May 3, 2011

The year of the smart-enough phone

It’s that time of year again—speculation is running rampant as to the makeup of the next iPhone, even if this one might be late. Will we see a leap in 3D graphics processing as with the iPad? Will Apple embrace 4G wireless for a new generation of data-intensive apps? What new capabilities will developers have at their disposal? There’s no doubt that the new iPhone will be a powerful device, but there’s one thing it won’t be like: The first.

The old world of apps

Four years ago, such questions about a new phone might have been hard to even imagine. Mobile software was an established market, but its products tended to fall into one of a few limited categories: largely offline-focused apps from the PDA era of PalmOS and PocketPC, simple, BREW-based featurephone apps emphasizing carrier-selected games, and a smaller market of newer, connectivity-focused apps for smartphone-equipped business users.

This is the world into which the iPhone arrived in 2007, rightly earning criticism that it itself was not a smartphone as it was not set up to run third-party binaries. Today, with 350,000 apps in the App Store, 2007 looks like a brief transitional period. But to consider it that is to fail to recognize what was lost when the iPhone became a smartphone: a phone that was, in many ways, an almost platonic ideal of a telephone, personal media player, and internet communication device. It wasn’t a smartphone, yet it wasn’t a featurephone. It was a smart-enough phone.

Blissful unsmartness

When the iPhone SDK was announced in 2008, it had already been clear for months that to compete in the smartphone market (a market into which, at least from a technological perspective, the iPhone appeared to have always been an entry, even if it was not from a practical, end-user perspective), the iPhone would need more than the original “sweet solution” of web apps proposed at the iPhone’s unveiling. This was founded on two assumptions, one obvious and one less-obvious: first, that the iPhone was always intended to be a smartphone, and second, that the market for smartphones could expand beyond the business world and into the general public. The latter has obviously been proven many times over in the past three years. The first? Despite its unparalleled success as one, it’s not so clear.

Before iPhone users had a dozen home screens full of everything from Twitter and Angry Birds to Deluxe Kitchen Timer HD Universal and Angry Birds St. Patrick’s Day Edition, the iPhone was a marvel of simplicity. Twelve icons, meticulously arranged into a harmonious, balanced grid, covered the core of any user’s needs while out away from a desktop, while four at the bottom forged a novel bridge between the concepts of mobile phone, internet phone, and portable media player. Anything else you might want was out there beyond the Safari icon, but everything you needed–it was all right there, unchanging, unambiguous: A smart-enough phone.

Once in the highlands

The smart-enough phone is a user experience the market has clearly stated is less preferable to a device packed with third-party features and software. But has the market as a whole really spoken? The smartphone is obviously preferable for the part of the market that bought iPhones and other iPhone-paradigm devices. But what of the people who don’t want apps, for whom a smartphone is superfluous and a distraction? The featurephone market has tried to metamorph its product into an image of the iPhone-era smartphone, with large touch screens and minimal physical buttons, but nothing has approached the formal and functional purity of the 2007 iPhone.

Will we see a smart-enough phone again? There have been attempts at radical simplicity, such as John’s Phone, or the Peek, but these have been highly niche. And a minimalist phone or a minimalist email device is a far cry form a minimalist phone-media-player-internet-device. Perhaps the “smart-enough phone” will be a Brigadoon—lost to time until another company of forward-thinkers happens upon its misty fields.