By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 4:10 pm
Call it the Benjamin Button school of software development. When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone at Macworld Expo San Francisco 2007, it already sported a user interface so highly-evolved that it hardly felt like a 1.0 release–it looked more like the result of years of refinement. But for all of the iPhone OS’s initial maturity, it was missing a laundry list of basic features that other handheld platforms usually have pretty much from birth. Stuff like cut and paste, MMS, search tools. and the ability to handle at least some tasks in the background. Oh, and the ability to run third-party applications at all.
Last year’s iPhone 2.0 update was mostly about supporting third party apps. And today’s iPhone 3.0–which, incidentally, I guest-blogged about for Laptop in a post about the biggest new features–is largely about the baby steps that other platforms would have taken at inception. In other words, the iPhone’s operating system is doing something I can’t remember any software doing: It’s aging backwards.
(Okay, the Benjamin Button metaphor only goes so far–for one thing, the next step after those baby steps for the iPhone’s OS isn’t death. With any luck, it’ll be a really nifty version 4.0.)
If you boiled the new features in iPhone 3.0 down to a terse, dispassionate list and didn’t know they were on the way for the iPhone, almost none of them would make anyone’s heart beat faster. Actually, most of them were prosaic standard equipment on the AT&T Tilt I used immediately before I bought an iPhone 3G.
But it looks like the upgrade will get the iPhone platform to where you’d want it to be by version 3.0: It’s got the most sophisticated interface ever put on a gadget you can stick in your pocket, an application library that’s 25,000 programs strong, and most of the features it needs to be an exceptionally well-rounded, useful device. If it lives up to its promise when it shows up this summer, it removes most of the “Yes, but…” disclaimers which have been mandatory when judging the phone until now.
(Well, not all of them: As long as Apple is the sole authorized distributor of iPhone apps, some prospective customers will be fundamentally disgruntled. Even if it gets better at approving third-party software swiftly and smoothly, as it says it’s doing.)
In a strange way, this is an upgrade that reminds me of the old rule about Microsoft products: It takes until version 3.0 until they’re fully baked.
All we know about Apple’s master plan for the iPhone is what company executives have said in public events like today’s presentation, and neither Steve Jobs nor his colleagues are the type to tip their hand or spill their guts. So I’m not sure it was part of the company’s strategy all along to get the sweeping, innovative, eye-popping things right first and then backfill in the mundane stuff over the course of a couple of years.
But consider this alternate-universe scenario: What if the iPhone that Jobs brandished back in January 2007 had included all the unglamorous-but-valuable features that Apple announced today, but had lacked multi-touch, desktop-like browsing, high-end audio and video playback, and a look and feel that had been polished to a fare-the-well? Would a first-generation iPhone that had been more useful and less strikingly innovative have had anywhere near as much impact? Would it have sold as well? Would as many developers have jumped on the bandwagon so quickly? Would the rest of the industry have rushed to clone it so thoroughly?
I’m guessing the answer to all these questions would have been no, absolutely not. Apple’s development-in-reverse process, whether intentional, subconscious, or accidental, has been utterly key to making the iPhone into…well, the iPhone.