Why an Apple Phone Would Suck, Leading Me to Believe it will Never Happen

Suck, in this context, being defined as poor user experience. When you’re using a mobile, there are four things that can drive you up the wall.

  1. Software User Interface
  2. Hardware User Interface
  3. Reliability of Hardware
  4. Reliability of Network

Software and Hardware User Interface

Apple, more than any company in technology today, has this covered. It’s true that much of the consistency has gone out of their user interface work, but there’s still enough attention to the little details and creating a consistentoverall aesthetic, (whether you like it or not; brushed metal, I’m looking at you), for a piece of hardware or software. They’re also remarkably good at making their hardware and software play well together, the iPod scroll wheel being the perfect example.

Even with the example of the iPod out there, other companies still create MP3 players with no easy way to scroll though the thousands of songs that will eventually end up on the device. Apple had the foresight to see this problem coming, and solve it.

So, considering the oft-theorized Apple phone, let’s assume that Apple will do what it does best, and the phone itself will be a marvel of industrial and software engineering.

Reliability of Hardware

Find an Apple laptop owner. Go up to them. Say the word logic board. Watch them curl up into the fetal position and start whimpering. Make a high pitched chirp and watch them twitch. Ask that designer guy you know about the dead pixels on his Cinema Display. Is that iPod battery going to last you 4 years or for years?

At the end of the day Apple is a hardware company. They make their money by selling you physical objects. Back when they were selling computers for $5,000 a pop, Apple got a reputation for highly expensive, but highly reliable hardware. The fact a lot of prepress/printing companies still have pre-G3 Macs in their production cycle attests to this.

Of course, like any business that’s been around for decades, Apple started looking at ways to improve their margin, and sacrificing on component quality for the sake of price is part of American Business 101.

These days Apple’s hardware isn’t bad, it’s not like their computers come with Dell’s patented explodo. However, it’s not extraordinary either, just average for the industry. Many of the problems with the current crop of mobile phones can be traced back to hardware that craps out after 6 months, seriously reducing the quality of the voice and data connections. I don’t see anything out of Apple that indicates they’d be able to offer anything better.

Reliability of Network

Let’s pretend that Apple reads my site and says

Alan, how could we have missed something so obvious, you’ve shown us the errors of our way! We shall seek out new high quality hardware vendors for our iPhone!

This still leaves the dicey problem of The Network.

Mobile phones and smart phones are used to make phone calls and grab stuff off the internet. Using mobile phones and smart phones to do this in the United States is a wretched, wretched experience. The networks are slow, unreliable, likely to kick you into roaming on a whim, and otherwise generally suck. The unreliability and lack of coverage is the single most frustrating thing about using a mobile phone.

Apple has no control over this. Unless they rollout their own nation wide network (snort), they’d have to rely on the existing infrastructure. As mentioned, the existing infrastructure sucks, and there’s no financial incentive to fix it because everyone’s network sucks and draconian long term mobile contracts either force people to stay subscribed or give the Sprint’s, T-Mobile’s, Verizon’s, etc. of the world a little financial boost when they bail early on the contract.

Any iPhone would have to use the existing network, dooming the iPhone to a shitty experience.

Synching

Bonus topic! No one has solved synching, and I doubt anyone ever will. Mark Space comes pretty darn close, but even Missing Synch offers the occasional “I synched and I lost all my data, and then tentacles grew out of the floor and did Anime things to me” horror stories.

Synching is an incredibly difficult problem to solve. Coming up with realistic test cases is hard, and getting detailed user feedback when something goes wrong is hard, if not impossible (if our brains could notice exactly what went wrong with a series of synching events, we probably wouldn’t need software to keep us in synch).

Wrap up

Finally, even if Apple could overcome all of the above problems and create a kick ass phone that was awesome and simple to use, there’s still one problem.

Most people don’t like spending a lot of money on their phones. Most of the super expensive smart phones are deeply discounted and used as lures to get people to agree to long term contracts. I’m not a gadget freak, but I have a healthy amount of geek in me, and even I balked at shelling out for my Treo, and there’s no way I would have bought it if I had to pay retail.

The mobile phone market is a commodity market, and entering a commodity market with a high price/high quality device is always a risk. That, combined with the technical challenges of making a high quality mobile phone make Apple’s entry into the field unlikely.

Originally published August 4, 2006
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