How the iPhone delivered a hammer blow to my career: A phone designer's retrospective

It is just over six years now since Steve Jobs come out on stage and introduced the iPhone to the world. Six months later is shipped. As someone who at the time and still today was working on smartphones it was the equivalent of suddenly being in the middle of a very slow motion train wreck. One where there is too much time to dwell on what is happening, yet still be powerless to change the surrounding mass carnage. Yet six years on after the smoke has cleared there is still a lack of deep analysis about what has changed. Which is a shame as once we dusted ourselves off there is plenty to talk about what was different with current product that should be part of any interesting discussion about the design of products today.

I have worked at Nokia for ten years now. Before that my time was spent directly working with mobile products since 1998. A lot of that time has either been close to or directly involved in what we now call User Experience Design. That is how the software on these phones should look and behave. The following series of posts are my own personal view. They aim to use the iPhone as a lens, as a way to shine a light and contrast against the details of products on the market six years ago. It is a constant staple of blog comments that other companies had features such as touch, a web browser and third party apps. But this overstates the value of how having an idea, or even being first with a specific implementation is often unimportant. What should be interesting is how other products were able to come along later and make a success of these ideas. Something important not just people who design products, but anyone who is just interested in these highly personal products. This is a story that should be much more interesting than simplistic claims of luck, or marketing or sheer personality. It is the current lack of detailed insight from people who were working on products that has been the spur to create the following series. This is not about who is awesome and who sucks. But to draw out the issues that can help us all better understand these mobile products and contribute to creating even better ones.

In all honesty I was pretty doubtful about the iPhone when it was announced. Although looking back at the presentation the only laughable claim was that the Pirates of Caribbean 2 is a great movie. But in all seriousness it really is a great presentation. Most product launches are hard to watch live, let alone a few years later. But six years on this stands the test of time as not only a master class in showmanship, but also how to introduce a whole new product. Its a lot easier a year later when everyone knows what something is to just say 'this is our best (insert product name) yet', but communicating something new is damn hard. "It's a wide screen iPod with touch, it's a revolutionary mobile phone and it's a breakthrough internet communications device." Six years ago I studied the video. I saw a lot of issues that were hindering similar products I had worked on and doubted this product had truly addressed them. Several months later I had an iPhone in my hand and it became rapidly clear to me I was wrong. It had addressed many major issues. But it was also audacious, almost mind boggling bold in how it went against the conventional wisdom of the time. No 3G! No multimedia messaging! You could not even install your own custom ring tone. A massive revenue generator at the time. It is the conventional wisdom and how the iPhone clashed with it that will be the basis for the next post.