user interface, instead of at a constant distance. It instantly made the iPhone into a far more intimate device.
(Also: it thankfully eliminated the potentially d-baggey “one moment; allow me to unslip my stylus and make a note of what you’ve just said” gesture. It wasn’t there yet, but clearly it was poised to challenge the bit where some twit you’re forced to talk to holds up his hand while you’re in mid-sentence, says “I have to take this,” and then taps his earpiece and points his face 45 degrees away from you.)
4) A “real” web browser. Browsing the web was another one of those “You’ll never guess how I ordered this DVD . . . I did it from my phone!” types of experiences. But nope, the iPhone was the first to mate a real desktop browser with a UI that actually made it practical for palmtop use.
Four features that really had never been seen in a major handset before. That’s 80 per cent of the iPhone’s success right there. Apple’s phenomenal power to assert that “this is the next big thing” contributed another 10 per cent.
Okey-dokey. But the world is a different place here in the jetboot-wearing, meals-in-a-pill pushbutton future utopia of 2008.
It’s unfair to say that other phone companies have copied the iPhone per se. It’s more accurate to note that they’ve wisely allowed Apple to do millions of dollars’ worth of free market research for them. The market has emphatically stated that it wants iPhone-like devices, and now, the damned things are everywhere.
Samsung has an Instinct and a Glyde. HTC has a Touch. Probably the worst possible news for Apple is that Blackberry Thunder is not the title of a 1972 Pam Grier action film (as it should be) but a new Blackberry device with a touch interface.
You are wise and insightful, dear reader; so much so that even my firewall cannot stop your intellect from reaching back through the web browser here to my MacBook screen. None of these are as well-executed as an iPhone. The HTC phone in particular is a hard one to review because you waste most of your time coming up with unkind jokes that play off of the name: (Let me start you off with one: “The sort of Touch that leaves your fingers feeling warm and sticky for hours later, no matter how violently you scrub.” I leave the remainder to you as an exercise.)
But the Samsung models aren’t half bad, and though details on the Thunder are still sketchy, I can predict that it will have the name “Blackberry” silkscreened on it prominently. And for a great many folks, that’s all they need to see.
And many of these phones come with features that the iPhone lacks: a slide-out keyboard, the ability to work with networks other than AT&T and Apple’s other wireless partners, on board memory cards; oh, yes, and the ability to do jack squat (or better) with them without getting permission from Apple via iTunes.
Itchiest of all: It’s nice that something works breathtakingly well, but most users simply aren’t in the “breathtakingly well” market.
Whenever I find myself tempted to wax philosophical about the absolutely vital importance of the tiny details of new technology, I think about the seven-year-old car currently shedding molecules in my driveway, and the BMW that a pal of mine owns. He’s such a fanatic about performance that he’s constantly swapping chips in and out of black boxes to make his vehicle the best that it can possibly be. He sees a layer of dirt on the hood not in terms of grunge, but in terms of drag coefficient.
Me? I pour gas into this hole right here. I check the oil regularly and get it changed every 3,000 miles. I try not to lock the keys in. I bought a new cupholder when I broke the old one. The gas meter is a bit creative so I keep an eye on the trip odometer.
It’s not a lovingly-tuned BMW. But so long as it starts when I turn the key, I really don’t think about how much better a car could be. I just want to avoid walking 52 miles to my parents’ house and back again.
During Steve Jobs’ big WWDC keynote this week, we’re getting an answer to a question that’s been up there on the whiteboard since the iPhone became a runaway success a year ago. Not “How is Apple going to follow this up?” but “did the marketplace go gaga for the iPhone, or are they willing to buy any iPhone-shaped object with the same basic features?”
Yup, here’s where the iPhone finally earns it. It keeps none of the points it won in 2007. From this point onward, either the iPhone is an exciting new platform that creates an entire new paradigm for computing, or else it’s just another touch-based phone with a great browser and a great media player.
It’s going to take much more than 3G data speeds to keep the hearts and minds of the people who drove in to hear the keynote in an 1998 Toyota Camry. ®
Andy Ihnatko is the author of iPhone Fully Loaded, available here from Amazon.