Don't look inside Apple's black box

Ask Apple what’s in the iPhone and they’ll treat it like a black box, albeit one powered by Apple’s special brand of technological magic. Or maybe elves. Or magic beans.

I exaggerate, a little. But the fact remains: when it comes to the iPhone (and its non-phone counterpart, the iPod touch), Apple doesn’t want the product to be described using the geeky tech language that we all use to discuss computers.

When I sat down with senior director of worldwide iPhone product marketing manager Bob Borchers on Monday, he was clear that “the usual speeds and feeds” aren’t the way Apple likes to talk about the iPhone. “Overall, it’s just a snappier experience. There are so many different facets to it — it’s just faster, better, quicker, snappier, and a great experience.”

All Apple wants you to know about the iPhone 3G S is that “the S simply stands for speed,” to quote Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing Phil Schiller — speed at opening apps, speed at playing games, speed at downloading stuff on the network. How does that speed get in there? Let’s not go there.

Now, the fact is that we’ll know the actual technical specs of the iPhone 3G S in short order. I’m guessing sometime on the evening of June 19 when iFixit posts one of its usual teardowns of new hardware. And developers will be able to look at their own stats and see how much free memory is available on this new device. We’ll know how much RAM the thing has, how fast its processor is, whether or not there’s a Tooth Fairy, the whole story.

We already know what the iPhone and iPod touch product lines are made of. Quick: can you name the most powerful device in the iPhone OS product line? It’s been common knowledge for ages that the second-generation iPod touch is actually more powerful than the iPhone 3G, believe it or not. (The 2G Touch runs at 532MHz, versus 412MHz for the iPhone.)

But people who aren’t into this stuff — the “not-we,” if you will—won’t care. And you know what? That’s okay. Because Apple’s right—most people shouldn’t care.

The fact is, those of us who scrutinize tech specs are a tiny subset of the broad market for the iPhone, iPod touch, and all sorts of other consumer tech products. In many ways, Apple’s reluctance to go into technical detail on most of its products is an extension of the company’s entire product-design philosophy.

Apple excels at creating products that the general public likes because the company is driven by design, not by engineering. Most tech products—heck, most products in general—aren’t as good as they can be because they’re put together by the people with the technical knowledge required to build them. And so the technical aspects of the product get pushed to the forefront.

The more complicated a product gets, the more technical acumen is required to put it together. Bad Web sites are built by people who know how to code HTML and JavaScript but don’t understand how people use the Web. Bad software is written by people who are experts at knowing how a computer works and how to write code to make it do what they want, but no idea about how regular people behave and how those people expect to interact with that software. Bad hardware is designed by people who choose the shape of devices and the placement of buttons based on the best way to lay out the internal circuit board, not by people who think about the most convenient ways for the human body to grab hold of that hardware and press its buttons.

Apple’s the kind of company that makes decisions based on people, on users, and then challenges its engineers to find ways to fulfill those needs. If iMovie edits your HD video in a snap, you don’t need to know that the video you’re editing has been transcoded to the Apple Intermediate Codec. Most people don’t need to know that Snow Leopard is using Grand Central Dispatch to split up threads and send them to separate processor cores — just that their multiprocessor-bearing Mac suddenly feels snappier. And people don’t need to care that their iPhone has a 412MHz processor and 128MB or RAM — they just want to tap on an App and have it load fast. It really doesn’t matter if it’s a microprocessor or a system of tiny pulleys hauled by gnomes that’s inside that shiny glass and plastic product. It just needs to work the way they want it to.

We geekier types, the ones who want to understand how things work, want to know those details. That’s fine, but Apple isn’t interested in muddying the waters for anyone else. I’m sure if Apple could put the genie back in the bottle and stop releasing hardware tech specs for new Mac models, it would do that, too. But with the exception of storage space, Apple keeps specs for the iPod and iPhone to a minimum.

Now, you know and I know that these devices are really little computers. In fact, the iPhone and iPod touch have about as much processing power as a turn-of-the-millennium Mac laptop. But ask people at Apple about those specs and they’ll change the subject. Because the message Apple wants to send about its new iPhone isn’t that it’s loaded with this processor or full of this much RAM. It’s this: “The S simply stands for speed.” And absolutely nothing more.

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