New iPhone Competitor *YAWN*

It looks like Nokia is working on a new competitor to the iPhone called the Tube. The article considers it an iPhone killer. But that’s probably just wishful thinking.

What this article seems to miss (along with all of the makers of “iPhone killers”) is that it’s not about putting a shiny touch screen on a phone or putting a fresh paint job on the UI while keeping the behavior the same (hello Blackberry 9000…). What Apple has been consistently doing ever since Steve Jobs came back in the mid 90s is building flashy products that work with people rather than making people work with them. Most people seem to focus on the flashy side of things — but it would be much more beneficial to focus on the human interface side. This is Apple’s strength.

Lets take the iPod/iTunes juggernaut as an example. On the surface of things, an MP3 player should be a commodity item at this point. You can build one out of a handful of off the shelf parts — hard drive, small embedded processor, some RAM, a display, some buttons for controls. Bring in an open source OS like Linux, and voila, you have an MP3 player. You don’t even have to write much software, since you can easily find tons of open source libraries to use to build your device.

Yet somehow, Apple still has a commanding lead with the iPod and iTunes — even the demise of DRM hasn’t seemed to hurt Apple yet. In fact, the recording industry appears to be actively trying to knock away at the iPod/iTunes duo by licensing their music in DRM free formats to everyone but iTunes.

So what is it about the iPod that keeps people buying iPods over devices that looks similar but cost much less? It’s the software of course — the part of the equation that makes it work just as good as it looks. What Apple’s competitors seem to overlook is that having the best hardware in the world is worth nothing when your software isn’t anywhere near where it needs to be.

Let’s take loading music onto a device — with iTunes, if your music collection is small enough to fit on the device, iTunes will automatically load it all in. If it’s not, iTunes will offer to pick a subset for you based on how you rated your music (higher rated songs go on the iPod, lower ones don’t). If you don’t like that, you can easily just say no and then you can pick playlists that you want to go on instead. The loading of the songs takes place over the included iPod USB 2.0 cable via your PC or Mac.

What about on the cheap knockoff iPod-lookalike MP3 player? Well more than likely, either you will have a memory card that you have to take out of the player and insert into a reader on the PC or you will connect it up via a USB connection. Once you do this, you will have a new drive show up on your Desktop (Mac) or in My Computer (PC). From there, you can copy MP3 files to the device. Where are your MP3 files to begin with? Oh you don’t know? What if you want playlists? Do you set them up in folders or lump them all together in one folder? Does the device even play this filetype?

iTunes takes care of all of those details — and more. I don’t care about how the files are organized on the iPod because I don’t need to know. If a file won’t play on the iPod, iTunes will tell me and not bother copying over the file. And any playlist I make in iTunes will automatically be available on the iPod if I choose to sync it over.

So back to my original topic — this Nokia iPhone killer. I’ve used a few Nokia devices, and from my own experience they don’t have the works-with-people part of the equation down. They’ve managed to make what is, in my opinion, clumsy interfaces that just don’t work in the same ways that interfaces that Apple makes. This isn’t just blind fanboyism at work here — this is based on my own observations of watching people who know very little to nothing at all about computers actually use things like the iPod and iPhone without assistance. It’s based on watching some of these same people, when given other devices, barely make due with them. Sure, they’ll eventually figure them out enough to get by with using them — but they never really feel comfortable with them.

Apple makes products that people are capable of feeling comfortable working with. That’s why until companies focus on making products that work with people instead of the other way around, there won’t be a real iPhone killer coming out anytime soon.

EDIT: After posting this, I realized that I might’ve not conveyed my thoughts accurately regarding BlackBerry. I am more disappointed with the BlackBerry 9000 not because it’s a bad device, but because instead of playing off their strengths, they went for the iPhone shiny look. Obviously the BlackBerry is a good device — I’ve seen a lot of non-technical people carrying them around, getting along with them just fine. But by trying to ape some of the design elements from the iPhone, I think they are unfairly putting themselves up against the iPhone when they weren’t really in the same market. At least not the original iPhone software — it seems as if Apple has recognized that RIM considers them to be a threat and has really made sure that the 2.0 firmware for the iPhone will address some deficiencies that the iPhone had when compared against the BlackBerry. But I digress. IMO, if RIM would’ve worked on improving the things that got it to where it is in the marketplace today instead of focusing on the trying to out iPhone the iPhone, I think the BlackBerry 9000 would be a very different piece of hardware. And I think that because of that, it might’ve had a better chance to survive the upcoming iPhone onslaught with the 2.0 firmware. It will probably still be a very successful device, but I’m sure there will be quite a few RIM customers who see the resemblance to an iPhone, find out that it’s not quite the same, and end up as new Apple customers because of it.


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