‘We are going to make some history together today,’ said Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, as he opened his keynote address at the Macworld conference in San Francisco last week. Alongside the announcement of Apple TV, a device that allows you to stream media from your computer to your TV, Jobs finally brought almost three years of speculation to an end with the announcement of the iPhone. While many had assumed that the long-awaited product would amount to little more than an iPod with basic calls and texting functionality, Apple has confounded its critics by choosing to tackle the most complex type of converged mobile digital technology – the smart phone.
Running a lighter version of the Apple system software OS X, the iPhone is the first product to offer desktop class applications and networking in a mobile device. Alongside simple voice and texting capability, a two-megapixel camera and built-in Wi-Fi capability, it is also an iPod. Due to be launched in the US on the Cingular network in June, the iPhone will retail for $499 (£256) for 4GB and $599 (£307) for 8GB. Europe will follow at the end of the year, with an Asian launch planned for early 2008, but pricing and network details are yet to be announced. Initial hopes for the iPhone are relatively modest. The company expects to sell about ten million units in 2008, or about 1 per cent of the market. But the prediction is that the smart phone is just Apple’s first entry into the mobile arena, with more to come.
Back in 2000, when asked by Business Week magazine if Apple would stray into new markets, Jobs said it was possible, but not as far as the mobile phone market – plenty of huge players already had that industry wrapped up. Soon Motorola, Samsung, Nokia, RIM (Blackberry) and Palm might be wishing Jobs had kept that promise.
Modern smart phones are complex devices – above and beyond phone calls, they allow the user to potentially do Web browsing, contact management, games, music playback, photographs and video. But they do it badly – forcing the user to press lots of tiny buttons to navigate the menu structure via a small screen.
With the iPhone, Apple has looked at the total mobile phone experience in minute detail, identifying problems and erasing them one by one. Jobs’ team understood that to make this product a success, they didn’t need to add lots of new functionality, they needed to pay attention to the basics, to create something that is small, beautiful and useful. In product design terms, the handset is everything we expect from Apple. Jonathan Ive and his team have created an elegant, sleek, minimal design, which will reveal a host of delightful details once we handle the actual product. However, in the case of the iPhone, the product design plays second fiddle to the stunning interface design.
Jobs realised that by getting rid of the hard-keys and using touch-screen technology, Apple could deliver a better interface solution – big, friendly icons replace fiddly keys, while a context-aware, graphical user interface guides the user through even the most complex tasks. More than two years in development, the ‘multi-touch’ interface is described by Apple as the most revolutionary breakthrough since the mouse. The user navigates by using their finger to slide and press virtual keys. More impressively, image-based data, like Web pages and photographs, are easily manipulated via a number of intuitive, gestural interfaces. To zoom into an image, simply make a pinching motion on the screen with two fingers. To reposition an image, use one finger to drag it around. The interface is tied together with Apple’s trademark attention to detail – transitions and data presentation are beautifully resolved without overpowering the simplicity of the concept, making the interface both functional and emotionally engaging.
On their own, none of the iPhone ideas are radically new – this kind of thinking has been around for many years. But the fact that Apple has been able to develop the ideas into a fully realised product and bring them to market shows how far advanced its corporate commitment to innovation and design is, compared to its competitors.
Industry reaction to the announcement was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Hours after the announcement, Apple shares rocketed just as shares of other smart-phone makers plunged. It seems Jobs may well have just presided over the fourth major game-changing product of his career. After the Apple II, the Macintosh and the iPod, the iPhone may well be the next Apple product that, in the words of the man himself, ‘comes along [and] changes everything’.
Rivals have six months to respond, but it is unlikely they will have anything that can remotely compete. iPhone OS X opens the doors to Apple moving into many different arenas, and the name change from Apple Computer to Apple sends a very strong signal. Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung – Apple is coming for you.
Mark Delaney is a director of strategic consultancy Plan