In my previous post, I described the iPhone as appearing to have incremental improvements, but also as allowing the promise of mobile data to be realised. Isn’t this a contradiction? How can minor innovations make such a difference?
I explained how Apple managed to do that with the iPod, compared to other digital music players at the time. It looks like they might have done it again with the iPhone, compared to other WiFi-enabled PDA-phones. Many of these PDA-phones appear to be functionally equivalent to the iPhone: they make calls, play music and movies, manage email and calendars, and allow you to browse the web. HTC has had such devices for a while, and we’ve also seen them from Motorola and Nokia. So, what’s new?
There are basically two types of data that you might want to access when mobile: your personal data, which can be synched to the mobile device; and external data, which these days is made available via the web. The former has been long solved (e.g. iPod) but the latter has been problematic for mobile devices. The main problem is basically that the web has been designed and developed for desktop computers, and not mobiles/PDAs.
Perhaps the most complained about difference between the web for PCs and the web for mobiles, is that on a mobile the web can be expensive and slow. Continual improvements to mobile plans (including caps and bundles), mobile CPUs (along the lines of Moore’s Law), and wireless broadband technologies (such as HSDPA) are addressing these complaints, and will eventually be good enough for this complaint to have little substance. However, for now, increasing numbers of mobile devices, including the iPhone, support Wi-Fi which will provide an equivalent experience to desktop computers in terms of cost and speed. As few people will need to browse the web as they walk or drive, Wi-Fi coverage in hotspots will often be suitable.
No, for the web to work on mobiles, three things need to work equivalently to a PC: input, output and page functionality. The iPhone has brought improvements to what is typical for a PDA-phone, and these are sufficient to gain PC equivalence in these areas.
Most web sites are designed with the assumption that the web browser has a PC keyboard and a PC pointing device like a mouse. The iPhone provides an on-screen QWERTY keyboard, and through its touch screen provides the ability to use your finger as a pointing device. Pretty much all previous touch-screen PDAs assumed that you would use a stylus as a pointing device, but this doesn’t work well on a phone as (i) it means you need to operate the device using two hands, and (ii) it slows the use of the device because before you can do anything, you need to extract the stylus from within the PDA first. The whole UI of the device needs to be completely overhauled if you don’t have the precision of a stylus, e.g. small ‘X’ icons in the corner of a window are too difficult to press to close applications, and scroll-bars along the side of windows are too difficult to manipulate. However, on the iPhone, to scroll a window, you simply wipe your finger along the screen. This is the first time a PDA-phone has managed to provide equivalent input to a PC without needing a stylus.
Most web sites are designed for a screen that is wider than it is tall, i.e. a landscape or horizontal layout. With more desktops and laptops coming with widescreen displays these days, this design principle is likely to become more extreme. However, because PDA-phones need to work when held as a phone, i.e. vertically, so that there is sufficient distance from the ear to the mouth, most mobile devices attempt to display web pages on a screen that is taller than it is wide. When web pages designed for a PC are shown on such devices, the browser either has to (i) shrink the font size so that it becomes unreadable, and needs to support some kind of zooming in-and-out, or (ii) reformat the web page so that it is laid out in a column, which is almost certainly not what the web page designer intended. The iPhone supports vertical display, but also horizontal display; all the user has to do is tip the device sideways. In horizontal display, standard web pages are apparently quite readable.
So, that’s it. Three apparently “incremental” innovations – stylus-free touch screen, ability to display horizontally, and a full web browser – are enough to provide an equivalent experience to browsing on the PC. Similar functions have all been seen before, but not quite the same, and not all together. And together they allow the promise of mobile data to be realised.