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Article: Simplifying the iPhone

by on January 7, 2013

Last weekend I went to a football game and could not help but notice that almost everyone in my section had an iPhone of some sort (even a guy with an original iPhone rocking AT&T’s EDGE network)—there was one or two Android phones and a flip phone in view. Most people were taking pictures and checking scores of other games (the playoffs were in sight). Regardless of if this was a small sample of actual marketshare, it really made me think of how pervasive the iPhone has become. This was compounded with the experiences of upgrading my dad’s line from a Nokia 6350 to an iPhone 4S.

Unlike the majority of people I’m in contact with on a regular basis, my dad probably falls in the late adopter of technology. He likes things that work well and doesn’t necessarily go the cheapest route when buying technology, so he actually gets his money’s worth out of devices (unlike those of us who are guilty of trading in iPhones after a year or buying an iPad mini to use with a regular iPad). A couple of years back, I added him to my AT&T family plan for voice only since it would be much cheaper than a separate account.

Fast forward two-and-a-half years and I renewed my contract with an iPhone 5 and my dad’s Nokia was looking a bit worn. It was a free-on-contract phone for most of 2010, and was loaded with carrier crapware and had a few quirks—not a bad phone, but I was urging him that it might be time to upgrade, even to another free flip/slider phone. With some pressure from friends and myself, he decided that the extra expense of a data plan wouldn’t be that much and wanted to get an iPhone. He already was quite proficient with Mac OS X and had an Apple TV, so I suggested the 4S since that $100 would go a long way over the free-on-contract 4. After picking the last one at the store and transferring contacts from his SIM card, the fun began.

Learning Curve

I joined the iOS platform with the second version of the software on an iPod touch. A few upgrades later and I eventually was using an iPhone 4, so the transition was seamless. Prior to iOS, I had a few iPods since 2004, so I had become quite familiar with Apple’s model of device synchronization. My dad, on the other hand, used iTunes regularly, but never really connected an iPod, so this was a bit of a lesson (CDs and flash drives carried music for in the car). I think the “old” model of connecting a device via USB has become so passé with the tech types (iTunes Wi-Fi Sync, iCloud, and iTunes Match are to blame). Still, I had to explain the limitation of having an iOS devices tied to one computer at a time, forcing some of the setup to wait until he got home (we couldn’t use my Mac to load some things on the phone while he was visiting me).

Still, the bigger glaring issues I found was how complicated iOS has become and the not-quite integration of Apple’s services. While the complication is largely a byproduct of new features, it put lots of things in perspective for me—as I had I moved from one version of iOS to another, I slowly learned each new headlining feature as time went on. Instead, my dad had five years’ worth of iOS features thrown at him in a day. On top of that, Apple didn’t include a comprehensive manual in the box, since we’re in a society that doesn’t ever read the book. There is a quick-start guide and electronic manuals, but it’s not quite the same as thumbing through a booklet while trying out functions. I envied those who started with the original iPhone or iPhone 3G and really mastered the core functions before we had all the extra nonsense—good nonsense, but nonsense nontheless—like Photo Stream, Newsstand, Passbook, and Game Center.

The services issue is semi-related, as there are quite a few things to enable initially, often requiring a toggle switch and re-entering an Apple ID and password yet again. Think about the last time you changed the password for your Apple ID and had to re-enter it for FaceTime, iMessages, Game Center, iTunes Match, the stores, iCloud, and more on each device you own. It’s maddening, and while the initial setup for everything wasn’t necessarily terrible, each bit of the process had additional little items like a date of birth, creating additional security questions/answers, and deciding what permissions to give others. This can quickly become a frustrating experience for someone still learning to type on an on-screen keyboard. Fortunely, I used the analogy of me first learning how to drive a manual transmission, and he continued press forward to get everything set up. I think many people might be annoyed with the sheer amount of stuff that requires setup on any new smartphone, often with little explanation for someone new to a platform.

A couple of days later and I’m getting a stream of iMessages and competently-typed emails. I seem to recall the notion that it took about a week for people to adjust, as many of the original iPhones reviews stated back in 2007.

What About the Setup Screen?

While reading this, you might be wondering why he didn’t go through the setup process you’d see if you restore your iPhone (this started appearing with the “PC-Free” iOS 5). We ended up going to the AT&T Store in the area, so the phone was handed to him much like every activated-in-store iPhone since the 3G. I probably should’ve reset it once we got back to my place, but he already had contacts transferred and some settings worked out and I wasn’t really interested in making my dad wait for a restore on a brand-new phone that seemed already functional.

I helped another family member upgrade about a month earlier at an Apple Store—they weren’t able to transfer his contacts, but it had the standard Apple ID-centric setup screen that also explains enabling things like Siri, Game Center, and the Apple ID itself. I’m not sure if this is an AT&T (or presumably Verizon or Sprint) issue or that they have to activate devices this way, but I think the Apple way would be much better for someone new to smartphones. I’m also scared to think of what the experience would be like for someone starting service at a discount retailer where the employees have no desire to help make it good experience.

Have we gotten to the point where those who haven’t joined the smartphone revolution are going to be left behind? While I spend a lot of time reading about (obsessing over?) this stuff, I was able to provide my own one-on-one tutoring to get my dad up to speed. What about in situations where the only person who can teach barely is able to use more than a few functions themselves? Are we expecting them to teach friends or family members once the carriers stop offering basic phones?

Rewiring One’s Brain

Throughout the process, my dad mentioned that this was going to require some learning, since he was so used to his Nokia and how it did things. Some menu conventions transferred, while others (how the iPhone displays missed calls) took some adapting. The whole time he mentioned that there would be a learning curve, but he felt that this was a major step forward technologically. The whole time I couldn’t help but think of the people who were moving away from the iPhone (and smartphones in general) to declutter and disconnect their lives and minds. Peter Cohen of The Loop is one and Stephen Hackett of 512 Pixels is another. I also thought the remarks by Robin Sloane set the scene:

For me, the iPhone had become a toxic compulsion. It had completed its invasion and occupation of my interstitial time—all those minutes riding the train, waiting in line, that used to be such fertile territory for daydreaming and storymaking. So I canceled my AT&T plan and switched to a bare-bones Nokia on a pay-as-you-go plan.

I just can’t picture my dad falling into this category once the shiny new toy time is over. He got sick of Facebook and closed his account, has no interest in Twitter, and has a text block on his line. The only things that will be interrupting him are a few push notifications, iMessages, and FaceTime/phone calls. That’s not much different than his Nokia. I think he’ll be more like someone who is a responsible drinker after turning 21—just because he can all the time, doesn’t mean he will. We all can learn a bit from that, especially anyone who identifies with Hackett’s addiction and is looking for their own form of rehab:

The problem is that five years of reaching in my front right pocket any time I’m free has created a strong habit, and I need to quit cold turkey.

I also wonder where the original iPhone fits into all of this—what if there was an iPhone that had a limited feature set to eliminate distractions? It wouldn’t sell well at all (think of the earliest incarnations of Windows Phone 7), but would be a happy medium between attention-stealing smartphones and low-key mobile phones of the past. Maybe Apple could offer a “simple” mode, much like the Simple Finder on OS X, without the need for restricting items individually.

Still, I think a number of people who would be plenty content with something a bit simpler are jumping to smartphones because the basic/messaging phones offered by manufacturers and carriers are garbage. Prior to the iPhones, I used a Motorola L6, a Motorola RAZR V3, and a Motorola RAZR V3xx, with a Sony Ericsson model here and there, and all felt like well-made products. My first phone was a Sony Ericsson that was a hand-me-down, and the RAZR V3 was also a used phone that had already seen a couple of years of use. Some of the models offered now feel creaky and flimsy. How many of these free- or less-than-$50-on-contract phones that are offered now will likely hold up past the next upgrade?

My dad did seem to appreciate the lack of unexplanable things when comparing the iPhone with his Nokia—more often than not, he would accidentally active the push-to-talk button which would bring up a dialogue box talking about PTT (“What is this PTT stuff?”) or there were some carrier locked-down functions and crapware pushing things to make more money for AT&T (a giant GPS button and the select button going to the Internet are glaring examples). Once you figure out how to use the iPhone, everything that is included feels intentional. I applaud Apple for standing up to the carriers on this.

About a week later, it seems the iPhone experiment has been pretty positive, both for my dad and myself. I’ve had to answer a few questions since the initial run-through, but it really has given me some perspective on how much has incrementally changed since the original iPhone, and also makes me very excited the future of iOS. I do worry that biggest potential market for Apple—those who may not need a smartphone, but are upgrading from something else because of poor options—might be frustrated if there isn’t a more consistent tutorial or streamlined process built into the device. Maybe there is a simple solution?

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