iPhones, iPods and Donald Norman's Invisible Computer - Embedded.com

iPhones, iPods and Donald Norman’s Invisible Computer


I don't think the long term future of the much-hyped iPhone will evermatch that of Apple's iPod or even the Macintosh, despite thespectacular early sales, the great expectations of the company and itsinvestors, and the enthusiasm of early adopters andiPod users.

The great strength of Apple (AKA Apple Computer) has been in itsability to make computing invisible. According to Donald A. Norman,former vice president and Apple Fellow at Apple Computer as well as theauthor of “The Invisible Computer,” thereare at least three elements necessary:

(1) A human interface that hides as much complexity as possible fromthe end user; (2) Keeping the underlying computer system as simple aspossible and (3) Turning the computer into a dedicated appliance,something that is good at doing a few things very well.

On all three counts, the iPod, iPod Nano and similar dedicated musicplayers Apple has produced are prime examples of this strategy. And thesales of these devices reflect its success. From the builder of adesktop dedicated to a specific segment of the market, Apple has risento a dominant position in the broader consumer market for music playerappliances.

On the iPhone, Apple again has veiled the complexity of theunderlying hardware and software processing that was needed to make itwork, and so the iPhone has received high marks from almost everyone onstyle and the user-friendly interface and design. And with the iPhone'stouch-screen user interface, Apple has outdone its efforts on thegraphical user interface (GUI) on the Macintosh.

But in “The Invisible Computer,” (subtitled “Why The PersonalComputer is so complex and information appliances are the solution”),Norman qualifies the good things he says about the Macintosh and theuse of a GUI to make the computing invisible:

 “In the GUI generation (of desktops), the primary philosophyis 'ease of use,' making complex machinery of the personal computerrelatively easy to operate,” he writes. “And therein lies the rub: Themachine is indeed complex, and the GUI goal is to sugarcoat thiscomplexity so that it won't be noticed.”

His prescient solution, written in 1999: rather than trying to makea complex machine easy to use, make a simple machine in the firstplace.

Apple's introduction of the Newton, which spawned a generation ofspecialized handheld information appliances and its later creation ofthe iPod, triggering a flood of specialized handheld andnetwork-connected audio and video media players, has proved thatNorman's insight was right on target.

Another example of the success of this formula is the originalsimple, limited function cell phone which had the single goal ofproviding users with a mobile, wireless form of communicating with oneanother ” by voice, email or instant mail. It is this dedicatedfunctionality that has driven the number of mobile phones in useworldwide into the billions.

But now handheld mobile device makers are moving away from thistried and proven formula for market success. In addition to Apple'siPhone, the market is being flooded with handheld communicationsdevices that suffer from what Norman described as “featuritis.”

Like the desktops that proceeded them, they all offer the ability todo any number of things, none of them particularly well, and certainlynot as well as a dedicated device. These devices offer not onlywireless phone service, but internet access, instant messaging, email,MP3, video capability, GPS, and built-in cameras.

Though Apple has done an outstanding job of hiding the underlyingcomplexity of iPhone, Norman's critique of the multipurpose desktop PCholds true for it as well: “Make a device do everything, and each taskwill be done in a manner that is adequate, but not superior,” hewrites. “A multipurpose device cannot be optimized for any single task;it has to be a compromise.”

Despite this limitation, the desktop computer market was a successfor two reasons. First, semiconductor manufacturers were able to getthe costs of the basic hardware down to rock bottom. As a result,builders of PCs were able to include a lot of features – compromisedthough they were – at a price that appealed to a broad audience.

Second, because the desktop was based on a plug-in board modulardesign for most of its capabilities, a user – or an enterprising systemintegrator – could transform it from a compromised general purposeanything machine into a dedicated system with optimal characteristics.

Multifunction handheld devices such as the iPhone will be along-term success only to the degree that such all-in-one compromisedevices can be offered to the broad market of consumers at as low acost as possible. The modular options users had with the PC are notavailable here. What you see is what you get.

When I am in the market for a new desktop or laptop. I look at allthe new features and functions with four questions in mind: 1) Does itoffer functionality that I really need? 2) Does it offer me theperformance I need? 3) Will it be possible for me to modify the systemat a later date if I need additional performance or specializedcapabilities? 4) If none of the above, is it priced at a level thatmakes it worthwhile to accept compromises?

Often desktop and laptop vendors offer a range of features such asaudio and video, wireless access, and 3GSM capability to make theirofferings more attractive. If they come “free” – that is, if the priceis roughly equivalent to a base system with all the functionality Ineed – I will buy it.

At the prices Apple and most of its competitors are charging fortheir mobile and handheld multifunction compromise devices I don'tthink the vast mainstream of potential users – except for a few truebelievers – will go for the pitch. I know I will not.

Bernard Cole is the site editor for Embedded.com and site leaderat  iApplianceweb. He welcomes contact. You can reach himat or 602-288-7257.

Reader Response

Is anyone else as sick as I am about the iPhone? It's just a phone. It makes phone calls and has the internet. But besides looking cool it doesn't offer anything new.

I could rant about our obsession with material gadgetry but I don't feel like being self righteous.

-Michael Sander
Santa Barbara, CA

Hi Bernard,

I agree with you, but if you look at consumer electronics segment. Nokia, samsung, Motorola, sony ericsson are trying to do what Apple has done.

Apple with multi-function device point of view has achieved significantly. With respect to price point of view, I am sure after some period of time they will have to bring it down if they really care about volumes… one cannot achieve volume sales with prices this high …

But what I have heard is device managment especially battery charging of iPhone needs to improve, one cannot send the phone to apple each time they want to charge thier batteries… i mean it is not acceptable to me …

-Venumadhav Josyula
Hyderabad, India

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