New Products and Skeumorphism

The iPhone entered our lives disguised as a phone. You’d buy it to replace your phone, then it eventually became something else, which just happens to allow you to make calls. Phone guys said that ‘PC guys’ like Apple won’t just walk in and disrupt the phone industry. They did and we now happen to carry phones that are actually pocketable computers.

The Apple Watch reaffirms this by being another trojan horse, in a sense. It’s entering our lives with the idea that a product occupies the real estate of our wrists, the watch. However, will it really be a watch for the most part? Won’t it just happen to be a wearable computer that also happens to tell time? I suspect that calling it a watch is an intentional skeumorphic approach to introduce the new product. Earlier version of iOS needed more references to real world objects for the UI, given how people aren’t used to touchscreens. Now that it’s a norm, Ive’s team had the liberty to embrace modern UI and efficiency. Despite that, they’re paying homage to watches with the Apple Watch not only with the name, but also with the watch faces that mimics the analog watch dial.

iPhone Size Skeumorphism

The original iPhone, I’d argue, based its size on phones at that time. The display sizes of the new iPhones are a hot topic today, given how far they departed from the original after years of strongly defending its original decision.

I’d break this down by saying this whole size issue revolves around our idea of what a phone is. Phones used to mainly call and text. You only need so much display size for those. The phone wasn’t a pocketable computer, despite attempts of smartphones before the iPhone.

iPad Between Phones and Laptops

While a bigger phone wasn’t their solution at the time, Apple believed that the original iPhone was too small to be the only device running their mobile platform. They introduced the iPad, which was supposedly far better at key things like web browsing, emailing, and viewing photos. What’s even more interesting is the iPad was allegedly developed before the iPhone, which suggests that the touchscreen platform was originally developed for displays larger than 4".

Evolving from Skeumorphism

I’m very optimistic with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. It definitely took Apple guts to deviate from what they used to defend. And they had to.

Let’s look at these pocketable computers (with the ability to make calls) as such, not as phones per se. The main size concern I see is if they fit in your pocket. I can confirm that jumbo phones can fit in the pockets of my skinny jeans. Obviously, smaller would fit better, but it’s up to you to set a threshold for what’s viable. I believe that the iPhone 6's physical size will be pocketable for everyone, while the 6 Plus will be viable for majority.

The second objection I see is one-handed use. That’s a legitimate concern, but let’s look at tablet use cases. With the joy of using iPads, especially the comfort of using the more compact iPad mini, we can’t say that 5.5" is too big for touchscreen devices. Going back to one-handed use, when is that necessary? Seems like the answer is when we use the display (reading or manipulating touchscreen) while not stationary. Well, we actually should avoid using our phones while walking, regardless of the size. There are definitely more objections against bigger phones, but these two cover most cases.

This isn’t to say that portability and ease of use with one hand, among other things, aren’t valuable. They are. The point is that larger displays would ultimately be more valuable if we look at these smartphones as pocketable computers, despite the tradeoffs. Imagine the conveniences, smaller environmental footprint, and economic benefits of having it serve most of your computing needs, diminishing or eliminating the need for a tablet.

New product use cases develop along with new apps, user behavior, and other complementary products in the ecosystem. These change as we experiement and depart from the original references. New product categories should make the most out of skeumorphism, while not letting it hold back progress.

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