iPhone: It's the Interface

by Bruce Stewart

It's been really interesting to watch all the discussion around the iPhone in both of the topic areas I cover for O'Reilly (ETel and Mac Development). There was a very pronounced dip in enthusiasm among the blogs I read in both of these spaces, that started just about 24 hours after the announcement, when you could almost tangibly feel the glow starting to fade. I was at the Macworld keynote where Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, and there is certainly no disputing that he is one heck of a charismatic speaker and can do a great demo, but I don't think we should discount that fact that a big part of the "wow" factor that spread so fast across the Internet was in large part due to the advances it looks like Apple has achieved with this product. And I'm mostly talking about interface advances.

The Mac developer crowd pretty quickly started realizing and anguishing over the closed nature of the device, which Apple has said we should think of more like an iPod than a computer. They have made it clear they want to completely control the interface, and are not particularly interested in third-party development. You're probably not going to be seeing much iPhone coverage on our Mac DevCenter.

The telecom development folks are also upset that the device will not be open to customization and third-party apps, but they are also pretty upset about the Cingular lock-in and are let down by the apparently completely non-revolutionary aspects on the carrier side of things. Steve talks a big talk and he likes to use words like "revolutionary", but I have to agree that what we know so far sounds like business as usual from the telecom/network side. And while that is disappointing, I think it was pretty unrealistic to expect Apple to chart new ground there, at least right out of the gate. They've got their hands full just getting into this ultra-competitive market, and the tides of telecom carriers are not something easily changed.

But what I remain excited about is the interface. Ted Wallingford sums up many of my opinions well in this post (which is a response to Ken Camp's less-than-enthusiastic take on the iPhone).

I agree that the iPhone is NOT categorically revolutionary. But it does represent a number of firsts. The UI with multi-touch is obscenely cool, no question. And the graphical feedback on the phone I saw demonstrated by Jobs makes Nokia’s gear look antiquated. These may not be revolutionary, but I’ll take positive steps. The worst part of a cell phone has always, always, always been the UI. So I welcome these evolutions.

We like open things here at O'Reilly, and a big part of ETel is about open platforms and open standards and how they can help transform our traditional telecom landscape, and the iPhone is not likely going to be an interesting factor for us there either. But I'm with Ted in welcoming significant interface improvements, and I couldn't agree more that the worst part of cell phones is their UI. I've never owned a cell phone that had an interface I didn't hate (I'm right there with you, Nat), and I'm ready for a device that improves upon that. Om Malik agrees that it is the interface improvements here that are important, and has some interesting thoughts on Apple's use of fluid interfaces in general.