: five years

The iPhone was announced publicly five years ago today in an event so mesmerizing to my then-treo-wielding self that I spent a good part of the afternoon making a life size papercraft version using all the (scant) information available at the time, just so I could feel what it was going to be like to hold the thing, to get a sense of just how huge and beautiful that touch screen would be.

Over at SplatF, Dan Frommer points to a quote from Steve Jobs during the presentation:

“Now, software on mobile phones is like baby software. It’s not so powerful. And today, we’re going to show you a software breakthrough. Software that’s at least 5 years ahead of what’s on any other phone. Now, how do we do this? Well, we start with a strong foundation: iPhone runs OS X.” [Applause.]

Frommer goes on to question how true this five-year advantage has been, concluding that the software gap has largely been bridged, save for a few remaining differentiators:

If anything, where Apple is the most ahead of Android today — perhaps even 5 years ahead — is on the business and customer experience sides.

Apple still seems to have the power in its relationships with carriers, demanding a clean user experience (no pre-installed crap), control over software updates and the length of its update path, a mostly-reliable App Store that makes a lot of money in app sales for developers, distribution through its own retail stores, tight integration with Macs and the iPad, and great devices at great prices. Not to mention an extremely profitable business model — selling tens of millions of iPhones per year for a big profit. These things seem to be more iffy in the Android camp.

Like Gruber, I'll allow that these are the areas where it's most obvious to nearly anyone that Apple remains ahead.  But I think there are two areas where the thinking behind iOS is still clearly ahead of the design decisions underlying competing efforts these last five years.

Gruber has the first one - the primacy of user interface responsiveness over other concerns:

I’m not saying the original 2007 iPhone is a better overall device today than the Lumia or Galaxy. It has very little RAM and a much slower processor and you can feel it. But there are aspects of the original iPhone software, animation, scrolling, touch-tracking, that remain superior to any competition. Was everything about the original iPhone five years ahead of the competition? No, no way — especially in terms of hardware. But some aspects of its software were more than five years ahead.

The second bit of thinking that has proved to be as far ahead of its time is the decision to put as much of the interface as possible in software, through the touch screen, rather than hardware.  Recall that Android was originally conceived in the heyday or blackberry and so was destined originally for that keyboard-phone scheme with tons of buttons below an interaction-abstracted screen.  Even with the benefit of Apple's example, the first Android phones only looked vaguely like the now-ubiquitous screen-dominant phone - and most had a keyboard hiding under there anyway. Five years later and Android is only now going to a buttonless device paradigm, and even that replaces legacy hardware buttons with software buttons below most of the interface.  

Apple's software decisions before 2007 allowed the iPhone to be a truly app-centric device in a way no other platform had been before - no interface presents itself to the user aside from what is necessary to the task at hand, and all functions the user might access must be rendered on screen rather than hidden in some unlabeled or mislabeled static button. Further, the user can expect action to be met almost instantly by some sensory feedback, so there is no question that the intent of the user has been some way received.  I think these two insights are among the most important in the design of what has become iOS, and are the key pieces that make it so approachable to the many who are becoming acquainted with computers for the first time thanks to its ease of use.

How does any lead like this last five years?  That's an eternity in tech time.  If I had to guess, it'd be this: for most of that time, Android, split between Google on the software end and the various OEMs on the device side, have attempted to catch up via hardware instead of software.  Interface lag wasn't something google could address in graphics acceleration since it had to deal with legacy devices without such hardware, and hardware manufacturers had to try to catch up through brute force processing speed because they couldn't go the accelerated route without Google.  Similarly OEMs were caught on the original Android hardware buttons, and unable to ditch them because of the need to support both the OS and legacy apps, tried to address the problem through less than stellar novelties like capacitive touch buttons.  These hardware-centric approaches are in the end just hacks to get at the same thing Apple did five years ago in software, and ones that haven't held up all too well.