The iPod of phones

It doesn’t have every feature in the world, but what it has works very well (with a few glitches). It’s also fun to use; its design and interface are stunning; and it integrates seamlessly with the content on your computer. People may not realize it yet, but it’s going to change the market.

If someone had read you that description a few months ago and asked you to name the product in question, there’s a good chance you would have guessed “the original iPod.” And you’d have been correct—introduced way back in October 2001, the first iPod fit that description to a T. But the text also describes Apple’s latest piece of shiny hardware, released just last week.

Because, you see, the iPhone is the iPod of phones.

At least that’s what I’ve been telling (the many, many) people who’ve asked for my opinion on the iPhone over the past week, because the simple phrase summarizes my experiences as succinctly as I can put it.

And if you read the reviews, and talk to people on the street, I’m not the only person to describe the iPhone in words similar to those used nearly six years ago to describe the first iPod. “Normal” people are wowed by the attractive design and ease of use. Mac fans alternate between drooling over the things it does right and criticizing it for not being perfect. (Hey, we have high standards.) The techie crowd complains about all the features it doesn’t have. And people in all three groups grouse about its price.

Which should all sound quite familiar: The original iPod was praised for its interface, ease of use, and several groundbreaking features, while being criticized for being too expensive and for omitting features included on other portable players.

But it’s more than a coincidence that the first iPod and first iPhone have experienced similar receptions. Apple clearly had similar goals in mind when designing the two devices: Get the main features right and make them simple to use. Integrate those features in a way people haven’t experienced before. Use a computer for those things that are more easily done on a computer and sync the two seamlessly. And make the entire package look and function in a way that will make people want to use it. As the platform matures and new models are released, add new features—without going overboard—and improve existing ones, all the while keeping the product easy to use.

Which means that the first iPhone, just like the first iPod, isn’t perfect. It’s missing features, some of which seem like forehead-slapping omissions. Some of the features it does have don’t feel quite finished. And there are plenty of phones out there that do more. On top of that, it’s not cheap. All of which, together, would appear to support the argument that, Apple’s PR spin aside, the iPhone is far from revolutionary.

But here’s the thing: Although the Apple- and iPod-haters won’t want to hear this, the truth is that the iPhone is every bit as revolutionary as was the iPod. Not in terms of which features it offers, but how it offers them—the stunning interface, the ease of use, the innovative way you interact with the device, the slick integration with iTunes and your computer, and the way features that are obscure and unused on other phones are accessible and useful on the iPhone.

That’s not to say we can’t quibble over little interface issues and which minor features should have been included in version 1.0. And there are valid complaints about major features omissions. But many of these complaints— including my own —miss the larger point, which is that the iPhone has, in one fell swoop, transformed the mobile-phone market, just as the iPod did the portable-media-player market six years ago. Expectations and standards just got a lot higher, for everything from external design to software interface to the activation process. As a result, just as portable media players have improved tremendously thanks to the iPod’s influence, you’ll be seeing other phone vendors (finally, it seems) take the overall user experience seriously. (At the same time, just as Apple stayed ahead of the iPod’s competition by regularly introducing new models with new features and at different price points, I think we’ll see a similar process with the iPhone.)

Oh, and after using the iPhone for a week, I can tell you there’s one other way in which the first iPhone is like the first iPod: Whatever your initial impression, the more you use it, the more you appreciate it—and the more you wonder how you got along without it.

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