How the iPhone revolutionised mobile for users

Below is another guest post from Peter Matthaei, in his 5 part series, on how Apple is changing the way we work live and breath. Be sure to leave your thoughts & comments below.

In my last post, I looked at what makes Apple tick.  Today, I’m looking at how the iPhone changed the way people use their phones.

The most obvious change from the way phones used to work is that the iPhone is all screen, no keyboard.  Instead of the touch screens on previous devices, the iPhone doesn’t require a stylus; you operate it only with your fingers.  This makes using the phone feel a lot more natural and personal (and if you’re anything like me, cuts your replacement bill for lost styluses down dramatically).  But Apple didn’t stop there.  They added multi-touch, meaning the ability to use more than one finger at a time without confusing the phone’s software.  Multi-touch allows the iPhone to understand gestures like pinching your fingers together to zoom out of web sites or pictures, or pinching them open to zoom in.

Apple also realised that we don’t just use our phones for making phone calls or sending SMS’s, we also use them for many other things like reading and sending emails, browsing the web, finding directions or playing games.  So it doesn’t really make sense to build a phone like a phone.  The keypads most phones used before were originally designed to allow users to dial phone numbers.  When SMS unexpectedly became popular, you were stuck with a keypad, and so people added predictive text.  But when you wanted to play games, you still had to use a keypad designed decades ago to go through menus and control your game.

Phones like Blackberry changed from using a keypad to using a full keyboard, but that is only really useful for typing long pieces of text.  It often makes the screen smaller, the phone heavier and thicker, and in the case of slider keyboards introduces movable parts that can break when your mother-in-law accidentally sits down on your phone.  With a keyboard, the phone changes from being good for phone calls to being good for entering text messages.  But it’s still clumsy for going through menus, browsing the web or playing games.

So Apple figured out that the best way to make sure you can use any feature or program on your phone is to make sure that the phone is not built-in a way which makes it good for one thing but bad for others.  Make the way you do things on the phone change depending on what you need to do.  So if you write something, the iPhone will bring up a text keyboard in the language you use (something by the way that phones with hardware keyboards can’t do).  If you want to type a web address, it brings up a keyboard that’s right for web addresses.  When you want to scroll a web page, you just drag the page with your fingers like you would a sheet of paper.  If you play a racing game, you can use your phone like a steering wheel.

The iPhone changes depending on what the user needs, rather than forcing the user to use the phone based on how it was built.  That’s the reason why the iPhone is simple enough for my three-year to use it.  There are no complicated menus, he just flicks his fingers through my list of applications, taps the icon for the game he wants to play, and he can then tap chickens to make them lay eggs (or whatever silly mobile game three-year olds play).  Yet at the same time, my iPhone is powerful enough to allow me to go into my servers while I’m lying in bed to see what broke if I get a late-night support call.

For the first time with a phone, I feel like the iPhone is a real (but very small) computer I can carry around with me everywhere.  It can do most of the things I need to do when I’m not at my desk.  (And what’s even more useful is that it can do many of them so well that it looks like I’m still in the office — which is useful when you slip out for a quick movie at the cinema during office hours.)

What allows the iPhone to be a tiny computer is the app store where you can download any of a quarter of a million programs for your phone.  There you can find anything from games that are as good as those on your PSP to applications to help you find a date (and a lot of useful and/or downright bizarre things in between).  It was a big hassle to find good applications for your phone before the iPhone came along.  It was risky to pay for them (you either had to give some dodgy site your credit card details, or pay through your airtime which might inadvertently have led you to subscribe to a porn service), and it was a headache to find out if there even was an app for what you needed on the big, chaotic Internet.  And if you found something that looked like it would work, it was often expensive, and there was still a good chance that it wouldn’t work right on your model phone.

On the iPhone, it is a breeze to set up an account on the app store and link your payment details (if you don’t just want to install free apps, which by themselves can actually get you pretty far without spending a cent).  Finding something you need is quick and easy (or you can just window shop till you find something great and unexpected).  Downloading or buying is just a click away.  You always know exactly how much something costs (no hidden costs, no small print), and you know it will work.  If the developer of the app adds in features, a free update is only one tap away.  Everything you download will work from the moment it’s installed, there’s no tinkering to make it work.  And best of all, the apps can’t break your iPhone or steal your data.

The last big thing that the iPhone brought to users is the way we use content like music, movies and even ebooks.  Before the iPhone, it was a mission getting your music onto your phone (if it could even play music), and you generally had no way to buy new music from your phone.  Watching movies or shows was a chore on the tiny screen, and that was after you already had to pull an Einstein to convert the stuff you had (we won’t ask where you got it!) to something your phone could play.  Reading anything longer than SMS (like a good novel) was generally out of the question because you had to find the right application for it and you had to find a place to buy the books from.  Not to mention how silly it is to turn pages from a keypad or keyboard or with a stylus.

The beauty of Apple was that they had a solution to all of this long before the iPhone came along.  With the iPod hardware, they already had a good understanding of how to build a proper media player.  And they already built the iTunes store with millions of music tracks and thousands of movies and TV shows.  While watching a movie on your iPhone isn’t quite the same thing as watching it at the IMAX, it is a good way to pass the time when you’re stuck at an airport or your spouse is asleep.  With podcasts, you don’t ever have to listen to boring radio shows again.  And all it takes to get all of this is to go to iTunes on your computer or on your iPhone, find what you’re looking for and hitting purchase (and plugging your phone into your computer, if you bought it from there).  So simple even my granny could do it.

(Note that you can’t buy music and movies from the South African iTunes store, but Marc has a great post on how you can get yourself a magic pass for the US store which is like Look & Listen times a hundred.)

Even reading e-books works surprisingly well on an iPhone – I’ve already finished half of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series of 7 books on my iPhone.  It’s a bonus that you can read in the dark.  Again, probably not as great as using a bigger e-reader like the Kindle or the iPad, but useful when you’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment and you’re not in the mood for the Economist from last year.

It’s not like you can’t do any of the above with other devices.  But the great thing is that you always have your phone with you.  My iPhone has replaced my iPod, my DVD player (I hook my phone up to my TV through a standard connector you can buy at any Apple store), my digital camera, my video camera, my Kindle, my PSP, my GPS and sometimes on short trips even my laptop.  It’s not as good for specific things as some of them, but it’s always in my pocket.  For many years, executives from Nokia and Motorola and the likes would talk for hours at conferences about how cellphones were going to become the only device you need.  For all those years, I listened with tons of scepticism, because I never saw anything that worked nearly as well as they described.  It took Apple to make it happen.

And if you don’t believe the geek, believe my wife.  For the first year that I had my iPhone, she would always say to me “leave that thing alone! why do you always have to poke at it?”  My genius solution was to buy her one too.  She and her iPhone have been inseparable since then.  Except when I phone her about her phone bill; then it’s always temporarily misplaced.  (But that’s a story for another day.)

Look out for my next post on how the iPhone changed the way developers build their applications, distribute them and make money from their efforts.

8 replies on “How the iPhone revolutionised mobile for users”

nice post Pete.

What connector are you using to hook up to your TV? Normal TV or fancy HD? I guess the con is that you have to optimise your content (through iTunes) for the iPhone screen, then when you plug it in you get a lower quality result.

Can you give us some background on what hardware/software you currently use?

At this stage, I hook my iPhone up to an old CRT TV with an Apple Composite AV cable. You can also get a Component AV cable from iStores that is probably going to work better on HD TVs.

Videos can only be transferred to the iPhone through iTunes if the smallest dimension is not more than 480 pixels. (So typically, something like 1033×432 will work, but 773×576 won’t…) This means that iPhone-compatible videos are Standard Definition quality; I don’t really notice a difference between DVD and iPhone output.

I typically play my videos through the standard iPod app on the phone, and manage my video library with iTunes. The downside is that videos must be in H.264 encoded M4V files. (If the videos are encoded right to begin with, iTunes can downscale your videos to iPhone-compatible resolutions with Advanced > Create iPod or iPhone version.)

Another useful utility for streaming video from your PC or Mac via WiFi to your iPhone or iPad is StreamToMe. This can also output through the TV out cable. The advantages to StreamToMe are that it can “transcode” virtually any format of video or audio to something that your iPhone will understand (so you don’t have to worry about formats) and you also don’t need to store any of the files on your iPhone or iPad.

I buy most of my movies and TV shows through the iTunes store. (You can find many Star Trek series for $13 / season…) If the show is in HD, iTunes will automatically download a SD version for your iPhone also. (The HD version would get used on your PC/Mac/iPad/AppleTV.)

If you want to convert video files you got from somewhere else (cough cough), you can use Handbrake (for some source formats such as DivX you may also need to install VLC for the codecs). Handbrake is available for free for Win/Linux/Mac. I use the Mac utility RipIt to grab DVD images, and then convert the images to Apple Universal video files with Handbrake.

Finally, if you want to have higher resolution video and video out, it’s probably best to get an iPad with an Apple composite AV cable. (Not to mention that it’s a lot nicer to use the iPad itself for watching videos on the go than it is to watch video on the tiny screen of the iPhone…)

Oh, and I suspect with the way Google is going with Apple TV, we’ll soon see something new and exciting coming out of Apple’s labs to really bring another media device into the living room that will be able to run apps, interact with your iPad and iPhone and connect to the web.

(In my last paragraph I of course meant “the way Google is going with GOOGLE TV”…)

Loved the post! it really has changed everything,
on another note pity about paying for visual voice mail though, trust vodacom.

loved they idea of buying one for the wifey! brillant! i’m sure you don’t get bothered as much after that move.

Really cool …
So, Mark, where’s the link to the method to get a magic pass to the US iTunes store?

The iPhone and iPad devices really are incredible devices, especially for me as developer. The possibilities are endless when trying to achieve a new set of initiatives.

The sad reality is that I, like the majority of South Africans, would probably never have touched any of these devices if it wasn’t for my job. This is due to the unreasonable pricing factor roaming this far end of the continent. Its hard to imagine paying only $97 for an 3GS in the US while coughing up R7k plus over here.

After working with it, on it, FOR it, I would recommend it to any of the common folk considering a higher end device. My experience is with an iPhone 3G, which is the bottom of the range currently. Still it overwhelmed me and now I’m also a walking apple advert, trying to convert my fellow people to join in the apple experience.

I’m awaiting the launch of the 4G with great excitement! And yes, I will pay the inevitable ridiculous retail price, because I know what it is I will be getting!

Pete: thanks for the comprehensive response…Will it a try
Rory: Follow Marc’s instructions to the T…read the comments on that page & you’ll understand why…a US account is the only way you’ll really enjoy your phone.
Grove: To be fair, that $97 is subject to a contract with AT&T, so should be compared to the Vodacom contract where you need to pay in a certain amount in addition to the contract…And the price was $199 for a long time up until a few days ago, so not that much higher than the Vodacom rate. But I agree, Core are killing us with Apple (&Nintendo) prices in SA…but don’t get anyone started on that!

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