Why the iPhone Doesn’t Matter

In this video, Walt Mossberg, the tech commentator for the Wall Street Journal, expounds on why the iPhone will revolutionize the mobile phone landscape. While the technology-minded among us might jump on his claims that the iPhone is the first portable device to incorporate a “desktop operating system,” his thoughts miss the larger point: it’s not the hardware and software that make the revolution, rather the services and user experience.

The mobile phone is cited as one of these revolutions, and it’s a perfect example. The mobile phone gave us the ability to “place shift:” take a call wherever and whenever we wanted. The bits and bytes, hardware and software are nifty, but the revolution is that I can have the same 1890’s-style experience of a phone call, just now I can do it sailing down I-90 at 80mph in my Acura. No one cares about the technologies that make it happen, the problems with RF propagation and the rather amazing fact that one call can jump across radio towers, rather we’re excited by the mobility all this other “stuff” affords.

Blackberries, iPhones and the like all have amazing technical capabilities, yet the majority of users get and use the device for mobile email. Again, we’ve taken a technology largely perfected in the 1960’s, and made it pervasive. It’s not because of the operating system or hardware of the device, rather taking a compelling service and “untying” it from the desktop. I can’t think of anyone that laments the differences in kernels running on the devices, or the elegance of the low-level driver code that makes the device work, rather they get excited when the office thinks they’re diligently working away, but they’re really taking a moment to peck at their Blackberry while sitting on the beach.

One of the emerging services my wife and I use constantly is ChaCha (which I found out about from Mossberg). You call 1-800-2-CHACHA and ask them any question (i.e. “What is the current price for a bottle of Dom Perignon ’54?”) and in about 2 minutes they send you a text message with the answer. Again, 1970’s tech (voicemail) + 1980’s tech (text messages) that delivers a revolutionary service unrelated to the underlying device, carrier or network.

We’ve had PC grade processors and operating systems in mobile devices (despite Mossberg’s insistence that Apple is the first) for over 5 years. It’s the new business models and ways to deliver compelling services that will create “game changers,” not the hardware and underlying software.

If anything, this focus on hardware, software and network has actually stifled technical development on many fronts. Rather than focusing on user, service and location independent of device we’ve landed in a morass of megabits per second, CDMA2000 versus WCDMA and gigahertz.

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