One of the biggest fallacies about the iPhone is that it is – first and foremost – a phone. True, the phone feature is handy, but many of its other functions, such as the ability to send and receive email without WiFi, are much more useful to me. What makes the iPhone so special is that it is a mobile computer that is easy to use: in fact it is easier to use than a ‘normal’ computer.
Now, that fact is worth pausing to think about. We geeks often forget that millions and millions of people have yet to own a computer. We are still in the early stages of the digital revolution: there is everything still to play for. Perhaps, when history is written, the desktop-Windows/Mac computer will be seen as a blip, a brief staging post towards the ubiquity of always on, ultra mobile computers that, for the time being, we are still calling mobile phones.
My first computer’s primary purpose (in 1981) was writing computer programs: you turned it on, and a cursor blinked, waiting for you to type in BASIC commands. Later, I had a dual-floppy PC (running CPM-DOS) that included a copy of WordStar: it was the first computer I had which expected me to use it for writing and storing documents, and made it easy to do this. Every computer I have used since has expected me to use it for creation, and tries to keep my created documents for me to come back to. But my iPhone is primarily for consuming content. It stores text, movies, music and so on, and links to a whole lot more, and allows me to access to this media anywhere. But I did not create any of this stuff: I bought it or got it for free.
An iPhone can be used to create content, but that isn’t its strength. It is like using a sports car to move house. You can do it, but its better if you have a pickup truck. And up until now, computers have been pickup trucks. Imagine what cars would be like if they had been shaped and designed only for and by people who build houses for a living, and not people who just live in houses.
The more I use the iPhone, and see it used, the more I realise that this is how people want their computers.
Every geek has had the following telephone conversation with a co-worker or family member:
“I wrote a letter last night, and now I can’t find it.”
“OK: where did you save it?”
“I don’t know – I just saved it. It’s somewhere on the computer”
“OK: what did you call it?”
“I can’t remember”
When you find the letter, it is on the desktop, and is called ‘letter’.
It doesn’t matter which operating system we are talking about, non-geeks are very bad at understanding that computer-created, non-real documents need to be named, and that this naming is hugely significant. And that your document therefore needs a purpose before you have even started it. This is wildly counter-intuitive. Scribbling on envelopes is a time honoured way of getting things done: this would never happen if I had to select a fresh envelope every time, and give it an appropriate title first. And imagine if, when you got to the end of writing your envelope, you had to remember to name it intelligently or it would disappear before your very eyes.
Also, non-geeks grasp better than geeks the following paradox: that having the ability to store huge numbers of documents in any way you can imagine, and search for them using dozens of different methods, makes things harder to find, and not easier.
This iPhone solves this problem. All your notes are in notes. You can’t lose them: you don’t have to remember to save them. If you want to use the text in another app, you need to do a bit more thinking, but few people do. And the emphasis has shifted: instead of presuming that the user has a filing system for his documents, and a suite of applications that might want access to them, it presumes that the user only wants the document to be used by one application, and to keep them as closely together as possible.
My father is 70 years old. He has never owned a computer, despite being involved with them since the sixties. He is from the ‘Mad Men’ generation, that did not consider using a keyboard to be a manly skill. He got himself an iPhone a few weeks ago, and thinks it is magic. I have not had one technical support call, but he has spent a lot of time telling me which apps I should buy. This was a man who could not program the video machine, and he has complete confidence and competence using this far more complex device. It is the only computer he needs, and I expect many other people to make the same discovery.
When the mouse was first pitched to the world, battle-hardened users of the command line thought it was a gimmick. To people who knew how to use computers, a mouse was unnecessary. But the public voted with their feet: the mouse made computers accessible to a new generation of users. The iPhone represents an even more profound shift: it brings digital content to people, without the presumption that these people will use it to create much content of their own.
Far from being a pickup truck, Steve Jobs once described the personal computer as like a bicycle for the mind, and it seems apt: it still presumes you will do a lot of pedaling yourself. The iPhone is like a bicycle which magically makes all the roads go downhill.