Robert Fabricant is the Executive Creative Director of frog design in New York City.
Few products have ever come as close to embodying our sci-fi fantasies for personal technology as the iPhone. No other product in recent memory has captured the experience we all hoped technology would make possible since we were little kids watching Battlestar Galactica. But as we have all learned from science fiction, every version of the future is trapped in the past. So how old is your iPhone? I would argue that some aspects of the design were surprisingly dated on delivery. Obviously the technology itself is quite advanced--the multi-touch interaction is breathtaking, something that was not foreshadowed in previous products. Nonetheless, here are five reasons why the iPhone design may already be showing its age.
The world o' widgets has swamped us in physical metaphors. This has brought smirks to the faces of many industrial designers as they watch their digital counterparts quote from the consumer electronics vernacular. And it is hard to resist the temptation to bring a nostalgic feel to these interfaces--it's a shortcut to familiarity for a new technology. But this will probably turn out to be one of the most dated elements of the design, as the iPhone takes nostalgia to a new level with the youTube TV icon, the shutter representation within the camera app, and the extremely annoying legal pad metaphor for the note-taking app. (By the way, how could they have screwed up such a simple application? Someone give me a Palm Pilot, please!) To be fair, icons are an easy target. I recently saw a presentation on the motophone, which was specifically designed to rely heavily on universal icons to support its introduction across many languages and character sets in emerging markets. But check out the alarm clock symbol on the motophone. (Does anyone have one of these anymore?)
This nostalgic quality is not limited to a few graphic elements. Click on any drop down menu on a web page and the contents are represented using a strange, 'tumbler' interface. This convention is frequently used for lists throughout the interface--most effectively in the timer function. And it is kind of fun to play with. But whereas coverflow is an elegant way to transpose information for easier browsing and acceleration, this one strikes me as a real throwback. Straight out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. There is a much cleaner list-scrolling mechanism found in the stopwatch--more consistent with Apple's clean aesthetic, and one that won't feel dated any time soon.
All right, you argue, these are merely stylistic cues--ways of cloaking new technology in familiar cues. But the age of the iPhone shows in more than just superficial ways. At frog, we have done a fair amount of user research into mobile communications, with both young and older audiences. Let's face facts, all communication channels are not considered equal. Here's one key insight: most people have multiple email accounts, each flooded with useful and useless communication. The arrival of new email is no longer an event (remember "you've got mail"?). But here is a picture of my iPhone. Notice a couple of things: the number above the email icon on the dock (at the bottom). I don't expect this number to ever go down. Indeed, I am still accessing my work email through the iPhone's web browser, and once I have this account set up in the mail client, I'm sure that this number will hit triple digits...and stay there. Interesting design problem: how do you represent the state of email more effectively? Maybe the rate is more important than the quantity? Maybe there should be different colors for separate accounts, so that I can see which account the new mail is coming in to? I am not sure, but this problem is begging for an Apple innovation. Here is another insight: as the value of email drops, the usage of SMS is proliferating across age groups. The arrival of a text message is an event--something closer to synchronous communication, like a missed call or voice mail. A text message demands attention and response. So why is email given a place of prominence on the dock, while SMS is in a secondary position (where it runs the risk of scrolling off the main menu once new apps are added). Clearly this reflects the fact that more people currently use email than SMS in the USA. But this is a decision that is likely to seem dated very soon.
If there is one, inexorable trend in communications technology, it is the migration towards a people-centric view of information. The buddy list is the ultimate representation of this. And there are few interfaces that I would rather have on the start screen of my handheld. Imagine turning on your device and having a buddy and not app-centric view of your communications data. Would be beautiful. And there is no UI I would rather have for my buddies than Apple's own iChat. So you would think that they would understand the importance of getting this right on their first portable communication device. Wait, I'm sorry, this is a PHONE! Steve was emphatic on that point. So, of course, my contacts are buried in the phone app...right next to the keypad. With the iPhone I can't access my buddies directly from the main menu and then choose how I would like to connect with them. Most current handsets let you do this. And I though they were out of date.
At this point most people want to stay up to date with their blogs almost as badly as with their SMS. And I have been waiting for several years now for the next wave of RSS-enabled devices to hit the market. Yet clearly Apple did not think RSS was a priority. I know that the iPhone hit a home run with the mobile web browsing experience. And you can access your feeds through Safari. But the network is very slow, and the browser does not cache content effectively (the way the email app does for example) for offline consumption in a lean format. I can't tell you how strange it feels to be walking around with 8GB of storage in my pocket and no way to cache the content I care about (this shortcoming is further compounded by the lack of a copy and past function). Feeds are as much about communication as email these days. I was delighted by the RSS visualizer that comes as a screensaver option in OSX (anyone remember PointCast Networks?). And RSS opens up a world of flexible information-styling to suit the specifics of a target device. The opportunities for this have barely been tapped, though I suspect the G-Phone will get this one right. Feeling old yet?
Now, don't get me wrong. I LOVE my iPhone. And the smart folks at Apple are probably working on these very issues right now. New solutions could magically appear the next time I sync up, since the real beauty of the iPhone is in the ability to continually upgrade the phone software. (There is nothing dated about that!) But these choices are revealing of the larger strategy that Steve took towards this product, and Appleâ€™s inability to grasp of some of the key trends shaping communications. For my money, the iPod was much more startling for its boldness, starting with the name (which did not make reference to existing consumer electronics). No icons of old phonographs here (true, it did bring back Geneva, but that was a nod to Apple's history of innovation). The iPod broke cleanly from the past. And, with the launch of the iPod Touch, the parent seems poised to eat its children. Clearly, the impending arrival of VOIP technology and pervasive Wifi/WIMAX networks, imply that the iPhone will not be with us for long; We will all be talking to our iPods (or G-Phones) very soon.