by Mike Shea on 15 March 2007
In the cyberpunk novel Mona Lisa Overdrive, a young daughter of a Yakuza boss is given a small black box as a gift. It is very plain but obviously very expensive. She activates it with a single button and a young boy in a European riding outfit shows up. He is not an AI but he can answer just about any of her questions. He can record and playback anything she wants. He is tied right into cyberspace and can fetch just about any information she wants. He can help her directly communicate to just about anyone.
Every time I see a device like the iPhone, I think about that small box and consider how much closer we are. When Mona Lisa Overdrive came out we were paying $2000 for a computer with 1 meg of ram and 40 megs of storage space. I remember seeing the back of the box of Neuromancer saying "You have 20 megs online" which seemed so sci-fi. Now we have 80gb hard drives fitting into our pocket holding all the media we could ever hope to listen to.
Now comes the iPhone. It can connect to the internet over any wireless internet connection. It can dial in to a Cingular cellular network. It can hold 8gb of data including music, movies, and TV shows. It can let you read and write and surf the net. It can hold all your contacts, let you send and receive email, and take pictures directly into the camera. It isn't as good as the device in Gibson's novel, but it is a lot closer.
The iPhone is a convergence device - a device that combines a few separate devices into one. It has all of the capabilities of a cell phone, music player, video player, a Palm-like PDA, and even a lot of features found on a PC.
As usability sage Don Norman teaches us in The Invisible Computer, convergence devices do lots of things but rarely do they do them well. For every new feature added, there is a sacrifice. The iPhone is full of sacrifices. Here are a few:
Though typing is still a primary input for email and web forms, it has a small non-tactile keyboard. Sure, the kids are able to SMS quickly, but I can type 90 words a minute with 98% accuracy (Yes, I just checked). Let's see someone do that on a tiny display screen keyboard.
The screen, although not bad for a handheld device, is a lot smaller than most people consider acceptable for playback of video.
It only has 8gb of storage space when other iPods have 80gbs. For a device that can show full-length movies, it sure can't hold a lot of them. My entire media collection, without movies, is about 30gb. They sacrificed storage space for battery life. Battery life is a big problem for the iPhone overall.
The battery life is less than that of a normal cellphone. Again, you pack this much stuff into a single device and you need a lot of power.
You can't really read text as well as you can on a larger screen or in a book. I'd still rather carry a novel.
The screen resolution isn't high enough to display a standard HTML page. A screen needs at least 800 by 600 resolution to display most pages. Apple makes up for this with some sort of zoom in feature but that still isn't as good as working off of a computer.
It's expensive. At $599 you're paying as much as you would buying an iPod and a phone apart. This is probably out of the range of most people. Cram all those devices into one and you have to pay the price.
If any one company is able to build a successful convergence device, it would be Apple. Andy Ihnatko of MacBreak certainly liked it, stating that the keyboard worked great, the screen is beautiful, and the interface is "liquid". Still, with 8gb of storage and a tiny keyboard, it won't replace all those other devices on your desk. Could it replace your phone and your iPod? Maybe, if you can stand the lack of storage.
Rather than an iPhone, I would prefer a new widescreen iPod. I want an iPhone without the Phone and with an 80gb drive. I love the wireless internet connectivity. I love the widescreen touch display. I love all of the rest of it except for the cost and the lack of storage. I just can't see paying that much for a device with 1/10th the storage space of two-year-old technology.
I don't think Apple is going to see a lot of success with the iPhone out of the starting gate, but with flash memory prices dropping every day, they may come one step closer to the Mona Lisa device I've dreamed of for fifteen years.