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He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
The appeal and sexiness of the iPhone user interface is actually leading to the appreciation of the value of the UI as a tangible premium (tangible as in ’see how much premium the iPhone can command!’).
Of the Tier 1 mobile phone manufacturers, most are hardware oriented; only Nokia and Sony Ericsson have a holistic view of the phone as a integrated software and hardware experience. These two would be the only Tier 1 manufacturers able to create new products that could match the iPhone.
What makes the iPhone UI so compelling?
In many respects the iPhone and the Nokia N95 are competitors. They are both high priced, high-end devices, but they come from completely different philosophies. The N95 is probably the most technically advanced consumer device ever made. On this planet anyway. The amount of sophisticated hardware packed into a unit the size of a pack of cards is simply unbelievable. Very few manufacturers, if any, can match this level of mobile phone high-tech.
The iPhone internals on the other hand are bog-standard, end of hardware story. (With the exception of the touch screen and the very innovative use of multitouch.) High end phones have been a feature race. What Apple has done is changing the playing field. Don't compete on features, compete on user experience.
How do you make something easy to use? There are a few elements to this. One is to decrease the distance between user knowledge and target knowledge. User knowledge is what the user knows now, target knowledge is what the user has to know in order to use the product. The difference is called the knowledge gap. It the gap is small or non-existent, the product is easy to use. Add to the equation discoverability, learnability and consistency.
Making an easy to use product can be very hard, or it can be fairly simple. Let's look at what Apple has done:
Less features. Apple has severely limited the features compared to the competition. The iPhone is designed for primary use cases only. Either you call someone or you don't. No fancy video calls, no VOIP calls, no PTT (Press-to-talk), no cut and paste, no SIM management, etc, etc, the list goes on.
Better visibility. The iPhone UI does not use menus. All functions are visible on the screen (except gestures; the gestures are invisible and you have to learn them from demonstration or the manual). Softkey based phones mostly uses a system where you have the "content" visible on the screen and the "actions" available on the softkeys. As soon as you get more that 2 possible "actions", you label one of the softkeys "options" and pop up a menu with the rest of the actions.
Direct manipulation. You tap right there on the screen with your finger. There is no indirect manipulation via softkeys. This means a single touch to call someone. On a softkey phone you may have to scroll to the phone number and move your thumb over to the green call key. Or you scroll to the number, select "options" to bring up the menu, scroll and click "Voicecall" from the menu. Direct manipulation is very powerful and probably the primary reason that people find the iPhone easy to use.
Outside assistance. The iPhone offloads tasks to iTunes. This is OK for the US market where Apple can expect practically 100% of their potential customers to have a PC. This is not the case in other parts of the world. The main issue would be sideloading the iPod. Building iTunes into the phone could probably be done, but it's no easy task.
The future might not be so simple
I am not going to guess what direction the iPhone will go, but it is very likely that Apple will add features to the phone. Where are these features going to go? Apple has several alternatives:
Add more buttons. It won't take long before the iPhone run out of screen real estate. You can't make the buttons too small or people with sausage fingers will miss them. Then, you will have to scroll the screen or spread functions over several screens.
Add menus. Its possible that Apple will start using a tap and hold gesture to bring up a menu. Not an entirely bad solution, but you sacrifice some discoverability.
Add more gestures. The iPhone has a limited number of initial gestures. Gestures have to be system wide. You can't add gestures for individual features. New gestures are comparatively hard to teach users and you are probably going to need redundancy. If you add a new gesture for "clear" (for example shake the phone) it is probably only going to work as a shortcut for the existing clear commands. Hmmm, "edit" would probably be a better example here.
Add hardware buttons. Expensive, and it goes against Apples stated philosophy. (But I would not rule out a hardware key for the camera shutter. Especially if Apple decides to make a cameraphone variant of the iPhone.)
Some other wild and wonderful way. There may be other possibilities lurking somewhere in Cosmos and waiting to be discovered. Until then, the iPhone will gain features and loose some of its ease of use.
The normal evolution of successful products is that a lean and mean product attacs where the competition is weak. It gains traction, then adds more and more features until it becomes a feature bloated object of discontent. This is especially true for software. "We have to add features to expand our market and stay ahead of the competition." A great example is the old WordPerfect story. WordPerfect, adding every possible feature users asked for, ended up having a gazillion features. All of them invoked from different key combinations. Users needed 2 week courses to learn to use it. Along comes a revolutionary product that has 10% of the features, but all the features are easily available from this new and fancy thing called menus. Its so easy to use that anybody can sit down and start to use it right away! That product is called Microsoft Word 1.0 and it takes over the word processor market.
There is nothing magic about the iPhone ease of use. Reduce the number of functions until they all fit onto the screen and let people interact directly with them. Apple deserves kudos for having the skills to do it, and the guts, stamina and balls to see it thru. Congratulation Apple, you have changed the mobile phone industry. Take care you don't change into the mobile industry.