iPhone Reconciliation


It's amusing to see a bunch of people in the tech community having trouble reconciling their love for the iPhone vs. how closed and proprietary it is. It's a real conundrum... The iPhone 3G is the best mobile phone there is, bar none, in both functionality and usability. It's also relatively inexpensive, widely marketed, and easy to get down at your local mall so tons of your friends and family have one as well. And there's nothing else like it on the market now, or in the forseeable future.

However, from a technology perspective, it's about as closed as they come. And this has caused some real consternation in the tech community. They're trying to work through the issue it seems, but haven't really quite gotten it straight in their minds yet.

First there's Gina Trapani writing about how you should avoid the iPhone, despite the fact that she doesn't actually follow this advice. She lays out the very real problems that the iPhone has from a Free Software and DRM perspective, but in the end simply covers up the Apple logo in a "minor rebellion" and keeps using it.

Then there's Tim Bray, writing about his Mobility Blues, because Java development on most phones sucks, Android is nonexistent, and developing for the iPhone despite how nice it is, is akin to being a sharecropper. He doesn't actually address development for Blackberry, Symbian or Windows mobile devices because really, the entire post is summed up as, "God, the iPhone rocks, I wish it were open, or at least had a decent JDK from Sun." :-)

Then there's Tim O'Reilly - who's been a huge iPhone booster despite the fact that his company was essentially built supporting open source - wondering about "devices and services that people love so much that they even love to hate them." I don't think anyone loves to hate the iPhone (except competitors obviously), it's that *they hate that they love it*. There's a difference.

One of the amusing things in O'Reilly's post was at the end where he wrote that Jeff Weiner asked him to "write something that explains why the iPhone is such a paradigm-shifting device," which he agreed he should do. It's sort of another attempt to reconcile the love/hate relationship with the device: "I have to love it! It's 10x better than anything else before it!" But is that true? I don't think so.

I really don't see any paradigm shift beyond the normal Apple integration and marketing magic. Anyone who's used smartphones for the past few years knows that the iPhone doesn't do anything that another comparable device like a Nokia N95 does - it just integrated them better. There are some innovations like the multi-touch screen, but in general the iPhone succeeds because the whole ends up being more than the sum of it's parts. It's not like it's 10x better than anything else, however. It all depends on your perspective and what you use your phone for. Ask a heavy Blackberry user if they prefer an iPhone's email client, for example, or a Nokia user chatting for free using integrated VoIP if they'd like to give it up, or ask a heavy Danger HipTop users if they want to give up their 24/7 IM connections and I doubt you'd get many takers. That said, ask any Motorola RAZR user what they prefer and there's no contest, so it really just depends on where you're coming from.

I've loved the iPhone since the moment I started using it (check the archives, baby), and have only gained more respect for it as time goes on. But as a developer and business person I've always been wary of it, and maybe a little annoyed that so much attention was lavished on it to the detriment of other more open platforms. I take the long view, however. The iPhone will never gain a monopoly like Windows - there's just too much competition in the market. Competitors from all sides - from the Intel backed MID devices to the Nokia backed mobile devices to the Linux backed open devices - will eventually catch up in terms of features and functionality. So therefore it's just a matter of time before there are more open alternatives that don't require any sort of sacrifice to use. Just like I use a Sony Vaio laptop with Ubuntu on it instead of a MacBook, with little to no loss of features and a much expanded universe of possibilities, eventually we'll see the same in the mobile market. Until then, I happily have an iPhone in my pocket and not worry about it.

That doesn't mean I'm content - every time I pull it out of my pocket I almost let out an audible sigh. My biggest regret so far as a professional in the mobile space is that I had nothing to do with that device, actually. I wish I had something to do with it because it's so nice, and has brought smartphones to the masses in a way that no one else could. It would have been nice to have been part of that effort.

I could actually see what Jobs was going to do years ago. Here's what I wrote back in 2004:

Steve Jobs has a mobile phone. I'm not sure which mobile phone it is, but he's definltely got one. And he hates it. He curses at it every day. He hates it like he hated the original IBM PC. He hates how hard it is to add contacts and make calls and he cringes at the web experience and the Java games, if he's even bothered to try them. He holds it in his hand during long trips and admires some things about it, but knows *he could do it better.* He knows that if Apple decided to make a mobile phone, it would be the most intuitive and elegant mobile phone in the world. And he wants that phone.

And he got it. But that's the thing: It's Steve Job's phone, and you shouldn't forget it. You can use it, you can love it, you can praise it, buy apps for it and let your kids play with it. You can do everything you want, but just remember, it's not yours and never will be.

If you're in technology, this is the thing to understand and once you accept this, it's pretty easy to enjoy how nice the iPhone is. Like leasing a BMW or something. It's not yours, but it doesn't make driving it any less enjoyable.



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