Posted by: Frank | January 30, 2010

The iPhone Way

During the iPad launch event Steve Jobs said essentially that the iPad may be the most important thing that he has worked on, what does he mean? The comment to me suggests that the iPad could mark a change in what we think of as personal computing. When you think of a personal computer today, you probably imagine a device with  a monitor, keyboard, and a square box. You know that you can do all sorts of things with the personal computer by running different computer programs. You might also consider the personal computer complicated, and that there are all sorts of commands that only geeks know to make the computer do things you don’t even want to understand. The personal computer may be made and sold by a number of different companies (HP, Dell, Gateway, IBM, etc.) but none-the-less will run the same programs. In fact, you can also use much of the same hardware peripherals (printers, scanners, hard disks, cameras, etc.) with all the different brands of computers.

The “openness” of personal computers that allows you to run all those programs and use all that hardware is a big reason why the price of personal computers has dropped so much over the last 20 years, and that in turn has made the personal computer affordable enough to pretty much achieve Bill Gate’s vision of a computer on every desk and in every home. However, the price paid for this openness and accessibility is complexity, because when you try to make so many different things work together you usually end up with some things not working at all. Many believe that the personal computer should be easier to use, and ironically, the company that started the personal computer industry, has long been the champion of an easier way, the Macintosh Way, and Steve Jobs is the author of that way.

I suspect that if you were to talk with Steve he would tell you that the Macintosh, while easier than PCs, has also become too complex. In the race to compete with PCs, Apple had to make the Macintosh perform the same functions as PCs, even if it didn’t run the exact same programs and exact same hardware as PCs. (By this I mean you can’t take a program that runs on a PC, just copy it to a native Mac, and have it run. Programs that run on both a PC and Mac have been specifically created for the PC and Mac, even if they have the same name and the same functions.) What Apple learned by making the iPhone is how to make a simpler way of personal computing. In short, the iPhone Way to simplicity is a combination of limitations and control, and both of these tenants are completely opposite to what we have known about personal computing.

It is my belief that Steve Jobs views the iPad as an implementation of the iPhone Way to personal computing, and because that the iPhone Way is completely opposite to how we have always thought of personal computing, there are a lot of negative reviews of the iPad. You see arguments like “the iPad does not multitask (run mulitiple programs at the same time) so it is not a real computer,” or “the iPad does not have any USB ports to plug in hardware peripherals, so it is not a real computer.” I think both of these intentional design limitations were made to make the iPad simpler to use, because, who is to say that our definition of personal computing today will be the same definition ten years from now.

The other important tenant to the iPhone Way is control to insure that the vision of simpler personal computing is realized. Control is important because smart people tend to find ways to get past limitations. Control is what the iTunes App store is all about. Programs intended to break through any design limitations are not approved and cannot be installed on to the iPhone / iPad through the normal installation process. Apple will control the manufacturing of the iPad so that the limitations in the hardware design, such as few buttons and no USB ports, remain. All of this control by one company, and possibly one man, is all for the sake of simplicity.

Many people will say that the control tenant is the Achilles heal of the iPhone Way, because geeks naturally fight control. They will say it is impossible for Apple to maintain control because the geeks will always find a way around limitations. For example, geeks can replace key programs on the iPhone with their own programs in a process called rooting to make the iPhone do things like connect computers to the Internet (tethering) in a way that the iPhone is normally limited from doing. Rooting the iPhone was popular before Apple released the iTunes App Store because initially it was the only way to run applications on the iPhone, however, after the store came out many people stopped rooting their iPhones because it was no longer necessary and/or more problem than it was worth. In short, while there is a way to overcome the control of the iTunes App Store, many people chose to give up that freedom for the sake of the simplicity that the iPhone Way provides.

I am an “old school” computer user and therefore have a bias against the limitations and control of the iPhone Way. All of my choices in personal computing over the years have been choices of openness over closedness. For example, when it became obvious to me that the Apple Newton was going to be put to rest, I picked Microsoft’s Windows CE handhelds over the Palm Pilot because the Palm Pilot did not provide the expansion capabilities of the Windows CE devices. Handhelds running Microsoft’s software have always been viewed as more difficult to use their competitors, and I guess the fact that I wrote four books of around 400 pages each on how to use these handhelds is evidence of that fact.

As a geek, capabilities and even complexity is more attractive to me than simplicity, however, my geek brethren and I are a minority and I know simplicity is very attractive and the market for it very large. It may not come to pass that the iPhone Way reinvents  personal computing, but what if it does? I find the possibility disturbing as does Alex Payne. I find myself living in a time when people are willing to give up control (see education in the U.S.) and freedom (see airport security) because it makes their lives easier and safer. However, by allowing other people to make decisions for you, which giving control to others is really about, is giving up freedom. When one company controls the means of how you get information, will they allow access to any information that company does not want you to see?


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