Does Only Apple Really Understand User Values?By David Morgenstern | Print
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Opinion: Apple again shows its mettle in the integration of hardware, software and services. This time, it's leading the market with a very smart "smart phone." Why can't other technology purveyors do the same?
SAN FRANCISCOIn his Jan. 9 keynote address before the Macworld Expo crowd in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs offered what has become an annual lesson in user values in technology design. But why do so few in the industry seem to be taking the course?
That is the great mystery. Often it's easy to dismiss the power of integration, whether it's hardware and software or software and services. Or with Apple's iPhone, something of all three.
When Steve Jobs demonstrated the first iPod and iTunes music store, many analysts dismissed it. While the iPod had new, useful technology in its hardware interface (the clickwheel) that meshed well with the content management software app on the computer, the whole thing appeared to some as just another product in a crowded category.
However, what sold customers on the iPod was the way that all parts of the system worked together: the elegance of the computer-side application; the expression of technology in hardware and user interface; its easy integration with the music store. Each component separately expressed excellence and usability, and together they were amazing.
Jobs today said that Apple has sold 2 billion songs to date from that store. It sold 1.2 billion songs in 2006. Certainly, that's its own mark of success.
Yet, some folks in the press section of the audience weren't sold on the iPhone. Of course, some of them also missed the value of the Internet on first demonstration.
However, I admit that it can be hard to check reality while in the bubble of a Steve Jobs Macworld demo. He is the master of such demonstrations and the Mac-phile crowd hangs on every word from his gigantic projected mouth seen on the tall-and-wide screen in the Moscone Center.
Still, the device rang my bell in the cool department. With the full browser implementation, it's almost like a tablet PC but smaller and with telephony. As Jobs said, most smart phones aren't very smart. The iPhone's IQ must be off the scale.
Here are a few notes that I scribbled in the dark:
This pinch zoom capability was a very natural action and immediately understandable to the user, and made possible by the screen technology. Of course, Apple often provides several ways to do something and simply double-tapping the display also zoomed in on an area.
I also appreciated how automatic functions are enabled by small sensors in the phone. Apple is leading in these little touches in the hardware interface, such as the use of ambient light sensors in its MacBook Pro notebooks that can automatically control the screen's brightness or bring up backlights in the keys for working in the dark.
Jobs said there was an accelerometer, and proximity and ambient light sensors built into the phone. These benefit the user interface with automatic functions.
So, in the demonstration of the photo capabilities of the iPhone, when users come across an image in landscape aspect, they just turn the phone sideways. The accelerometer senses the movement and automatically rotates the screen from portrait to landscape, or vice versa. This will also be useful when you're looking at a Web page in the iPhone's browser.
When users lift the phone to their ears to take a call, the proximity sensor turns off the display, which saves power and stops wrong input by inadvertent ear input.
And like Apple's notebooks, the built-in ambient light sensor can reduce or brighten the display's backlight depending on ambient light, which can save power.
Next Page: Where others go wrong.
Most other device makers strip out such innovations in computing devices for reasons of cost. Or they seek some small inexpensive industrial design that really doesn't make a big difference.
Instead, Apple packs its products with these details and uses them as its differentiator in the market. But these capabilities always are functional, not just some clever tweak, and they are integrated into the user experience.
Of course, attention to small interface gestures were evident in the software too. In an e-mail message, a phone number is parsed and automatically gains a link style. If you click on it, the phone dials the number. You don't have to add it to your address book or anything.
They must be crying in Nokia-ville and other telephony towns today. Apple's team in Cupertino has stopped the market with this product.
Meanwhile, the Macintosh was mostly ignored in Apple's announcements today, if we don't count the company's name change from Apple Computer to just plain Apple Inc.
Still, Jobs couldn't pass up the recently revealed quote in court documents by Jim Allchin, the soon-departing co-president of Microsoft's Platform Products & Services division: "I would buy a Mac today if I was not working at Microsoft."
According to Jobs, more than 50 percent of purchases in all channels are from "switchers," users who are moving off of the Windows platform.
Instead of downloading content over the bandwidth-constrained cellular network, users push content into the iPhone from their computers with a fast USB 2.0 connection. Yes, this is all an essential part of Apple's DRM scheme, but it also ensures a robust user experience. And it makes sure that users charge the phone's battery.
Finally, Apple appears to be giving an opening for Mac software developers and Internet services vendors in the iPhone. On the developer front, there's the user of Dashboard widgets, which are popular Mac applets used for a wide range of productivity functions and viewing bits of Internet content.
I noticed that Apple didn't push people to its own .Mac services with the iPhone (maybe a good thing since iMac's performance and reliability has come under criticism in Mac circles lately). Instead, the company partnered with Google and Yahoo for mail, search and mapping services.
Would Microsoft have done the same?
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