Mobile World Congress: What If the iPhone Didn’t Exist?

By  |  Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 12:24 pm

DonutI had a good time at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, but as big and bustling as the show was, it did feel a little like a donut: It was defined by a large hole at its center. That hole would be Apple, the one significant phone manufacturer who–as is its wont–chose not to show up.

Look at the major new phones introduced at the event, and you see iPhone inspiration almost everywhere, from hardware design to interface color schemes. Nokia and Microsoft both introduced apps stores that echo Apple’s app store. After I submerged myself in all this for a few days, I began to wonder: Just what would Mobile World Congress–and the smartphone biz in general–be like Steve Jobs and Apple had examined the cell phone market a few years ago and, after careful consideration, decided to keep out of it?

A few thoughts about that scenario after the jump.

Hardware. It’s true that there was lots of stuff happening with phone design at the show that had nothing to do with Apple except that it zoomed past the iPhone’s specs: Phones with far more powerful cameras, higher-resolution screens, and slide-out QWERTY keyboards were everywhere…and presumably would have been even if the iPhone had never been invented.

But looking back at the new phones I wrote about, ones with physical phone keypads are greatly outnumbered by ones with full-face, finger-driven touchscreens–a design that was pretty darn exotic until the iPhone came along. It’s hard to imagine that companies such as Samsung would have embraced touch with quite the fervor they did if the iPhone hadn’t served as a model. And I’m not sure if the industry’s abandonment of other form factors for full-face touch is such a great idea. For once thing, it’s tough to do touch well–in the hands-on time I got with some of the new phones, I didn’t come across any that matched the iPhone’s responsiveness and precision. For another, other hardware features such as “candybar” cases and real QWERTY keyboards can be well-done and valuable even if they aren’t iPhone-like.

Bottom line: There might have been a bunch of touch-centric phones at MWC 2009 even in a world sans iPhone, but I suspect we would have seen more diversity of design. And that might have not been such a bad thing.

Software. You could do a touch interface that not only isn’t an imitation of the iPhone software, but brings strikingly new ideas to the table–the Palm Pre proves that. Among the touch phones I saw at MWC, many drew general inspiration from the iPhone without ripping it off…but most were short on truly refeshing new ideas. And there were interfaces (such as LG’s “S-Class”) thst cheerfully knocked off specific aspects of the iPhone’s software, such as the look and feel of its icons, the four-icon minidock at the bottom of its home screen, and the black background behind the icons.

Phone user interfaces were so mediocre in the pre-iPhone era that it’s probably a good thing, overall, that so many companies are borrowing so much from the iPhone: If nothing else, the designs rolled out at the show were a heck of a lot prettier than the ones from two or three years ago. But as usual when other manufacturers follow Apple’s lead, the changes they make (like LG’s clunky 3D cube navigation) are as likely to damage the original idea as to improve upon it.

Services. All of a sudden, there are a multitude of on-phone application stores–a concept that existed only in rudimentary form before Apple’s iPhone 2.0 software. It’s a happy biproduct of the degree to which Apple, rather than the carriers who support the iPhone, controls the phone’s experience. And if the rest of the industry starts to remove software distribution from the clutches of carriers, who have rarely done it well, it’ll be a boon for phone owners. One that it’s hard to imagine happening without Apple’s example.

Apple’s MobileMe, meanwhile, hasn’t proven so influential–maybe not such a bad thing, since it got off to such a rocky start and I still find it less than utterly reliable. The only thing I saw at the show that reminded me of it was Microsoft’s My Phone service. Which I could imagine Microsoft having come up with even if MobileMe didn’t exist.

So to sum up: If Apple had never launched the iPhone, Mobile World Congress would likely have seen a wider variety of phone designs, cruder software, and less of an emphasis on software distribution. I’m still mulling over whether the iPhone’s influence on the competition to date has been more positive than negative, but I know this: It’ll be a good thing for the industry if other companies spend less time cribbing from Apple and more time doing inventive stuff of their own.


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1 Comments For This Post

  1. Sarah Says:

    What a great event, so much going on! The green phones were so cool!

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