The view from futures past: reflections on the iPhone’s launch, and fall

Tim McCormick
Dec 11, 2018 · 4 min read

Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone in January 2007 is well worth watching, or rewatching. You hear the crowd gasp and laugh delightedly at Jobs’ suave reveals; recall the marvel of things now taken for granted, like a multi-touch screen, and full web browsing on a phone, and the screen contents rotating when the phone does. You see how Jobs’ grandiose claims actually turned out surprisingly accurate, in that the iPhone was hugely world-changing, with smartphones becoming key global axis of electronics, computing, media, and everyday life.

As said Wordsworth in “The [French] Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement,” bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

However, as with that revolution, the sunlit spring of the smartphone era has kind of dimmed. For example, watching Jobs in 2007 and remembering my first iPhone in 2009, I’m struck by how little the device has really evolved since then — other than by steady incremental improvement in capabilities already in 1st version. [Perhaps, to be fair, what’s mattered more is the radical growth in surrounding ecosystem: eg pervasive mobile wireless data, the Web becoming largely mobile-accessible, the huge evolution of app marketplace, the development of Android as a mass-market, more open competitor to iOS, etc.]

Also, I am unfortunately reminded of how poorly my iPhone 6 / iOS today handles many basic needs. For example, today multitasking on an iPhone is (still) a disaaaster, with iOS still only allowing a single window/app display at one time, and backgrounded apps constantly closing and losing all context without warning. I don’t know if it’s apps failing/choosing not to use iOS mechanisms for preserving state, or something iOS is doing, or some issue/malconfiguration on my phone, but to me it’s highly and regularly disruptive.

For example, I now try to avoid composing any text in any app besides the built-in Notepad, eg a tweet or msg or comment, because it so often will get lost if I temporarily switch app or am interrupted. What an utter kludge. Apps are supposed to be and need to be simpler than desktop software, but this problem just breeds uncertainty and cognitive complexity.

Apple’s iOS developer framework UIKit includes features for apps to preserve state/interface upon being backgrounded, and even advises doing that to avoid disrupting the user’s experience. But this seems to be increasingly not happening in my experience. Ironically, I’m finding that mobile web browsing is now often better for preserving state, across dozens of browser windows. Even though the Web is by design essentially a stateless system, whereas apps are local programs and so logically suited to storing your local state.

Some other mobile user-experience needs that seem to me fundamental but broken on iOS:

  • consistent, user-manageable, device-appropriate text size display (chaos and pain! yet this was literally a key principle of Tim Berners-Lee design of the Web protocols, in 1989!). Also,
  • managing notifications —arguably now the key user interface, but frustrating chaos to try to manage, and widely abused to addict and disrupt users.
  • even simply being able to copy, cut, and paste text between windows/contexts — another core design feature of the transparent, text-encoded Web — has become steadily more difficult, increasingly limited or prevented by the all-controlling powers of apps.

The notifications problem illustrates a key possible explanation for the smartphone’s design ‘failures’: that it’s a peculiar ‘tool’ by being in many ways, a tool not designed for its user. Most smartphones run Android, largely controlled by Google, but Google’s key motives for this are to collect data and promote its own services for its advertising customers; not, primarily, to serve users’ goals. Most of the top-used apps, media, and services on smartphones are designed to serve advertisers, not user needs. The phone carriers make money by achieving widespread and costly subscriptions and data charges. Etc.

Then again, media/tools that aren’t designed for us, is not exactly a new phenomenon, or easily judged to be villainous. Like the transformation wrought by the 19th century’s advertising-supported “penny press” newspaper: great democratizer, or bringer of the gutter press?

The 20th century explosion of consumer goods and consumer culture: was that ever really about serving people’s needs, vs creating demand for what industry produced? Did the ‘free’ broadcast media of radio and TV build a rich media and public sphere, or foster a harmfully centralized and manipulative, persuasion/advertising based media? (which the consumer Internet forthrightly inherited)

However, watching the trajectory of the smartphone and Web, it does sadly seem like media and media builders keep aspiring again to the glory that was Television: centralized, powerful, immersive, consuming spectacle creating a suggestible, marketable, disempowered audience. This time, perfectly personalized, but more to surveil and steer you than to serve you.

Jobs’ smartphone revolution, it seems more and more, will be television-ized. Like the “private opulence and public squalor” observed in television’s golden era by Galbraith, today in our media realm it’s again central imperial wealth triumphant (new bosses, much like the old boss), and for much of the public realm, a vast wasteland, and mass distraction; the empire strikes back. In the early days, Wordsworth observed, “Authority put on a milder face” — but didn’t disappear, as frailty and power never do.

However, not to despair! read this excellent, thorough guide to revolution from within: “How to Configure Your iPhone to Work for You, Not Against You” by Coach Tony.

Tim McCormick

Written by

editor, @YIMBYwiki; founder, @Houslets (open-source modular building research & design), San Francisco. @Possibilist_. tmccormick at gmail.

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