It has OS X but no one said it’d be a Mac

I’m talking about the iPhone mainly to say that I’m tired of all this talking about the iPhone. I believe we’ve come to a saturation point. Until Apple makes another move, there’s really not much left to say. Yes, Apple’s last move (the notorious iPhone Update 1.1.1) generated a fuss — a pretty whiny one, if I may add.

I was collecting my ideas on the whole matter, but I’m a slow writer. Meanwhile, John Gruber and Mark Pilgrim have both written what I was about to write, and have been undoubtedly more concise, insightful and informative than I would be. But I’m going to address the matter anyway, trying to focus on what keeps bothering me.

One thing first: I consider myself to be a somewhat incomplete geek, incomplete having a positive connotation. To me, being incomplete in this field means “not self-contained”. I love technology, but I don’t live for it. I like the hacker way of thinking, generally speaking: I like the constant curiosity that triggers research, the lateral thinking to get around a problem and find alternate solutions, and so on.

Back to the iPhone. It’s an amazing new and revolutionary device, granted. It’s new: this means that it’s still “young” and open to possibilities. From what I’ve observed so far, I’ve drawn the (temporary) conclusion that to be properly open for the future, it has to be closed at present time. It doesn’t take a degree in computer science to infer that the iPhone is still immature inside. And that it has to be protected for the time being until it can be properly expanded with third-party applications. Yes, I don’t think the iPhone will be a closed device indefinitely [unless Apple introduces another PDA-like device, perhaps that much-rumoured (sub)notebook?]. Apple is no fool and surely recognises the enormous potential of third-party development. But it’s not an option for now. The more I think of it, the more I’m convinced that Apple had to take advantage of a certain time slot, and concentrated a lot of resources to make the iPhone ready enough to launch in that time slot. Regarding the third-party community, I agree that Apple’s public relations have left a lot to be desired. And, I’ll make that clear, I do think that the iPhone could benefit from being a more open device.

But what’s the rush? The iPhone was launched on June 29. It’s October 7. That means the iPhone is 101 days old. Yet everyone is babbling about what’s missing, what could be improved, what the iPhone can’t do, and most of all what Apple should do according to every single protester. The iPhone is revolutionary, but that doesn’t mean it has to carry out your own favourite revolution. What’s most ludicrous is the inane criticism from people who don’t even own an iPhone, or people who believe that each iPhone feature (or lack thereof) which doesn’t meet their specific needs is inevitably a “design flaw”. Egregious example: the lack of a real keyboard. Many have said that since they cannot blind-dial or blind-write on the iPhone (because the iPhone virtual keyboard forces you to look at the device all the time), especially when they’re driving, well, that lack is a “design flaw”. But what do they really know about design? Actually, it is desirable to have a feature which invites to a safer use. When an office chair, that is supposed to facilitate a correct posture and therefore relieve the stress of a user sitting ten hours a day in front of a computer screen, fails at that and actually makes things worse because of its design — there we can talk about “design flaws”.

Again, I don’t understand this rush of hacking the iPhone and stuffing it with third-party additions. I think it comes from a small, yet crucial, misunderstanding. Probably these anxious people see the iPhone as another Mac, thus they expect it to be as open to third party development and customisation as any Mac. However, the fact that it runs OS X doesn’t make it a Mac (there isn’t even Mac before OS X in the iPhone’s case). And although it’s easy to look at it as a small computer, I think it’s better to keep considering it nothing more than a (very) smart phone, at least for now. Sure, it has great potential. Sure, I’d love to see the many additions third-party developers could invent, but you know what? The incomplete geek inside of me would be equally happy to buy and use a closed device.

I value my time. I try very hard not to waste it. When I buy an iPhone, I don’t want to spend time installing and trying gadget x, y or z. And then installing their respective updates every time their open source developers fix a bug or improve the software a little (and that means often, at least judging by the many Dashboard widgets and open source/shareware/commercial applications I use on my Macs). Of course I’m not devauling the work of developers here, I’m just looking at the iPhone from a not-particularly-geek viewpoint. I try to picture a near future when there’ll be as many “iPhone widgets” available as Dashboard’s, and — exactly as it happens with Dashboard — I find myself not needing 97% of them.

Freedom of choice is important, as many iPhone detractors emphasise when criticising the apparent closed nature of the iPhone. Many feel they should customise the iPhone to make it more personal, it’s always been the Apple way, et cetera. Oh, I remember the time when I used Mac OS 8, and there were a lot of utilities, extras, extensions, control panels (Kaleidoscope anyone?) to modify the Mac appearance to the point it looked like a different system altogether. I used such things myself, I remember the fun of changing the GUI… fun which waned more or less in a couple of days, and there I was, coming back to the Apple Platinum theme: more stable, more “classic”, it never really wore off in the end. Or take ice cream flavours. Today many ice-cream parlours offer dozens of flavours, but I notice the majority of customers often sticking to the classic ones. I’m not into behavioural psychology — my layman deduction is that it may be a matter of habit and/or simply a matter of too many choices available.

I’m not saying that the choices offered to the user should be limited, only that I noticed that the final, average user customises his/her devices only to a certain extent, surely lesser than any average geek or tech-fan out there. In this perspective, it appears clear to me that Apple has — at least initially — positioned the iPhone to target the widest possible audience, and many many people do not care to own a “closed” device as long as it’s stable, reliable, cool and easy to use, and that “just works”. And iPhone’s healthy sales so far (remember, more than one million units in just 100 days) seem to prove that.

Yesterday I went into an electronics store just outside Valencia and, to my surprise, there was an iPhone on display, hooked to one of the now ubiquitous sound systems for the iPods. I finally could touch it and extensively try it. Well, having it in your hands admittedly is an experience itself. But the very first impression (apart from being hit by the immense coolness of the device) was: I really like it as it is.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!