Earlier I wrote about general lessons from Apple, but now that i’ve had my iPhone for a couple of weeks, I thought I’d talk about some of the lessons from this new product. I believe there’s much to learn (good and bad) from virtually every new product introduction, but this one is a particularly rich example.
First, I think the biggest lesson from this product is how important it is to understand that you don’t get great, innovative products like this from focus groups. Specifically, you would never come up with an iPhone by listening to investors, users, customers, the media, or industry pundits. The key reason why is that none of these people had any clue that most of what Apple designed was even possible. Unless you were on the bleeding edge of several areas of both hardware and software technology, you would have no idea that touchscreen technology had progressed this far, or sensors with these capabilities were now cost effective, or that processing speed and display technology could enable the user interactions necessary for the desired user experience, to name just a few of the many examples.
I remember when the iPhone was first announced how so many of the pundits dismissed the idea that a touch screen could possibly form the basis of all user input, especially for typing. Most people had experience with the Treo, and how hard it is just to dial a phone number, so they naturally assume that’s a doomed approach. But Apple knows that their job is not to listen to consumers (or the press) and build what they tell them to, their job is to understand the unmet needs of their target users and invent a product that meets those needs. They have the product managers, designers, software and hardware engineers that are responsible for understanding the latest technology available, and for applying these technologies to come up with truly good solutions to these problems.
I can’t emphasize this enough: If you ask a group of users what they want they’ll just describe (perceived) incremental improvements to what they already have and what they assume is possible.
Second, I think the company demonstrated admirable discipline in keeping the focus on their primary target users and not trying to build one device for everyone. A 25 year old telemarketer in LA does not have the same needs from a mobile device that a 50 year old Sand Hill Road Venture Capitalist has. All the people that are so anxious to compare a blackberry to an iPhone seem to be missing this point. While for selfish reasons I might love some of the features of Blackberry/GoodLink on my iPhone, that doesn’t mean that I’d recommend that Apple go rush to layer these in to this device. That might be what most companies would do, but Apple knows that if you try to make one product for all, you end up with a product liked by none.
Third, congrats to the product managers for keeping the functionality so minimalist. Most users won’t perceive the functionality as minimalist, but that’s the point. Their applications have a fraction of the features of their counterparts, but on the other hand, what is there is accessible and understandable. A great example of less is more.
Fourth, this is one of the single best examples of the value of great interaction design that I’ve ever seen. Yes, the iPhone has great engineering, and yes, the iPhone has great visual and industrial design – the visual design in particular is exceptional even by Apple standards – but the real key to the device is the interaction design. Try the visual voicemail, or the browser, or the contact list. The interaction design is near flawless. They have done an amazing job of matching the user’s conceptual model of these objects. No menus, do deep hierarchies, just a very simple and consistent model of interaction that in nearly every case is natural and intuitive. Many product people don’t even know what interaction designers do (and their product reflects it). This product should go a long ways towards educating our industry.
Fifth, in spite of the job Apple has done, this product is yet another example of why dependencies suck. The iPhone depends on AT&T;’s Edge network, which is frankly awful. Much of the device is not very useful unless you are in a WiFi zone and can bypass the AT&T; data network. I fully expect that AT&T; will gain several million new customers over the coming months, but I hope nobody thinks it’s because of anything they’ve done. The iPhone will be a dramatically more useful device in the many countries of the world that have true 3G networks, and they don’t have to depend on the WiFi workaround.
Finally, the jury is still out on whether Apple will enable third parties to develop the range of applications that are now possible. I hope Apple looks at what Facebook has done in this regard. This device is the first truly useful mobile application platform, and while Safari-based web applications are already running and useful, there is also a strong need for iPhone native applications, so that others can create the types of applications that Apple has done with YouTube, Mail, Stocks, and Weather. I think this point will ultimately decide the future of this device. If Apple won’t open it up, then someone will copy much of what they’ve done, but with a platform that is open, and the application developers will go there, and all it will take will be one or two out of the thousands of applications developed that will drive adoption of that platform. Does that scenario sound familiar?
The only other point I’d like to mention is more of a marketing/positioning point. I’m not sure about the positioning of this device primarily as a phone. The device is much more than a phone, in fact, I’d rate the fact that it’s a phone (and I consider it the very first truly good phone interface out there) as secondary. The device is much more of a complement to the personal computer. It’s a bit like bringing my Mac with me everywhere I go. Perhaps more importantly, it is also the first mobile device that I can imagine being the only computing device many people have. Especially in developing areas of the world, this device could truly be a substitute for a personal computer.