First Impressions: the iPhone, Proficiency, and the Internet as Appliance

Being the Director of the Netlab means that I have to try anything being touted as a fundamentally new way of networking, right? Of course, it doesn't mean that the Netlab pays, unless by that you mean that I pay!

So what are my first impressions?

To be sure, this is a paradigm shift. The gestural aspect of the Interface seems to work well. Assigning some rough values to proficiency, I would say that I am about 70% proficient with it now, whereas I might be 98% proficient with my Mac's interface and ever only reached 95% with my Treo.The difference between 95 and 98 may be small, but it's big enough that whenever I used the Treo, I felt like I wasn't at home. That was significant. In contrast, there's something about drawing pens that doesn't work for me. Whenever I use one, my hand cramps up and I've never been able to get beyond 75% on them. In other words, they're unusable. The first big test of the iPhone is how quickly I will get used to the interface.

In certain ways the interface is contradictory: on the one hand, web pages are rendered as exquisite miniatures that you zoom in on to read, on the other hand, settings pages have inordinately large text for such a small device, making it necessary to navigate multiple menus to accomplish a task.

An obvious solution would be for the user to have some access to the settings, but this isn't possible. There is definitely a locked-down feeling on the phone compared to my Treo. On the Treo I was limited in my options, but I had them. For example, I could set up my screen as a set of icons or as a list. Not so on the iPhone. The most frustrating aspects of the Treo was the phone application which was impossible to configure. The iPhone is entirely like that, which is disappointing, except that unlike anything Palm has done in the last few years there is some sense of design here.

Now on to another, serious issue that has larger implications beyond the iPhone. Over the last few years, it's become rather common to see the Internet as a place of media convergence and the web as the means by which this will happen. In particular, open APIs such as Google Maps, Amazon, or Flickr have allowed programmers to build applications that remix online content in a plethora of way, some ludicrous, some, like hopstop.

The iPhone's interface undoes this completely. If you go to a YouTube site in iPhone's Safari, a notice that you either have javascript turned off or an old flash player appears instead of a video. Quicktime videos from Apple's web site work great (perfect for watching trailers from Apple's web site!), but flash doesn't play. And of course you can't download anything so forget about trying to install Skype or Google Earth.

To be fair, I still remember the bad old days when every architect had to have a flash site built. All of these were equally wretched and I welcome another nail in that coffin. But the the iPhone has reinscribed the isolated nature of flash sites. The widget based nature of the device suggests that Apple sees a future in single purpose applications for the web. Really the weather and stock applications (who needs the latter, really?)—front ends to Yahoo! services—aren't much different. So what's next, Wikipedia and Flickr widgets? Certainly I have nothing against such projects when they make Internet resources easier to access, but in the iPhone's closed architecture they suggest that Apple will lock down the web into a series of discreet applications with Apple the arbiter of who gets to be a provider (read provides a sexy widget and good corporate sponsorship).

The iPhone is less than a day old and Apple was scrambling just to get it out the door, but the device clearly will make the Internet a true mobile platform for the first time. How this will play out, however, is far from certain.

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