Mac Lab Report

Marketing Campaign Bombs in Redmond

- 2007.02.01

Everyone has an opinion about how the iPhone will turn the cell phone industry on its head by pricing the hardware higher with the service agreements cheaper, how having a real version of iTunes on a phone will completely eclipse other phone/music combinations, and how the interface will revolutionize people's attitudes towards the clumsy and recalcitrant interfaces we're forced to struggle with now.

I have my own reservations about the ability of the screen to withstand rough handling. My experiences with iPods shows Apple hasn't exactly mastered this domain, but I'm certainly willing to be convinced.

Unlike most of the Macintosh and iPod's professional critics, who are so deeply into consumer technology they've begun to think like engineers rather than users and to whom most of the cell phone industry's (and indeed, Microsoft's) interface decisions make a sort of user-subservient-to-the-machine sense, I am in the user interface camp that says intuitive, clean, and consistent interface counts for a lot. So much so that I'd be willing to pay extra for it - and indeed I have, every time I bought a Mac. Just because it's elegant. And I want to encourage that.

Now the iPhone is set to drive changes in the cell phone industry.

From clumsy text-messaging compromises to interminable voice mail menu listings, the cell phone industry has needed a kick in the pants for a long time. We'll see how that plays out.

In the meantime, though, Apple has a way of slipping in new applications that drive changes when we least expect it. They can either reinvent an existing market or create a new one.

The iPhoneI'd like to discuss with you the possibility of one example of each.

First, you may remember when Steve Jobs famously said that users were not interested in watching movies on a tiny screen and that he saw no need for the iPod to play movies. Two years after that, the video iPod debuted to some fanfare, and now the iTunes Store does a brisk business in that domain.

Jobs had no qualms about setting the music industry on its head.

Ebooks

I think a similar situation now exists with books. There is an entire industry dedicated to the production, storage, display, and marketing of printed books. Look at the parallels: In music, there was an established distribution network (CD and record stores); for books, there are bookstores such as Barnes and Noble. In music, there were already online sales of digital music available - it just wasn't elegant or convenient and the selection was limited.

In books, there are ebook vendors, but they have no established consistent format. Palm has a mechanism, and so does Microsoft, and Adobe. Each one uses a different method to validate the electronic copy and allow you to read it. All of the readers use a book paradigm with bookmarks, but they have the annoying feature of repaginating in every different medium or even when you resize the windows (Palm). Or they have lots of distracting buttons and features taking up valuable screen space (Adobe). In Adobe's case, the pagination is fixed but if you resize the window, you have to use clumsy scrolling tools to move from top to bottom and page to page.

Just think what Apple could do in this space. On an iPhone (or a laptop, for that matter) an Apple-branded ebook reader and book distribution system could solve all of the problems above easily and trump the entire market:

  1. Define an epage as equivalent to a printed page and put a delineated page-break within a continuous stream of text.
  2. Use scroll bars to move up and down the page. Tap at the end of the scroll bar to change pages.
  3. Use a diagonal flick of the finger at the upper right hand corner of a screen to establish a bookmark - and the reverse to remove it.
  4. Use your iTunes Store account to establish ownership of the book. Allow copying of the book using the same DRM mechanism as the iTunes Store. No more struggling to recall which credit card you used to unlock the book you bought from Fictionwise five years ago.
  5. Open the bookstore inside the iTunes Store with a broad selection of current books, not books that have been in the bookstores for months or even years.

Admittedly, the book market isn't as big as the music market (I think), but it isn't insignificant, and Apple's influence is such it could spark a renaissance in reading just from the side effect of having easy access to popular books. That might be seen by some as creating a new market where Apple's efforts might eclipse all of the other ebook efforts combined.

Calculators

Another area Apple could dominate without much effort is the portable calculator industry. The iPhone is large enough that a true scientific and graphing calculator app could do anything a modern calculator can do - but there are two important differences.

I don't normally suggest to my students that they invest hundreds of dollars in expensive graphing calculators for one reason: The results are difficult to share easily. Yes, you can transmit files between calculators and send them to a computer with a special cable, but those functions are slow and require complex menu-driven functions to get them to work.

But if you did a complex calculation or created a special graph on your iPhone, it would certainly be a simple matter to synchronize your phone, and then your graph is available as an image in a special iPhoto library or as a newly invented graphing calculator document in Grapher, Apple's little graphing utility that comes with OS X.

Grapher

Speaking of Grapher, if you haven't tried it, you should. It's Graphing Calculator all grown up and three-dimensional. The interface is essentially anything you can type on a spreadsheet, but Grapher displays it like regular algebra.

Here's where Apple would need to innovate - using something the size of the iPhone's interface to allow entry of complex mathematical formulas. If they could master that on the iPhone, it could spell the death of multifunction, fifty-button calculators except for the most specialized uses. They could dominate the market pretty easily without even hardly trying.

In order to make an iPhone scientific calculator successful, Apple would need to incorporate the following features:

  1. It should be programmable to do repetitive calculations.
  2. It should be able to publish algorithms within Apple's existing iApps - copy to iPage, post to iWeb, etc. - easily and quickly.
  3. It should have a new interface that displays things in standard algebraic format without too much menu driven interaction.
  4. Graphs should be manually scalable with the new interface features from the phone.
  5. Advanced functions such as calculus and matrices should be available, but only as a toggled feature (off by default).
  6. Long complex calculations should be able to be archived, recalled, edited, shared, and reused. Instead of the current paradigm, which is anything except programs is started over from scratch every time.

This is more of a technical challenge than an ebook reader, but there's a market for it if Apple does it right. The biggest challenge will be winning over the engineering crowd, who would rather use RPN notation just because it's more aligned with what the machine needs rather than what the user needs.

Frankly, Apple has never tried to win over the tech-heads. A sufficiently easy to use calculator interface would be so compelling even that the TI vs. HP wars might pause long enough for a few new ideas to sink in.

Well, that's my pitch. Apple's new iPhone could open some new doors for applications other than music and telephony. And if they eventually revise the iPod line and make them all use the full screen iPhone interface, these applications could be incorporated into the iPod as well. A Grapher-based calculator built into a low-end iPod could even be marketed as a calculator with a music player, making it an acceptable alternative to high-end graphing calculators currently on the market.

Will Apple pause in its upward flight long enough to mop up some other markets that could use a kick in the interface pants? Only time will tell.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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