Does Only Apple Really Understand User Values?

 
 
By David Morgenstern  |  Posted 2007-01-09
 
 
 

Does Only Apple Really Understand User Values?


SAN FRANCISCO—In his Jan. 9 keynote address before the Macworld Expo crowd in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs offered what has become an annual lesson in user values in technology design. But why do so few in the industry seem to be taking the course?

That is the great mystery. Often its easy to dismiss the power of integration, whether its hardware and software or software and services. Or with Apples iPhone, something of all three.

When Steve Jobs demonstrated the first iPod and iTunes music store, many analysts dismissed it. While the iPod had new, useful technology in its hardware interface (the clickwheel) that meshed well with the content management software app on the computer, the whole thing appeared to some as just another product in a crowded category.

Can Apple thrive without the presence of Steve Jobs at the helm? Click here to read more.

However, what sold customers on the iPod was the way that all parts of the system worked together: the elegance of the computer-side application; the expression of technology in hardware and user interface; its easy integration with the music store. Each component separately expressed excellence and usability, and together they were amazing.

Jobs today said that Apple has sold 2 billion songs to date from that store. It sold 1.2 billion songs in 2006. Certainly, thats its own mark of success.

Yet, some folks in the press section of the audience werent sold on the iPhone. Of course, some of them also missed the value of the Internet on first demonstration.

However, I admit that it can be hard to check reality while in the bubble of a Steve Jobs Macworld demo. He is the master of such demonstrations and the Mac-phile crowd hangs on every word from his gigantic projected mouth seen on the tall-and-wide screen in the Moscone Center.

Still, the device rang my bell in the cool department. With the full browser implementation, its almost like a tablet PC but smaller and with telephony. As Jobs said, most smart phones arent very smart. The iPhones IQ must be off the scale.

Here are a few notes that I scribbled in the dark:

  • Details matter. The best single demonstration for me was what Apple calls the "pinch," which lets users zoom in on a part of display on the iPhones screen by sliding the thumb and index finger away from one another. What counts here is that the screen can handle multiple simultaneous inputs and interpret them correctly.

    This pinch zoom capability was a very natural action and immediately understandable to the user, and made possible by the screen technology. Of course, Apple often provides several ways to do something and simply double-tapping the display also zoomed in on an area.

    Click here to read more about Apples new iPhone.

    I also appreciated how automatic functions are enabled by small sensors in the phone. Apple is leading in these little touches in the hardware interface, such as the use of ambient light sensors in its MacBook Pro notebooks that can automatically control the screens brightness or bring up backlights in the keys for working in the dark.

    Jobs said there was an accelerometer, and proximity and ambient light sensors built into the phone. These benefit the user interface with automatic functions.

    So, in the demonstration of the photo capabilities of the iPhone, when users come across an image in landscape aspect, they just turn the phone sideways. The accelerometer senses the movement and automatically rotates the screen from portrait to landscape, or vice versa. This will also be useful when youre looking at a Web page in the iPhones browser.

    When users lift the phone to their ears to take a call, the proximity sensor turns off the display, which saves power and stops wrong input by inadvertent ear input.

    And like Apples notebooks, the built-in ambient light sensor can reduce or brighten the displays backlight depending on ambient light, which can save power.

    Next Page: Where others go wrong.

    Where Others Go Wrong


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    Most other device makers strip out such innovations in computing devices for reasons of cost. Or they seek some small inexpensive industrial design that really doesnt make a big difference.

    Instead, Apple packs its products with these details and uses them as its differentiator in the market. But these capabilities always are functional, not just some clever tweak, and they are integrated into the user experience.

    Of course, attention to small interface gestures were evident in the software too. In an e-mail message, a phone number is parsed and automatically gains a link style. If you click on it, the phone dials the number. You dont have to add it to your address book or anything.

    They must be crying in Nokia-ville and other telephony towns today. Apples team in Cupertino has stopped the market with this product.

    Is a "perfect storm" of Mac upgrade sales on the horizon? Click here to read more.

  • Humor or truth? When Jobs introduced the iPhone, he called it the "reinvention of the phone." Everyone laughed when he then showed a photo of an iPod with a rotary dial on it. It was a very funny image but perhaps the humor was lost on many of the younger members of the audience who have grown up on dial pad?

    Meanwhile, the Macintosh was mostly ignored in Apples announcements today, if we dont count the companys name change from Apple Computer to just plain Apple Inc.

    Still, Jobs couldnt pass up the recently revealed quote in court documents by Jim Allchin, the soon-departing co-president of Microsofts Platform Products & Services division: "I would buy a Mac today if I was not working at Microsoft."

    According to Jobs, more than 50 percent of purchases in all channels are from "switchers," users who are moving off of the Windows platform.

    Click here to read about the debate between Apples OS X and Windows Vista proponents over startup sounds.

  • Stick to the plan and execute it. In 2001 or 2002, Steve Jobs outlined a strategy that put the Mac as a "digital hub" for the creation and serving of content to peripherals. The iPhone and the AppleTV, which was also introduced today, continue to hold to that vision.

    Instead of downloading content over the bandwidth-constrained cellular network, users push content into the iPhone from their computers with a fast USB 2.0 connection. Yes, this is all an essential part of Apples DRM scheme, but it also ensures a robust user experience. And it makes sure that users charge the phones battery.

    Finally, Apple appears to be giving an opening for Mac software developers and Internet services vendors in the iPhone. On the developer front, theres the user of Dashboard widgets, which are popular Mac applets used for a wide range of productivity functions and viewing bits of Internet content.

    I noticed that Apple didnt push people to its own .Mac services with the iPhone (maybe a good thing since .Macs performance and reliability has come under criticism in Mac circles lately). Instead, the company partnered with Google and Yahoo for mail, search and mapping services.

    Would Microsoft have done the same?

    Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news in desktop and notebook computing.

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