What Does The iPhone Teach Us About Technology?

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 |  About: Apple Inc. (AAPL)
by: Barry Ritholtz

The reviews for the iPhone are coming in, and they are breathless (see below). Rather than add to the over-the-top-hype about the gorgeous little thing, I would rather think about what lessons can be drawn from its mere existence.

I believe there are quite a few practical things to be taken away from the development and marketing of this. An education is available to those companies, corporate managements, engineers, inventors and investors who are paying attention:

1. Committees Suck: The old joke is that a Camel is a Horse designed by a committee. As we have seen all too often, what comes out of large corporations are bland-to-ugly items that (while functional and reliable) do not excite consumers.

When a company decides to break the committee mindset and give a great designer the reins, you get terrific products that sell well. The Chrysler (DCX) 300 does not looks like it was designed by a corporate committee. Think of Chris Bangle's vision for BMW -- and its huge sales spike -- and you can see what the upside is in having a visionary in charge of design.

Better pick a damned good one, though . . .

2. Present Interfaces Stink: How bad is the present Human Interface of most consumer items? (Leaving the improving-but still too hard to use-Windows aside for a moment, let's consider the mobile phone market: It was so kludgy and ugly that the entire 100 million unit, multi-billion dollar industry now finds itself at risk of being completely bypassed, all because some geek from California wanted a cooler and easier to use phone.

What other industries may be at risk? 

3. Industrial Design Matters:  We have entered a period where industrial design is a significant element in consumer items. From the VW (OTCPK:VLKAY) Bug to the iPod, good design can take a ho-hum ordinary product and turn it into a sales winner.

4. R&D is Paramount: While most of corporate America is slashing R&D budgets (and buying back stock), the handful of companies who have plowed cash back into R&D are the clear market leaders this
cycle: Think Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Toyota (NYSE:TM), Nintendo (OTCPK:NTDOY). A well designed, innovative product can create -- or upend -- an entire market.

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) did it with the X-box; What other companies have the ability to  disrupt an entire market?

5. Disdain for the Consumer can be Fatal: As we have seen with Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), Home Depot (NYSE:HD), The Gap (NYSE:GPS), Sears (NASDAQ:SHLD), etc., the consumer experience is more important than most corporate managements seem to realize. Ignore them at your peril.

What other lessons are there for companies in the business of designing products for consumers to use?

For the moment, let's put the iPhone aside and answer the questions above:  What markets, companies, products , segments are at risk due to their poor designs?  (Use the comments to answer).

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(The WSJ and NYT reviews of the iPhone are below).

 

Pogues_iphone_tour

Graphic courtesy of NYT

The NYT's David Pogue:

"The phone is so sleek and thin, it makes Treos and BlackBerrys look obese.
The glass gets smudgy — a sleeve wipes it clean — but it doesn’t scratch easily. I’ve walked around with an iPhone in my pocket for two weeks, naked and unprotected (the iPhone, that is, not me), and there’s not a mark on it.

But the bigger achievement is the software.
It’s fast, beautiful, menu-free, and dead simple to operate. You can’t get lost, because the solitary physical button below the screen always opens the Home page, arrayed with icons for the iPhone’s 16 functions...

E-mail is fantastic. Incoming messages are fully formatted, complete with graphics; you can even open (but not edit) Word, Excel and PDF documents.

The Web browser, though, is the real dazzler. This isn’t some stripped-down, claustrophobic My First Cellphone Browser; you get full Web layouts, fonts and all, shrunk to fit the screen. You scroll with a fingertip — much faster than scroll bars. You can double-tap to enlarge a block of text for reading, or rotate the screen 90 degrees, which rotates and magnifies the image to fill the wider view.

Finally, you can enlarge a Web page — or an e-mail message, or a photo — by spreading your thumb and forefinger on the glass. The image grows as though it’s on a sheet of latex."

He goes on to lament the AT&T (NYSE:T) network, but then adds:

But even in version 1.0, the iPhone is still the most sophisticated,
outlook-changing piece of electronics to come along in years. It does so many things so well, and so pleasurably, that you tend to forgive its foibles.

Walt Mossberg loves the iPhone; He too is far less sanguine about AT&T's network:

Our verdict is that, despite some flaws and feature omissions, the iPhone is, on balance, a beautiful and breakthrough handheld computer. Its software, especially, sets a new bar for the smart-phone industry, and its clever finger-touch interface, which dispenses with a stylus and most buttons, works well, though it sometimes adds steps to common
functions...

Despite its simple interface, with just four rows of colorful icons on a black background, the iPhone has too many features and functions to detail completely in this space. But here's a rundown of the key features, with pros and cons based on our testing.

Hardware: The iPhone is simply beautiful. It is thinner than the skinny Samsung BlackJack, yet almost its entire
surface is covered by a huge, vivid 3.5-inch display. There's no physical keyboard, just a single button that takes you to the home screen. The phone is about as long as the Treo 700, the BlackBerry 8800 or the BlackJack, but it's slightly wider than the BlackJack or Treo,
and heavier than the BlackBerry and BlackJack.

 

The display is made of a sturdy glass, not plastic, and while it did pick up smudges, it didn't acquire a single scratch, even though it was tossed into Walt's pocket or briefcase, or Katie's purse, without any protective case or holster. No scratches appeared on the rest of the body either.

Mossberg's Bottom line: "Despite its network limitations, the iPhone is a whole new experience and a pleasure to use."

Smartphone Comparo via WSJ:

Moss_20070626_2

Graphic courtesy of WSJ

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Sources:
The iPhone Matches Most of Its Hype   
DAVID POGUE
NYT, June 27, 2007
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/27/technology/circuits/27pogue.html

Testing Out the iPhone
We Spend Two Weeks Using Apple's Much-Anticipated Device
To See if It Lives Up to the Hype; In Search of the Comma Key

WALTER S. MOSSBERG and KATHERINE BOEHRET
WSJ, June 27, 2007; Page D1
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118289311361649057.html