A new etiquette for the iPhone generation

Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted from InfoWorld. For more IT news, subscribe to the InfoWorld Daily newsletter.

Armin Henreich’s infamous “I Am Rich” iPhone application—a $1,000 ruby-red screen saver—was pulled from Apple App Store shelves months ago, but its message still resonates loudly.

Now the iPhone, the tech symbol of the “in” crowd, is on the verge of crossing the line into AIG-like excess and arrogance. “I’m not sure, under the current economic conditions, that it’s a great statement to make,” says Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group. “You may not want to flash it.”

From “my apps are cooler than your apps” contests to “sent from my iPhone” e-mail footers, people love showing off their iPhones. That’s not surprising, given that the users most compelled to buy the latest and greatest handsets and cell phones are “alpha dogs,” says Sarah Welch, COO of Mindset Media, which helps companies target ads based on personality traits. It’s when alpha-dog enthusiasm goes overboard and becomes bad manners that others get annoyed.

Yet the iPhone’s cultural impact is much more than just another wedge separating the haves and have-nots; the iPhone changes how people interact with each other and their surroundings. Traditional cell phones and iPods already audibly isolated people in their own little worlds, and iPhone’s visual carnival pushes that isolation further.

With more iPhone-like devices hitting the streets (most notably, Research in Motion’s BlackBerry Storm and T-Mobile’s Google Android-based G1), the notion of a siloed nation is neither far-fetched nor far off.

Indeed, traditional cell phones rattled American culture in only a few short years. In 2006, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put the kibosh on the use of cell phones while driving in California—“you’re terminated!”—which led to a rash of tiny Bluetooth headsets sprouting from people’s ears.

“You can walk around and be insane, and people will think you’re just another person with a headset,” Enderle says. “With cell phones, we were largely talking on the phones, and that created a problem. We’ve moved to things like the iPhone that are much more visual, which makes the problem more pronounced.”

The visual nature of the iPhone can be a big distraction. Will consumers, walking around with their heads down as they play a game or look at a map on the iPhone’s mini-screen, collide with each other like pinballs?

Glibness aside, there are real and tragic consequences to being visually distracted. Last month, a train engineer in Los Angeles was allegedly text messaging on his cell phone moments before he crashed into a freight train, killing 25 people, including himself.

“These things are significant distractions,” Enderle says, “and I think the culture is going to have to wrap its arms around a certain number of behaviors that reduce those distractions.”

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