Evolve or die – it’s the most basic tenet of life.
I’ve been thinking about the cruel twist of fate that made the original iPhone (a device I have repeatedly pointed out is very underpowered in some aspects, particularly media creation and sharing, for a smartphone and cruelly has it’s full potential locked away by it’s creators) be hailed as a revolution in smartphones despite missing features I’ve been using for a decade now on both smart and feature phones. Now don’t misunderstand me, I actually like the iPhone in some ways, I just don’t think of it as a smartphone as it’s missing some of the main things that classify a smartphone.
A smartphone is a mobile cellular device capable of data transfer and advanced personal information management. It must be able to install third party applications written in the same native language as it’s primary functions and multi-task these and the primary applications.
As you can see, Apple have crippled the iPhone to the point that it’s not really a smartphone, particularly with their decision not to allow multi-tasking.
However, forgetting the smartphone classification for a while and looking just at the iPhone we can see it does excel as a pocketable computing platform, even in ways that better smartphone operating systems can’t, and there’s a good reason for that – unlike other mobile operating systems, the entirity of the phone is opened for developers meaning that they can create applications that far surpass the standard capabilities of the phone, turning it into something pretty special. Applications designed for the iPhone have many more possibilities open for them than those on competing phones, yet they are again constrained by Apple’s decision to withhold multi-tasking from third party applications, not allow any applications that duplicate functions already present in the operating system (removing choice) and stopping applications from running other applications within them (meaning features added to the phone by third parties are restricted to the application that adds them, most ridiculously in the case of the copy and paste application that could only copy text you’d already written in that application and couldn’t take that text into any other applications). Still having the entire system open meant that, even with such serious constraints, developers were able to create some pretty impressive applications.
It’s probably clear now that the main problem I have with the iPhone is Apple themselves and the artificial constraints they’ve put on the device. Had Apple released the iPhone as a tablet PC instead of a smartphone I probably would have still had the same complaints, although it wouldn’t have been in “my” world so my complaints wouldn’t have been so constant, but they added insult to injury by announcing it as a smartphone yet making it severely underfeatured. I believe it was originally designed without phone features to begin with, intended for release as a tablet Mac so to speak, but someone in the design chain decided that tacking on some cellular abilities would help it sell better. Even now, two years after release and on the announcement of the third iteration of iPhone hardware, they’re still playing catch-up in the phone stakes at least. Take a look at the recently announced “new” features for the iPhone 3GS:
- Copy and paste. I’ve been using this on phones since 1998. It’s been announced as a new feature for the iPhone in 2009.
- MMS built into the SMS app, to send text and multimedia pictures and video. This is another old one for me although I was on my third phone that supported it before the UK networks supported it back in 2002.
- The iPhone OS 3.0 will get Spotlight search enabling you to search within your contacts, notes, messages etc to find something. I’ve been using that particular revolution for three or four years now although smaller versions of it have been around for well over a decade.
- Brand new 3 megapixel camera that can capture video as well. Yeah, that was the top end standard about three years ago. Now there are budget models that have better cameras.
- Text alerts and custom alert sounds. Seriously, this has been announced as a new feature when the 3GS was recently announced! I rest my case there with that one item.
Not very good is it? These are features that budget phones have had for ages now. That’s not to mention new incoming features like artist based playback and playlist support for music (on a phone designed around an iPod of all things).
And so we’ve established that the iPhone is not really a smartphone, with even the upcoming 3GS still having some way to go before it can reach full smartphone capabilities (although the basic hardware is now in place and it would only take a firmware update to enable multi-tasking), but is quite an attractive mobile computing package for casual users even if it doesn’t allow even the most basic third party multi-tasking capabilities that professional users rely on. We know that the applications and the way they’re developed are the strong point and that Apple’s lacksadaisical approach to the phone features (as well as their bizarre and illegal way of marketing the phone) is the weakest point of the device, but are there any lessons that can be learned from the entire iPhone saga and applied to better smartphone operating systems? I believe so and I’m not actually talking about the touchscreen, despite that still being the main talking point.
The way the entirity of the phone is opened up for developers to play with is the first lesson everyone should learn. Symbian is the world’s most powerful and popular smartphone operating system, yet it has gone the opposite route. Symbian phones have been more closed off than ever since the arrival of the 3rd edition phones and applications have had to go through a complex and expensive testing and signing procedure before they can be installed. While this kept viruses from becoming as widespread as they are on PCs in a time when people were experimenting with mobile viruses (something both the iPhone and Google’s Android OS have had to deal with recently), it also stifled creativity by alienating bedroom programmers and caused applications to be more expensive as developers tried to claw back the rising development costs. However Symbian has learned it’s lesson and the new operating system that the Symbian Foundation is working on (due for public release sometime in 2010 or 2011) will have more a much more open development suite. Furthermore, the Symbian Foundation has announced that applications can be sent to them and will be put on all manufacturer and network specific on-device application stores which it forsees as the norm come their OS release. Development costs will be cut by this and more of the capabilities of the phones will be open for developers to play with meaning a much healthier mobile computing application suite for users, but on a very powerful true smartphone capable of multi-tasking and with advanced personal information management and media creation features.
And what of the iPhone? What can it learn from it’s contemporaries? Well there’s still plenty of features missing from the phone and plenty of old hardware in there that they can update once a year to keep them going for a while, but the fact remains that by the time Apple have caught up with everyone else’s phones their operating system will seem pretty outdated and clunky, putting them in the role that they somehow put everyone else in with the release of the iPhone, mostly due to hype at the beginning then down to third party developers and their applications as time went on. Sure, Apple has announced that they’re working on multi-tasking for the iPhone but that very announcement has shown the route they’re going with it (choose which applications should be multi-task enable first, only allowed to run two at the same time) and it’s blatantly the wrong one. The iPhone shook up the mobile world for better or worse, and the usually complacent manufacturers lost market share causing each to learn a few lessons from it, with some learning the wrong lessons entirely. That release is past now and Apple have almost ironed out the weak hardware points of their phone to get it in line with their competitions’ models, just as their competitors have brought many of the user interface advances that captivated the masses with the iPhone’s release to the more powerful handsets that they offer.
The irony of this situation is that Apple now finds that the one thing they had that made their phone stand apart is available across the board on better specified and cheaper phones, leaving Apple with only the third party applications as the standout feature of the phone. As more operating systems like Android, WebOS (the new Palm one for those who’ve been living under a rock) and Symbian start offering open development platforms and better treatment to installed applications the iPhone will find itself lost amongst the crowd, selling only to those that are loyal to their favoured brand, learning the lesson they set out to teach – evolve or die.