Thursday, June 21, 2007

Apple iPhone Debut to Flop, Product to Crash in Flames

The forthcoming (June 29) release of the Apple iPhone is going to be a bigger marketing flop than Ishtar and Waterworld (dating myself again, aren't I) combined. And it’s not for reasons of price, or limited cell carrier options, or lack of corporate IT support, which are the mainstream media’s main caveats when they review it. (See the June 19 issue of the Wall Street Journal for the latter).

Instead, the iPhone is going to fail because its design is fundamentally flawed. The designers and technophiles who encouraged development of the iPhone have fallen into the trap of all overreaching hardware and software designers; thinking that their users are like themselves. As I expound in great detail in my book Why Software Sucks (Addison-Wesley, 2006, your user is not you. The iPhone’s designers have forgotten this fundamental law of the universe. The market will severely punish them for doing so.

I have three specific reasons why the iPhone’s design will cause it to crash in flames the way Apple’s late and unlamented Newton did, only much more loudly and publicly because of all the hype it’s gotten:

First, the iPhone ignores the main reasons that the iPod succeeded: simplicity and ease of use. The iPod is very easy to play and very easy to load, much more so than any other device had ever been. Even more important, the online ITunes store made buying music much simpler and easier than it had been. You didn’t have to drive to the store, you didn’t have to even wait for the UPS man to deliver a CD from amazon. You could listen to the whole song before you bought it, not just a small clip. And you could buy individual songs that you liked instead of having to buy a whole CD of mediocre gunk to get those one or two good songs. (There hasn’t been a packaged album side worth listening to the whole thing in order since Abbey Road.) You didn't have to carry the CDs around with you and change them and worry about losing them. The iPod was a success not because it made complex and sophisticated things possible, but because it made simple things (listening to the music that you liked) simpler and easier than they ever had been before. The iPhone is doing the opposite.

Second, the iPhone crams too many functions into a single box. Putting everything in the same package so you only have to carry one box sounds like a good idea, until you want to listen to music while surfing the web or reading your email or playing a game. Then users will find it essentially impossible to use one function of the tiny box without disrupting the operation of another. A few dedicated technophiles might, just MIGHT, figure out how to do so, but it will require far more dedication than an ordinary user is willing to invest in learning and then remembering. This combination condemns the IPhone to a tiny niche at best.

Third, users will detest the touch screen interface due to its lack of tactile feedback. Using a thumb keyboard, as on the very popular Treo phone, allows the user to feel the keys and know subconsciously that he’s about to press this one and not the one next to it. A touch screen doesn’t allow that, so the user will have to be looking at the keyboard at all times while using it.

Consider the case of an airline passenger relaxing in her seat, eyes closed, iPod mini hung around her neck with a cord, or maybe just lying in her lap -- the very picture of relaxation. Suppose she wants to skip forward or back in the song list. She just presses the forward or back button, which her finger can easily find by touch, a one-handed operation for which she doesn't even have to open her eyes. Now think of the same thing with in iPhone, which doesn't have separate forward or back buttons, just an icon on a touch screen. The user has to interrupt her blissful reverie, open her eyes, come back visually to the yucky airplane that the beautiful music from the iPhone has been helping her escape. She then has to pick the phone up in one hand, lift it up to where she can see it, use her other hand to press the forward button, and put the phone back down. Instead of a one-hand, no eye operation, it's a two-hand, two-eye operation. Please explain to me how that's an improvement.

Also, touch screen keys are small compared to the fingers that touch them. Even though its keys are small, a thumb keypad focuses the force of the finger, so it works even if the user doesn’t touch the key exactly in the center. If the user rolls his fingertip at all while removing it from the touchscreen, which is hard to avoid, he’ll change the key that he THINKS he’s pressed, which is not the case with the thumb keyboard or the iPod controls. The designers and early technophile testers of the iPhone were willing to retrain themselves to deal with the touchscreen’s shortcomings, to always look at the keypad and to move their fingers exactly in the required manner, because they like technology and are willing to adapt to it. The vast majority of users don’t care about technology in and of itself, and are therefore not willing to do so.

When the 100 million iPod users said, "Oh, if only Apple made a phone," they meant that they wanted the simplicity and ease of their iPods to transfer to a phone, not complex, hard to use stuff that they had never imagined. An iPod with just a cell keypad on the back would have been, may still be, a smash hit product for someone. But the iPhone as currently consituted? Forget it.

Because its designers forgot Platt’s First, Last, and Only Law of User Experience Design (“Know Thy User, for He Is Not Thee”), that product is going to crash in flames. Sell your Apple stock now, while the hype's still hot. You heard it here first.