Antti Kupila

Personal Blog, Portfolio and Online playground

View over the green room at Sid Lee, Montreal

Just my 99 cents

It’s MacWorld ’09 tomorrow. Two years ago Apple announced the first iPhone and people were immediately pretty psyched about it. As always the final product was kept super secret until the big boom. Sure there was speculation around it but looking back now i don’t think anybody could expect what this platform would actually create.

Other phone manufacturers have released new devices for years. Apple comes in with their first model (i don’t count the 3g one as a second model, it’s just an update to the specs) and all of a sudden pretty much all other manufacturers are trying to imitate them. Even RIM released a touch-screen blackberry (a touchscreen only device designed for email? really?) to be their “iPhone killer”. The problem though is that imo everybody else seems to be missing the point. It’s not about the touchscreen or the sleek looks. It’s about focus on usability. I think mr Jobs put this in words saying (i’m paraphrasing) that very few people use more than one or two features on their phones. He wanted the iPhone to change that. People thought, and still do if i ask people that don’t follow tech that much, that you for instance don’t really need to have the internet in your pocket. I think the reason for this is that the experience sucked to much before. Think of it, did you need the all mighty intertubes 15 years ago? No, because it didn’t offer you anything. You could surf sites with a text-only lynx browser with very little usable content. Now though i would bet that very few of the readers of this site don’t use the web almost daily.

Please keep in mind that this article is purely some thoughts put to black on white; what this offers to me, my work and interests ;)

The Apple way

Apple has traditionally been known for restricting their products. Some people say that they tell you what you like before you even know it yourself. After a while you don’t know how you could survive without it. The biggest difference with OS X from windows is that it only runs on mac computers (yes, there are exceptions). This way Apple has 100% control over the entire process and can avoid unexpected issues (such as the driver issues Vista has had). The more control you have, the easier it’s for you to affect things.

This “Apple way” has led to a somewhat cult following of the brand. An mp3 player is called an iPod even if it’s manufacturer doesn’t have a fruit in its corporate identity. The psychological effect they have on their customers, even if we ignore the hardcore apple fan boys and girls, is pretty amazing. Kids give pet names to their iPods! Apple is, after all, a company with one goal: profit. The mantra of the company is still to offer something that the consumers want so that they’ll like you and happily buy your “overpriced” products. It’s kind of the same thing with google, offering a lot of stuff for free, to get a lot of users that they can then advertise to. Very different from a lot of the bs marketing where companies try to trick you into buying stuff you don’t really want. It’s all about the long-term goal. And it’s working.

So, a cellular device from Apple? If they do stuff differently and aren’t afraid of breaking a couple rules to bring the best user experience they can, their phone must be different. Anybody who’s used an iPhone knows the answer to this. Of course it’s not perfect but it definitely is truly unique. The black sheep if nothing else. I would bet that no other phone (with the same level of  sophistication) is as easy to use. You click the icon with the safari icon and you surf the web exactly as you would on your laptop. Well, “exactly” is the wrong word; the key here is that it’s not just a ported platform, everything is unique here and specifically designed for a mobile platform. Screen estate is a difficult problem we can’t solve without big steps in technology, it’s either too small to fit content or too big to fit in your pocket. The zooming feature in mobile Safari is a smart solution for this. In addition Apple has excellent guidelines for UI design that they provide to developers of their platforms. While a lot of the content seems somewhat obvious i would recommend you to look at them, even if you’re not planning on doing any development for the Apple platforms.

Rotten Apples?

I can’t believe that people still complain about mms. Seriously, who uses mms? Yeah, people who think text messages are high tech. You see, Apple is teaching the herd that mms sucks and email is the way to go for multimedia messages. If everybody else’s phone wasn’t from the stone age there wouldn’t be an issue here. Flash support is another one people complain about. This makes sense considering how far Flash has come; you really can’t surf the web without seeing some Flash content every day. There’s a lot of problems with Flash on a mobile device though, a major one being it killing the battery. Also imagine running your brand new awesome fullscreen papervision based game on a 10 year old computer with a screen resolution of 480×320. The experience is going to suck, bad. In addition to this Flash conflicts with one of the major sources of revenue for the iPhone; the app store. If people can just use flex apps online, there’s less reason to build native software for the iPhone. In addition to the dollars Apple also loses control. We’ll see what’s going to happen here; imaging the iPhone without Flash (or equivalent) support three years from now seems weird. This said, i’ve got to say that copy-paste is something i don’t see an excuse for, except for potential issues the user interface integration. Other things are more hardware related that Apple doesn’t have too much control over (yet, they bought P.A. Semi, a chip microprocessor design company.. ;) ).

Boom.

The app store is what i think is the major breakthrough with the iPhone. Pretty much all phones support java but how many of you have ever purchased or even downloaded for free any apps? The audience of this site may be more techy but the average Joe will only connect the word “java” with coffee. The thing is that the consumer shouldn’t have to care about technology; tech is at it’s best when “it just works”. The more magic, the better.

The app store brings the mobile phone as a platform to everybody. It’s what Geocities and Fortune City were to personal homepages a number of years ago. This is both for the end user but also for the developer, the process is just really easy. A developer can really quickly build excellent apps and installing them couldn’t be easier for the end user. No visible technology involved, it just works. Magic!

I hear a “..but Geocities sucked!”. Well yes, those sites were pretty horrible. Also now we see apps like iFart being #1. The production value is much higher but the content/usefulness can be questioned. I’m sure the content will change. Give the platform some time to mature, it’s just a teenager now. Still the more interesting thing with iFart is that it has sold like crazy. After selling something like 100k copies $0.99 each in two weeks the developer’s hourly salary tops the one of those private jetting CEOs’. Impressive. Oh btw, Apple made a couple bucks with that too, which of course is their reason for making it easy for people to do these things. Everybody is happy :) In addition to easy distribution this also fights software piracy extremely well. For most people it’s just too much hassle to do that; just ask yourself how much your time is worth? As long as it’s easier to pirate, pirates will win. Period.

This brings me to my next point too which is pretty interesting, the $0.99 price tag. Developers can choose what they want to charge. Putting a minimum price tag brings back some money while doesn’t hurt the end user’s wallet. Also with the easy setup of iTunes the user doesn’t need to input any credit card numbers, you just point – tap/click – get the app. The developer gets a dime or two. When it’s so simple those 99 cents quickly turn to gold though. Without the distribution set up by iTunes and the app store this kind of profit would be pretty much impossible. Also since apps for the platform are pretty limited (due to many reasons) and since a simple app simply makes a lot of sense development times are generally really short. No single guy could sit at home and write excel in a weekend and then sell it without taking a loan for marketing. With the iPhone he can write an app that’s really simple and still be able to sell it. Apple takes care of the dirty work (hosting, delivery, credit cards..). Of course this lone wolf can’t charge that much but it’s about the long tail instead. He’s much more likely to turn this into profit, or at least with less risk. Funny also how the magic number is $0.99. Compared to this a $1.99 is twice the price = expensive! ;) Look at the prices for pretty much any software for desktops.

All of this of course brings more competition to the business too, which requires the developers to be even more creative to succeed. I can’t see a bad side with this. Competition = good.

The next big thing?

Look at today’s date. It’s 2009. Wow, sounds like we’re living in a sci-fi movie. Comparing to the time just a decade or two ago we kind of are. So, what’s next? That’s the real question. What we’ve seen so far is only the first couple steps. I’m really eager to see where all this goes. Having worked almost solely with web technologies it’s really fun to experiment with a new platform that’s always in your pocket, knows where you are, knows who your friends are, offers wii-like control and still has the same networking and multimedia capabilities that flash has. In addition objective-c as a language is, well, interesting to say the least :) More possibilities = more room for creativity. Awesome.

Of course another big one at the moment is Google’s Android which i’m sure will grow a lot in 2009 with new devices. Still it feels very beta to me and also is clearly aimed more towards developers than consumers. I would vote for ease of use, as Aaron Hillegass (author of the famous cocoa programming for mac os x books) put it regarding Cocoa and Objective-C: “common things should be easy, uncommon things should be possible”. If you start with focusing on enabling everything you easily miss core problem. Larry Page from Google said that they don’t want to lock anything down and let the developers do whatever they want. Very different from Apple’s approach. We’ll see how this goes.

ps. Having dabbled a bit with objective-c with an actionscript background i was thinking of writing some flash -> iphone/cocoa articles/tutorials. Similar to some other ones seen online, Keith Peter’s in particular. All of this is actually really easy to get the hang of even if the syntax looks pretty weird at first. The development tools are awesome too. If you have requests or ideas, that’s what the box below is for :)