A Triumph of Commercial Innovation


You’ll know what a triumph the design of the iPhone is when you hear people say: “I hate computers, but I love my iPhone!”

Here’s the main thing you need to know about the iPhone: Apple’s done it. They’ve figured out how to bring the power of a personal computer to a handheld device. After this, it is all details.

Subsequent iPhones, and iPhone competitors, will add features, get cheaper, faster, etc. But we’ll look back to the release of the first iPhone as the moment when the power of the personal computer moved off of our desks and into our pockets — not just the pockets of technology nerds, who have been carrying PDAs for decades, but into the pockets (and purses and backpacks) of the otherwise gadget-wary public.

The irony will be not just that the iPhone is in fact a computer, but that it runs a variant of OS X, the same operating system in the Macintosh and AppleTV. The significance of this to non-geeks is that the sky is the limit for what the iPhone can do. Now that Apple has brilliantly solved the user interface challenge, it will just be a matter of building more applications in the iPhone style.

Why is Commercialization a Dirty Word?

In “The Mouse and the Market” I told the story of the invention and commercialization of the mouse. The main point is that the mouse was invented in the 1960s, but sat in the lab as an impractical, expensive prototype until Apple poured capital into designing a mouse useable by the masses in the early 1980s. Furthermore, this process of commercialization was not trivial but involved creativity and innovation equal to the original conception of the mouse.

Yet, very typically when people speak of something being “commercialized” they mean that some pure and lofty thing is cheapened, vulgarized, and exploited.

The iPhone is yet another example of what a creative, innovative process commercialization can be. For commercialization is exactly what Apple excels at. Just as with the design of the original Macintosh, Apple has taken features that have been around for years and done the hard design work to make those features useable by non-geeks. (And speaking as a professional computer geek, let me say that I, for one, don’t prefer for things to be hard to use. Just because I can puzzle out lousy computer interfaces doesn’t mean I want to spend my time doing so.)

Apple takes its interface design very seriously as described in this Time article on the iPhone:

Unlike most competitors, Apple also places an inordinate emphasis on interface design. It sweats the cosmetic details that don’t seem very important until you really sweat them. “I actually have a photographer’s loupe that I use to look to make sure every pixel is right,” says Scott Forstall, Apple’s vice-president of Platform Experience (whatever that is). “We will argue over literally a single pixel.” As a result, when you swipe your finger across the screen to unlock the iPhone, you’re not just accessing a system of nested menus, you’re entering a tiny universe, where data exist as bouncy, gemlike, animated objects that behave according to consistent rules of virtual physics. Because there’s no intermediary input device — like a mouse or a keyboard — there’s a powerful illusion that you’re physically handling data with your fingers. You can pinch an image with two fingers and make it smaller.

As hinted at in that excerpt, the iPhone dispenses with many of the interface conventions that Apple itself popularized with the original Macintosh: windows, scroll bars, menus, cut/copy/paste. In its place they have developed a new user interface language more suitable to a small handheld device. For example, instead of clicking on a scroll bar to move down a web page, you merely flick your finger up the display and the page moves up. It creates the illusion that you are manipulating the web page like a physical object.

Many, if not most, of the things the iPhone can do have been done before in handheld devices. Phones have been incorporating non-phone features for some time now. For example, it is claimed that the camera phone was invented in 1997. But just because a phone is technically capable of doing something doesn’t mean that people are actually wading through the manual, figuring out how to do it and regularly making use of the feature. With the iPhone, ordinary people will make use of advanced features like web browsing, maps, music and video, and fully powered e-mail that they would have dismissed as “only for people good with computers” before.

Innovating For the Market

Why is this sort of innovation, the kind that affects millions of people, so often given short shrift? Perhaps it is because it is so clearly a market phenomenon. What curse word is worse from the intellectual class than “commodification”?

Typical of this sort of innovation, Apple’s development of the iPhone has been marked by capital investment with an eye towards profits, and therefore a merciless control of costs. Apple CEO Steve Jobs isn’t just interested in neat technology for his personal amusement. He is clearly driven to lead the development of devices that will be both fun and practical for millions of people.

Somewhere along the way, innovating for the market came to be considered a low, uncreative activity. The cultural elite considers only those who follow their personal muse without regard for money, popularity or even comprehensibility to be original and creative.