The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Living in the future

Jason Kottke on how “the iPhone is still from the future in a way that most” single-purpose electronic devices aren’t:

Once someone has an iPhone, it is going to be tough to persuade them that they also need to spend money on and carry around a dedicated GPS device, point-and-shoot camera, or tape recorder unless they have an unusual need. But the real problem for other device manufacturers is that all of these iPhone features — particularly the always-on internet connectivity; the email, HTTP, and SMS capabilities; and the GPS/location features — can work in concert with each other to actually make better versions of the devices listed above. Like a GPS that automatically takes photos of where you are and posts them to a Flickr gallery or a video camera that’ll email videos to your mom or a portable gaming machine with access to thousands of free games over your mobile’s phone network.

I think this is a pretty big deal, because it gives Apple and other makers of multifunction devices a more competitive position. It isn’t just that the iPhone has a camera, so you don’t need another camera – it’s that the iPhone’s wireless, sync, display, and other built-in features actually make it a BETTER solution for taking mobile pictures than any standalone camera.

This suggests a solid principle for multifunction devices (which also happens to be the one proffered by Umair Haque) – not innovation, but awesomeness. Adding extra features alone only adds value arithmetically, if that. (Sure, it’d be nice if the Kindle also had a calculator, but it wouldn’t really make it any better as a reader.) Extra features that in turn make each other work better adds value geometrically, at least. And the iPhone’s base of being a portable device with a nice screen, good UI, wireless connectivity, and ability to sync with a computer and cloud store — all, except wireless, foundational technologies of the original iPod — give it an incredibly wide base for adding geometric value.

It’s important, too, that the iPhone, like all media devices, doesn’t just compete for attention based on its features or costs; it’s also in competition for the geography of the human body. It’s what you put in your pocket, what you mount in your living room, what you stow away in your bag when you get on an airplane.


I’m glad you picked up on the geometric value add aspect of the iPhone…it’s how I started thinking about the whole thing. The original piece was going to be how iPhones are analogous to big cities in that for people who want what cities offer, a city of 1,000,000 people is not 10 times more appealing than a city of 100,000 people, it’s way more than that. And with each addition of a new “feature”, the city’s value grows not linearly but geometrically. So too with the iPhone. But I ended up ditching the analogy for the competition angle, which was way easier to explain.

This is definitely what constitutes good media these days: convergence of function across different forms of media.

For me, the exciting part about this is not just the broad spectrum of functions available on a device such as the iPhone, but the functions that are waiting to be discovered by the individual user. The more options–options that designers didn’t necessarily have in mind to begin with–that users find/create, the more personal localization a device can have. I would agree that this is a huge competitive edge for Apple, because it’s almost like the devices they are selling are continuing to evolve with the user, even without your standard upgrades and such.

At what point do we worry about corporate interference with how all this technology could possibly develop. I’m not using this as a diatribe against the, to quote Jason, “monopolistic robber barons” of AT&T or Apple. But seriously, there are very real and very big limitations to the development of this platform as far as what Apps are allowed and what aren’t (for Android, too).

This technology is obviously very advanced … more advanced than most of the people using it can comprehend (like me, for instance. Or the people using fart apps). Isn’t limiting the few people who do understand it through a rigorous application process a disservice to the development of the technology?

I think one of the best qualities of the internet (and I’m channeling Dave Winer here) is that it is so open to experimentation and growth, while the smart phone market is so closed and restricted. There’s no worry of Verizon kicking you offline if you try to develop an opensource online application – and there a few terms of service to violate.

I’m curious if you guys are concerned at all about the limitations to development, or if you think people will find a way to improve and innovate?

No, it’s true; we’ve talked about it before (link 1, link 2, link 3 – surely many more).

The specifics of the future, I’m not very sure about. I do think that the general trend is for post-PC devices to be highly multifunctional and for corresponding single-function and analog devices to wane in their importance. And I think multifunction devices will become smarter in the way they combine their functions. One example of that smartness will be the ability to swap general software functions in and out based on the needs/wishes of the user.

I don’t know if this is necessarily a good thing, by the way. In particular, I think hardware-based devices that do a small range of things really, really well are great. (For instance, I’d love a cheap B&W printer that’s fast, never jams, requires little maintenance, and just plain works.)

And I think there are intermediate positions to be struck. There’s a good essay to be written about why the winning formula on the iPhone and other handhelds seems to be cloud-backed client applications, rather than, say, web apps. Remember when Apple was telling developers that if they wanted to develop for the iPhone, they should write web applications? Man.

Some of the success of the app market has to do with the way the App store played out – the norm established is that you can charge for an app to put on an iPhone, while the assumption for web-based applications is that they’re free. But I think it also has to do with the fact that at an intermediate, software/interface level, client applications can be designed and tailored to do specific tasks in a way that’s a lot harder for web-only apps to do.

So the web browser, particularly on a small handheld, turns out to actually be TOO unspecified, too multifunctional. We need – or at least prefer – some kind of specificity, even if that specificity is about a dedicated client rather than a dedicated piece of hardware.

I don’t know much about the technical end – how smart do you have to be to make a fun/useful iPhone app, as opposed to a fun/useful web page, or flash movie, or…

Robin might be able to speak to that.

1. I agree w/ Zack’s caution (and as Tim indicates, we’ve talked about this a lot). Much of the web’s magic has been in its openness, and the iPhone, for all its power, it anything but open. I love your use of the word “geometric” here, Tim, and I’d say that actually points to one of the iPhone’s weaknesses right now. In terms of the device’s power and utility, it’s geometric. In terms of the ecosystem’s growth and development, it seems to be limited—at the moment—by Apple’s ability to review and approve apps. Imagine if in the early days of the web, Netscape had to approve all new websites! Ugh!

2. That said, I actually think the power of the iPhone’s browser has been generally underappreciated. It’s really a wonder—you can do things in it that you can’t yet do in most desktop browsers! And, it’s increasingly getting hooked into the iPhone’s hardware. For example, via Javascript in a web page, you can now use the GPS. Maybe you’ll be able to use the camera before long. As that environment becomes a more-equal peer to the native iPhone app environment, it starts to answer the openness question.

2a. And finally, to answer your question simply: I’d say writing a web app for the iPhone is actually easier than writing one for the open web, because you don’t have to worry about different browser. But writing a native app is a lot harder—in terms of cost of tools, complexity of configuration, and general difficulty level, too.

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