Tuesday, Jan. 09, 2007
Apple's New Calling: The iPhone
By Lev Grossman
If you've ever wondered how it works, this is how it works: I don't
call Steve, Steve calls me. Or more accurately, someone in Steve
Jobs's office calls someone in my office—someone at a much higher pay
grade —to say that he has something cool. I then fly to the
metastasized strip mall called Cupertino, Calif., where Apple lives,
sign some legal confidentiality stuff and am escorted to a conference
room that contains Jobs, some associates, and some lumps concealed
under some black towels. I stare at what was under the towels.
Everybody else stares at me.
This is how Apple, and nobody else, introduces new products to the
press. It can be awkward, because Jobs is high-strung and he expects
you to be impressed. I was, fortunately, and with good reason. Apple's
new iPhone could do to the cell phone market what the iPod did to the
portable music player market: crush it pitilessly beneath the weight
of its own superiority. This is unfortunate for anybody else who makes
cell phones, but it's good news for those of us who use them.
It's also good news for Jobs. Apple has had some explaining to do
lately about backdated stock options it issued to Jobs and some other
senior Apple executives. An internal investigation has cleared Jobs,
but a federal investigation and a shareholder lawsuit are still going
Sure, backdating options is common in Silicon Valley, but the essence
of Apple's identity is that it's an uncorporate corporation: a glossy
white iPod-colored company, the kind that doesn't get mixed up in this
kind of thing. When Jobs calls the iPhone "the most important product
Apple has ever announced, with the possible exception of the Apple II
and the Macintosh," he means, technologically. But now is not a
terrible time to be hitting a home run.
The iPhone developed the way a lot of cool things do: with a false
start. A few years ago Jobs noticed how many development dollars were
being spent—particularly in the greater Seattle metropolitan area—on
what are called tablet PCs: flat, portable computers that work with a
touchscreen instead of a mouse and keyboard. Jobs, being Jobs, figured
he could do better, so he had Apple engineers noodle around with a
tablet PC. When they showed him the touchscreen they came up with, he
got excited. So excited he forgot all about tablet computers.
Jobs had just led Apple on a triumphant rampage through a new market
sector, portable music players, and he was looking around for more
technology to conquer. Cell phones are perfect because even Grandma
has one: consumers bought nearly a billion of them last year. Break
off just 1% of that and you can buy yourself a lot of black
turtlenecks. Cell phones do all kinds of stuff—calling, text
messaging, Web browsing, contact management, music playback, photos
and video—but they do it very badly, by forcing you to press lots of
tiny buttons, navigate diverse heterogeneous interfaces and squint at
a tiny screen. "Everybody hates their phone," Jobs says, "and that's
not a good thing. And there's an opportunity there." To Jobs's
perfectionist eyes, phones are broken. Jobs likes things that are
broken. It means he can make something that isn't and sell it to you
for a premium price.
That was why, two and a half years ago, Jobs sicced his wrecking crew
of designers and engineers on the cell phone as we know and hate it.
They began by melting the face off a video iPod. No clickwheel, no
keypad. They sheared off the entire front and replaced it with a huge,
bright, vivid screen—that touchscreen Jobs got so excited about a few
paragraphs ago. When you need to dial, it shows you a keypad; when you
need other buttons, the screen serves them up. When you want to watch
a video, the buttons disappear. Suddenly, the interface isn't fixed
and rigid, it's fluid and molten. Software replaces hardware.
Into that iPod they stuffed a working version of Apple's operating
system, OS X, so the phone could handle real, non-toy applications
like Web browsers and e-mail clients. They put in a cell antenna, plus
two more antennas for WiFi and Bluetooth; plus a bunch of sensors, so
the phone knows how bright its screen should be, and whether it should
display vertically or horizontally, and when it should turn off the
touchscreen so you don't accidentally operate it with your ear.
Then Jonathan Ive, Apple's head of design, the man who shaped the iMac
and the iPod, squashed the case to less than half an inch thick, and
widened it to what looks like a bar of expensive chocolate wrapped in
aluminum and stainless steel. The iPhone is a typical piece of Ive
design: an austere, abstract, platonic-looking form that somehow also
manages to feel warm and organic and ergonomic. Unlike my phone. He
picks it up and points out four little nubbins on the back. "Your
phone's got feet on," he says, not unkindly. "Why would anybody put
feet on a phone?" Ive has the answer, of course: "It raises the
speaker on the back off the table. But the right solution is to put
the speaker in the right place in the first place. That's why our
speaker isn't on the bottom, so you can have it on the table, and you
don't need feet." Sure enough, no feet toe the iPhone's smooth lines.
All right, so it's pretty. Now pick it up and make a call. A big
friendly icon appears on that huge screen. Say a second call comes in
while you're talking. Another icon appears. Tap that second icon and
you switch to the second call. Tap the big "merge calls" icon and
you've got a three-way conference call. Pleasantly simple.
Another example: voicemail. Until now you've had to grope through your
v-mail by ear, blindly, like an eyeless cave-creature. On the iPhone
you see all your messages laid out visually, onscreen, labeled by
caller. If you want to hear one, you touch it. Done. Now try a text
message: Instead of jumbling them all together in your in-box, iPhone
arranges your texts by recipient, as threaded conversations made of
little jewel-like bubbles. And instead of "typing" on a four-by-four
number keypad, you get a full, usable QWERTY keyboard. You will never
again have to hit the 7 key four times to type a letter S.
Now forget about phone calls. Look at the video, which is impressively
crisp and plays on a screen larger than the video iPod's. This is the
first time the hype about "rich media" on a phone has actually looked
plausible. Look at the e-mail client, which handles attachments,
in-line images, HTML e-mails as adroitly as a desktop client. Look at
the Web browser, a modified version of Safari that displays actual Web
pages, not a teensy crunched-down version of the Web. There's a Google
map application that's almost worth the price of admission on its own.
Weaknesses? Absolutely. You can't download songs directly onto it from
the iTunes store, you have to export them from a computer. And even
though it's got WiFi and Bluetooth on it, you can't sync iPhone with a
computer wirelessly. And there should be games on it. And you're
required to use it as a phone—you can't use it without signing up for
cellular service. Boo.
The iPhone breaks two basic axioms of consumer technology. One, when
you take an application and put it on a phone, that application must
be reduced to a crippled and annoying version of itself. Two, when you
take two devices—such as an iPod and a phone—and squish them into one,
both devices must necessarily become lamer versions of themselves. The
iPhone is a phone, an iPod, and a mini-Internet computer all at once,
and contrary to Newton—who knew a thing or two about apples—they all
occupy the same space at the same time, but without taking a hit in
performance. In a way iPhone is the wrong name for it. It's a handheld
computing platform that just happens to contain a phone.
Why is Apple able to do things most other companies can't? Partly by
charging for it: The iPhone will cost $499 for a 4GB model, $599 for
8GB, which makes it expensive, but not a luxury item. And partly
because the company has highly diverse talent who are good at
hardware, software, industrial design and Internet services. Most
companies just do one or two things well.
Unlike most competitors, Apple also places an inordinate emphasis on
interface design. It sweats the cosmetic details that don't seem very
important until you really sweat them. "I actually have a
photographer's loupe that I use to look to make sure every pixel is
right," says Scott Forstall, Apple's vice-president of Platform
Experience (whatever that is). "We will argue over literally a single
pixel." As a result, when you swipe your finger across the screen to
unlock the iPhone, you're not just accessing a system of nested menus,
you're entering a tiny universe, where data exist as bouncy, gemlike,
animated objects that behave according to consistent rules of virtual
physics. Because there's no intermediary input device—like a mouse or
a keyboard—there's a powerful illusion that you're physically handling
data with your fingers. You can pinch an image with two fingers and
make it smaller.
To witness the iPhone launch from behind the curtain (or under the
towel) is to see the controlling hand of Steve Jobs, for whom this is
an almost mystically significant year. He's 52 years old. It's been 30
years since he founded Apple (with Stephen Wozniak), and 10 since he
returned there after having been fired. In that decade Apple's stock
has gone up more than 1,000%. Neither age nor success (nor cancer
surgery in 2004) have significantly mellowed him, though some of the
silver in his beard is creeping into his hair. All technologists
believe their products are better than other people's, or at least
they say they do, but Jobs believes it a little more than most. In the
hours we spent talking about the iPhone, Jobs trash-talked the Treo,
the BlackJack, the Sony PSP and the Sony Mylo ("just garbage compared
to this"), Windows Vista ("It's just a copy of an old version of Mac
OSX") and of course Microsoft's would-be iPod killer, Zune.
Jobs's zealousness about product development— and enforcing his
personal vision—remains as relentless as ever. He keeps Apple's
management structure unusually flat for a 20,000-person company, so he
can see what's happening at ground level. There is just one committee
in the whole of Apple, to establish prices. I can't think of a
comparable company that does no—zero—market research with its
customers before releasing a product. Ironically, Jobs's personal
style could not be more at odds with the brand he has created. If the
motto for Apple's consumers is "think different," the motto for Apple
employees is "think like Steve."
The same goes for Apple's partners. The last time Apple experimented
with a phone, the largely unsuccessful ROKR, Jobs let Motorola make
it, an unsatisfying experiment. "What we learned was that we wouldn't
be satisfied with glomming iTunes onto a regular phone," Jobs says.
"We realized through that experience that for us to be happy, for us
to be proud, we were going to have to do it all."
Apple's arrogance can inspire resentment, which is one reason for some
of the glee over Jobs's stock options woes: taking pleasure in seeing
a special person knocked down a peg is a great American pastime. (Jobs
declines to talk about the options issue.) But there's no point in
pretending that Jobs isn't special. A college dropout, whose
biological parents gave him up for adoption, Jobs has presided over
four major game-changing product launches: the Apple II, the
Macintosh, the iPod, and the iPhone; five if you count the release of
Pixar's Toy Story, which I'm inclined to. He's like Willy Wonka and
Harry Potter rolled up into one.
That doesn't mean Apple can operate beyond the boundaries of the
Securities and Exchange Commission, but the iPhone wouldn't have
happened without Apple's "we're special" attitude. One reason there's
limited innovation in cell phones generally is that the cell carriers
have stiff guidelines that the manufacturers have to follow. They
demand that all their handsets work the same way. "A lot of times, to
be honest, there's some hubris, where they think they know better,"
Jobs says. "They dictate what's on the phone. That just wouldn't work
for us, because we want to innovate. Unless we could do that, it
wasn't worth doing." Jobs demanded special treatment from his phone
service partner, Cingular, and he got it. He even forced Cingular to
re-engineer its infrastructure to handle the iPhone's unique voicemail
scheme. "They broke all their typical process rules to make it
happen," says Tony Fadell, who heads Apple's iPod division. "They were
infected by this product, and they were like, we've gotta do this!"
Now that the precedent has been set, it'll be interesting to see if
other cell phone makers start demanding Apple-style treatment from
wireless carriers. It'll also be worth watching to see how successful
they'll be in knocking off the iPhone's all-screen form factor, which
will be very difficult without Apple's touchscreen technology. Apple
has filed for around 200 patents associated with the iPhone, building
an imposing legal wall. Considering the size of the market, the stakes
are high. The phone market is, of course, divided into armed camps by
carrier, and so far the iPhone is exclusive with Cingular. Apple has
sold 100 million iPods worldwide, but Cingular has only 58 million
customers. Apple expects to launch the iPhone abroad in the fourth
quarter of this year.
It's not quite right to call the iPhone revolutionary. It won't create
a new market, or change the entertainment industry, the way the iPod
did. When you get right down to it, the device doesn't even have that
many new features—it's not like Jobs invented voicemail, or text
messaging, or conference calling, or mobile Web browsing. He just
noticed that they were broken, and he fixed them.
But that's important. When our tools don't work, we tend to blame
ourselves, for being too stupid or not reading the manual or having
too-fat fingers. "I think there's almost a belligerence—people are
frustrated with their manufactured environment," says Ive. "We tend to
assume the problem is with us, and not with the products we're trying
to use." In other words, when our tools are broken, we feel broken.
And when somebody fixes one, we feel a tiny bit more whole.