The real in­no­va­tion be­hind iPhone

CityPress - - Voices -

When the iPhone emerged in 2007, it came with all the prom­ise and pomp of a ma­jor an­nounce­ment by Ap­ple’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Steve Jobs, who high­lighted its user in­ter­face and slick de­sign as key sell­ing points. We know now that the iPhone trans­formed the mo­bile phone busi­ness, the in­ter­net econ­omy and, in many ways, so­ci­ety as a whole. But tech­ni­cally, the iPhone was not very in­no­va­tive. Its soft­ware and the in­ter­face idea were based on the iPod, which was al­ready rein­vent­ing the dig­i­tal mu­sic in­dus­try. Touch­screens had ap­peared on ear­lier phone and tablet mod­els, in­clud­ing Ap­ple’s New­ton. And topline Nokia phones had more mem­ory, bet­ter cam­eras and faster mo­bile con­nec­tiv­ity.

What made the iPhone trans­for­ma­tive was the shift in con­cept un­der­pin­ning the iPhone project: Its de­sign­ers did not cre­ate a phone with some ex­tra fea­tures, but rather, a fullfledged, hand-held com­puter that could also make calls and browse the in­ter­net.

In the 10 years since iPhone’s launch, much in com­merce and cul­ture have changed. In part it is be­cause the iPhone, and the smart­phone boom it spurred, cre­ated a por­ta­ble per­sonal tech­nol­ogy in­fra­struc­ture that is al­most in­fin­itely ex­pand­able. The iPhone changed the game not through its ini­tial tech­nol­ogy and cool user in­ter­face, but as a re­sult of its cre­ators’ imag­i­na­tion and courage.

As the iPhone took shape, its de­sign­ers were torn be­tween mak­ing a phone or a com­puter. En­gi­neers and mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tives wor­ried that the new device would kill the iPod mar­ket, which had driven Ap­ple’s resur­gence for five years. Nokia, the big­gest player in the cell­phone mar­ket at the time, had sim­i­lar tech­nolo­gies, and also feared out­com­pet­ing its suc­cess­ful mo­bile phone prod­uct lines, which used a sim­pler and more old-fash­ioned soft­ware plat­form than that on which iPhone was built.

Ap­ple took the leap by in­stalling a fully ca­pa­ble com­puter op­er­at­ing sys­tem on the iPhone, along with a few small ap­pli­ca­tions. Some were phone-re­lated, in­clud­ing a pro­gramme for mak­ing and re­ceiv­ing calls, a new way to dis­play voice­mail mes­sages and a sys­tem that kept dif­fer­ent con­tacts’ text mes­sages sep­a­rate. Oth­ers were more com­puter-like, in­clud­ing an email app and a web browser. Of course, the iPod’s mu­sic­play­ing fea­tures were in­cluded, link­ing the phone with Ap­ple’s emerg­ing mu­sic ecosys­tem.

Ini­tially, that was it for apps. But skilled com­puter en­gi­neers and hack­ers knew they were hold­ing a palm-sized com­puter and be­gan writ­ing their own soft­ware and get­ting it run­ning on their iPhones. So be­gan the now ubiq­ui­tous app. Within a year, these apps were so pop­u­lar, and their po­ten­tial so sig­nif­i­cant, that Ap­ple’s se­cond ver­sion of the iPhone op­er­at­ing sys­tem made it easy, and le­gal, for users to in­stall apps on their phones. The fully func­tional hand-held com­puter changed how users and man­u­fac­tur­ers thought about mo­bile phones. For all phone com­pa­nies, soft­ware be­came far more im­por­tant than hard­ware. What apps a phone could run, and how quickly, mat­tered more than whether it had a slightly bet­ter cam­era; whether it slid open or was a bar-style; or whether it had a large or small key­board. The iPhone’s key­board was on-screen and soft­ware­gen­er­ated, mak­ing a func­tion that had re­quired ded­i­cated hard­ware into one run­ning on generic hard­ware and ded­i­cated soft­ware. At the time of the iPhone launch, Nokia of­fered about 200 dif­fer­ent phone styles to meet the needs of its mil­lions of users. There was one iPhone model at first. Since then, there have been only 14 ma­jor styles – now in var­i­ous colours, not just the orig­i­nal white and black. This is the power of soft­ware func­tion­al­ity and re­lated sim­plic­ity. The im­por­tance of soft­ware on a mo­bile phone shifted the in­dus­try’s econ­omy. Money came not just from sell­ing de­vices and phone ser­vices, but also from mar­ket­ing and sell­ing apps and in­app ad­verts. App de­vel­op­ers must share rev­enue with the firms that con­trol smart­phones’ op­er­at­ing sys­tems, pro­vid­ing se­ri­ous earn­ing power: Ap­ple holds about 15% of the mo­bile phone mar­ket, but reaps 80% of global smart­phone prof­its. What­ever the next tech game-changer, it is likely to have some con­nec­tion to the smart­phone. Even to­day, ex­plor­ing vir­tual re­al­ity re­quires only in­stalling an app and con­nect­ing a bit more hard­ware to an ex­ist­ing phone. Smart­phone in­ter­faces and cam­eras al­ready mon­i­tor au­to­mated homes. Even as de­vices are de­vel­oped to op­er­ate all around us, many will point to the iPhone as a con­cep­tual an­ces­tor and in­spi­ra­tion. Kalle Lyyti­nen is an Iris S Wol­stein pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment de­sign at Case West­ern Re­serve Univer­sity in the US. This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in The Con­ver­sa­tion

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