iPhone misses the social networking revolution
Steve Jobs doesn't understand how today's end-users communicate.
Apple's choice of June 29 as the rollout date for the iPhone was variously denoted "iDay" and "iFriday" by the media, and saw anxious early adopters standing in line for hours outside thousands of Apple and AT&T stores across the country.
I was one of them. And I was not disappointed. This device lives up to the "insanely great" tag. For any tech aficionado, this is a must-have. Established players are reeling from this opening salvo.
Strangers come up to me on the street when they see me using it. Some take pictures of me, as if any iPhone owner is now a tourist attraction. Today a happy couple told me they could now go home and tell their kids that they "had touched the iPhone," a reaction I found slightly disconcerting.
Cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs is positioning the iPhone as the third leg of Apple's strategic chair. He is saying that the iPhone will reinvent the notion of a cellphone in the way that the Macintosh reinvented the notion of a computer.
I don't think the iPhone fundamentally innovates over and above the existing offerings, in the manner that the iPod, the Macintosh, and the Apple II all did in their day. To the contrary, I find that the iPhone reveals that Mr. Jobs, and thus Apple, does not (yet) understand a paradigm of 21st-century computer usage.
At its heart, the iPhone is a projection of the original vision of bringing clunky desktop applications such as e-mail, contact databases, to-do lists, telephones, note taking, and Web browsing to the palm of your hand. Because that is essentially Jobs's generation – transitioning from the mainframe office environment to the PC-based office – he can't quite get rid of the notion that a mobile device is nothing but a really small personal computer.
This is not to downplay the technical achievement here: As a palm-sized almost-a-laptop cellphone, the iPhone is a marvel. But it's not a vision of the mobile future.
Here's my theory: Apple can only create really interesting products if Jobs understands the end-user. And Jobs does not understand the 21st-century user. In this century, people don't send memos to each other.
Today, people chat; they blog; they share multimedia such as pictures, video, and audio; they debate ("flame") each other on forums; they link with each other in intricate webs; they switch effortlessly between different electronic personae and avatars; they listen to Internet radio; they battle over reputation; they podcast; they do mash-ups; they vote on this, that, and the other; they argue on wiki discussion groups.
With the exception of a minimalist widget for text messaging, the iPhone does not have direct support for any of that. No support for sharing photos, no recording of podcasts, no text communities, no location awareness.
Without going through a computer with a cable, the iPhone doesn't really communicate very much with anything.
In fact, when you want to communicate with somebody, the method (application) comes before the person. You first have to choose how to communicate (SMS, phone call, e-mail, Web service). Only then can you choose whom you want to talk to. That is a classical "code-centric" view of the world. Apple completely misses the opportunity to present text messaging, visual voice mail, and multimedia e-mails in a coherent view.
This is not a simple lack of features. This is not a "one-dot-oh" effect inherent in a brand-new product category. This is a fundamental lack of understanding of social networking.
What made the iPod a breakthrough product was that Jobs really knows music. He's an artsy guy. He's even known to have a really good musical ear. That's why the iPod was awesome.
Social networking and Web 2.0 are apparently another matter. It's a generational thing, I guess. Jobs is even older than I am, and I'm having a really hard time keeping up with the times. Plus he's busier than I am.
What the iPhone should have done was put the social network front and center. It would happily invite the "play" aspect of modern computing, which is increasingly interacting with "work" – personal blogs morph to full-time jobs; YouTube postings lead to advertising agency job offers; entrepreneurial musings lead to investor contacts; and so forth. Chatting and sharing media should have direct support.
But Apple has a unique asset that may yet save the day: the sheer moral support it can draw from the tech community. This past weekend, for example, an entire impromptu developer conference was assembled with the sole purpose of "making the Web a better place for [the iPhone]." So, ironically, social networking technologists are busy arranging themselves such that Apple will, yes, recognize their significance and treat them as first-class citizens. It's not too late.
I hope Apple listens.
• Peter S Magnusson is an entrepreneur living in Cupertino, Calif. You can read his blog at http://petersmagnusson.com.