• Tech

The Apple Of Your Ear

13 minute read
Lev Grossman/Cupertino

The iPhone started out the way a lot of cool things do: as something completely different. A few years ago, Steve 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 touch screen instead of a mouse and keyboard. Jobs, being Jobs, was curious. He had some Apple engineers noodle around with a touch screen. When they showed him what they came up with, he got excited.

So excited he forgot all about tablet computers. He had bigger game to hunt.

Jobs had just led Apple on a triumphant rampage through a new market sector, portable digital-music players, and he was looking around for more technology to conquer. He found the ideal target sitting on his hip. Consumers bought nearly a billion cell phones last year, 10 times the number of iPods in circulation. Break off just 1% of that, and you can buy yourself a lot of black turtlenecks. “It was unanimous that this should be it,” Jobs says. “It wasn’t even by a little, it was by a mile. It was the hardest one too.” Apple’s new iPhone, which will be available in June, 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.

The game is a little different this time. With the iPod, Jobs essentially created a whole new product category. The cell-phone turf is already held by entrenched armies of phonemakers and service providers. They may not be as hip or innovative as Apple, but they will shred one another for nickels, and there are a lot of nickels on the ground. One point of market share in the handset business is worth $1.4 billion. Motorola, having sold more than 50 million Razrs with not enough to show for it, will probably be reverse engineering the iPhone before it hits the stores. “We already have cell phones and smart phones, so the marketplace is already very competitive,” says industry analyst Jeff Kagan. “We have not seen Apple compete in the insanely intense, competitive wireless marketplace.”

But it wasn’t just the money. Cell phones interested Jobs because even though they do all kinds of stuff–calling, text messaging, Web browsing, contact management, music playback, photos and video–they do it very badly, by forcing you to press lots of tiny buttons and 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’ 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 at a premium price.

That was why, 212 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 touch screen 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 that the phone could handle real, nontoy applications like Web browsers and e-mail clients. They put in a cell antenna and two more antennas for wi-fi and Bluetooth, plus a bunch of sensors, so that the phone knows how bright its screen should be and whether it should display vertically or horizontally, and when it should turn off the touch screen so that you don’t accidentally operate it with your ear.

Then Jonathan Ive, Apple’s head of design–the Englishman 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. Ive 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 mar the iPhone’s smooth lines.

O.K., 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 “merge calls” icon, and you’ve got a three-way conference call. It’s ridiculously simple.

Another example: voice mail. 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 three-by-four number keypad, you get a display of a full, usable QWERTY keyboard. You will never again have to hit the 7 key four times to type the letter s.

Now forget about phone calls. Look at the video, which is impressively crisp and sharp. This is the first time the hype about “rich media” on a phone has actually appeared plausible. Look at the e-mail client, which handles attachments, inline images and 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, deformed version of the Web. There’s a Google Maps application that’s almost worth the price of admission on its own.

I do have nitpicks. You can’t download songs onto iPhone directly from the iTunes store; you have to export them from a computer. And even though it has wi-fi 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.

But these are quibbles. The fact is, the iPhone shatters 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 they all–contrary to basic physics–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. (Indeed, Cisco is suing Apple, claiming it owns the trademark.) 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 4-GB model, $599 for 8-GB. And partly because unlike most companies, Apple does its own hardware, its own software and its own industrial design. When it all takes place under one roof, you get a kind of collaborative synergy that makes unusual things happen.

Apple also places an unusual 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 make sure every pixel is right,” says Scott Forstall, Apple’s vice president of Platform Experience. “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 in which data exist as bouncy, gemlike objects. You can actually pinch an image with two fingers and make it smaller. Because there’s no mouse or keyboard, just that touch screen, there’s a powerful illusion that you’re physically handling data.

Of course, Apple’s other secret weapon is the controlling hand of Steve Jobs, 51, for whom this is an almost mystically significant year. It has been five years since the iPod launched, 30 years since Jobs co-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 1,500%. Neither age nor success–nor cancer surgery in 2004–has significantly mellowed him, although some of the silver in his beard is creeping up 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. He calls the iPhone “the most important product Apple has ever announced, with the possible exception of the Apple II and the Macintosh. It’s also going to be an incredible revolution for the whole industry.”

Jobs’ zeal for 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 that 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 launching a product. Ironically, Jobs’ 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. “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 superiority complex can inspire resentment, which is one reason for some of the Silicon Valley schadenfreude over Jobs’ current stock-options woes (see sidebar). An internal investigation has cleared Jobs, but a federal investigation and a shareholder lawsuit are still going forward. (Jobs declines to talk about the options issue.) Taking pleasure in seeing a special person knocked down to size is a great American pastime. 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. Carriers 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 technical infrastructure to handle the iPhone’s unique voice-mail 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 will be interesting to see if other cell-phone makers start demanding Apple-style treatment from wireless carriers. Stanley Sigman, Cingular’s president and CEO, committed his company to the iPhone two years ago sight-unseen, but he appears understandably eager to play down the uniqueness of Apple’s deal. “I think the interesting aspect of it is our willingness and ability to work together, to allow Cingular to be Cingular and Apple to be Apple,” he says. “We have great relationships with other manufacturers. But he’s clearly brought a product to market that’s years ahead of anybody else.” It will also be worth watching to see how successful competitors will be in knocking off the iPhone’s all-screen form factor, which will be tricky without Apple’s touch-screen technology. Apple has filed for around 200 patents associated with the iPhone, building an imposing legal wall.

Will the iPhone succeed? Well, what’s success? Apple will break the 100 million mark with iPods this year (it also passed 2 billion songs sold on iTunes). Jobs says he wants to move 10 million iPhones by the end of next year. That number is well in character as far as its ambition goes. The iPhone is exclusive to Cingular for now, and Cingular has only 58 million customers. Jobs hopes to launch in Europe late this year and Asia in 2008. The iPhone is too beautiful and too brilliant not to be a moneymaker, but it’ll be a slow burn by iPod standards.

Perhaps 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 voice mail, 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.

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