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Over-designed: the iPhone

Brian Chen of the New York Time reported on February 7, 2012 that Halliburton has dropped the Blackberry platform for iPhone. For me, this is yet another confirmation that the iPhone platform has emerged as the more mature and stable cell phone technology.

I am so disappointed with HTC’s Android 2.3 update to my Incredible cell phone.  It is now unstable, restarting regularly (complete with annoying “Droid” sound). The Sense Launcher (the operating system’s user interface) restarts every time I use the browser… and this takes many seconds, delaying me from using the phone. It has been widely reported that the Android ecosystem is fragmented. My experience is proof that there is little control over the quality of the user experience. It may be time for me to switch to an iPhone.

That being said, if I go to the iPhone, I will go with reluctance.

Steve Jobs famously said: “This is what customers pay us for – to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”

I don’t believe this totally applies to the iPhone.

The iPhone is, at least, remotely like a cell phone.  Since it is like a cell phone, users do have certain expectations.  One is to be reminded of missed phone calls and voice mails. This functionality has been on cell phones for at least a decade such as my Motorola StarTAC. This functionality is VERY important to the way I use my cell phone.  I have a great app on my HTC Incredible that serves this function and had a similar app on a previous Blackberry.

As of IOS 5, this feature does not exist. There have been FIVE different versions of the iPhone’s operating system, NONE OF WHICH support this feature. Moreover, for “security” reasons, Apple prevents developers from adding this functionality through an app.

Given all of this appears, the lack of these reminders appears to be conscientious design decision on Apple’s part.

If the lack of customizable audible reminders is a design choice, I argue that the iPhone is over-designed.  By over-designed I mean that the design forces a specific usage model on a user and a model that is inconsistant with the way some users function.

That being said, I figured that since Apple is filled with such great designers, starting with the late Steve Jobs, I might be wrong about this. Therefore, I set out to find a rationale for this design choice.  Here’s what I came up with:

  • The iPhone is not really a phone.

If we assume this is correct, then why does IOS 5 have a setting to remind users of missed SMS messages? (even this is a shortsighted: the reminders max out at 10 reminders spaced every two minutes, for a total of 20 minutes of reminding… so if you are away from your phone for 20 minutes, you miss it). No, this can’t be it: even the name, iPhone, has “phone” in it.

  • Since iPhone users constantly look at their phone every waking moment of the day, they will see a visual notification.

Even though I use my cell phone a lot, it isn’t the center of my existence.  I don’t check it all the time. From other comments throughout the internet on this topic, there are a lot of us who don’t look at their cell phones all the time and need audible reminders of missed calls and voicemails.

The point is this…

The way we use our cell phones is very personal.  They are now part of how we function.  The phenomenal success of the App Store is a testimony to this statement: people personalize their phone with apps, cases, docking stations… well, you get it, the whole ecosystem that has sprung up around the iPhone. They buys these things to allow the phone to support they way they function.

Originally Steve said that the apps that came with the iPhone were all everyone would ever need.  (See an article in The Guardian here about this).  Steve got this wrong… so wrong that Apple is about to celebrate 25 BILLION APPS being downloaded from the App Store.  Indeed, the iPhone and the App Store are the epitome of empowering the user to use the iPhone the way they want it.

With this as a backdrop I’ve got to ask this: why doesn’t the Apple allow iPhone users to personalize how their phones remind them of missed calls, voice mails, missed SMS, etc, like virtually every other smartphone, even the lowly Blackberry line?

The only rationale I have left is this: Steve didn’t like to be interrupted by a cell phone reminding him of something.  Steve didn’t like to be nagged.  

I’m about a third of the way through reading Isaacson’s biography of Steve.  Based on everything I’ve read, this seems to be the most plausable.

Really great designers often seem to act like gods for the masses. They bring design and order to where there was none.  I, for one, respect a lot of designers.

But there are two ways of acting like a god:

  • You can dictate and force your design vision on to the masses, or,
  • You can allow your design to empower the masses

I think Apple is schizophrenic in this sense: it plays both ways.

I challenge Apple, now that Steve is gone and not dictating anymore, to be less schizophrenic. Empower users by meeting all of their expectations, not just the ones that meet a narrow definition of what a product should be. Please, give us a complete cell phone experience, not a limited over-designed iPhone cell phone experience.

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Posted by on February 29, 2012 in Apple, design, innovation, iPhone, smartphones, users


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Technology is no longer an ends onto itself

Once upon a time, I was a very early adopter.  I had the first IBM PC, HP’s first DOS laptop (I actually wrote communications software for it under contract to HP), the first Palm, the first smartphone, and the list goes on and on.

There was a lot of personal satisfaction in taking on new technology and making it my own.  In one case, a MIDI tone generator from Yamaha (that’s a box that makes musical sounds under the control of a computer), I actually had to write the Windows device drivers for it to work on Windows

You see, Yamaha had built the device for Macs and didn’t believe it could be made to work on Windows. They thought the Windows operating system was too slow  I said that it could… if you knew what you were doing.  They gave me the device and when I got it working, I sold the device drivers to them.  Yamaha was happy, their product was now Windows compatible.  I was happy: I got some money and a really sweet tone generator that worked on Windows.  A few years after that, I saw my software operating the tone generator at Disney World and the Smithsonian.

(For the geeks out there: I had to write a significant part of the device driver in assembly language and do some low level buffering directly in the interrupt handler.)

But, today, thinks are different for me.

For example, let’s talk about tablets.  I’d really love to have a tablet but, as great as even the iPad is, it will not replace my Mac Book Air.  I need a serious OS and a keyboard.  I would, however, love a tablet to replace the 5×7 notepad I carry with me to take notes.  So, I’ve been looking and waiting for a notepad that is really suitable for that.   But I’m not buying a tablet without it being the right size (a seven inch), the right weight (should approximate my current paper notepad and the leather portfolio I carry it in), and with a dependable OS. I’m really hoping that might be the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7.  We’ll see.

Likewise, I think I’ve pushed my HTC Incredible smartphone as far as it will go.  The Gingberbread 2.3 upgrade now causes HTC’s Sense UI to reload every time I use the browser.  From what I read, the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) is a superior architecture… but the only phone with ICS now is the Samsung Nexus, which is said to have battery life problems along with reception problems (similar to the iPhone 4’s “AntennaGate”).

(By the way: I’d love an iPhone if it only had some sort of AUDIBLE missed call reminder like virtually every other cell phone in the market has).

The point is that I’m in a place where new technology actually has to bring me more value than just being new technology. And I am less tolerant of compromising with problems just to have the latest. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of my maturity or the demands we all place on more mature technologies.

That being said… I’ve seriously got my eye on the Lystro camera….

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Posted by on January 29, 2012 in technology


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