What Apple Could Learn From SF: iPhone As Mediator

Apple has been taking a lot of heat lately about iPhone service problems. A recent informal survey of iPhone users by Wired has pinpointed a major problem: the backend resources for the iPhone are too weak to support users.

(Wired iPhone 3G user survey results map)

In the map above, each colored bar indicates the relative 3G download speed for an individual respondent. Purple dots represent several respondents clustered together geographically. To speak very generally, the data overall shows that 3G is performing faster than EDGE (which is expected). In the best scenarios, 3G is up to seven times faster than EDGE; in worse scenarios, 3G performed just as slowly as EDGE; at worst, some users couldn't connect to 3G at all -- which isn't surprising since 3G towers are not yet ubiquitous.

Apple would do well to read up on the classic 1965 novel The Age of the Pussyfoot to uncover the secret to great iPhone design and execution. In the novel, science fiction Grandmaster Frederik Pohl spells out all of the features that 3G iPhone users are hoping for, including social networking, finding friends locally, using personal profiles to find individualized information for everything from employment to restaurants to parties.

Pohl describes the Joymaker, which is all the following things and more:

The remote-access computer transponder called the "joymaker" is your most valuable single possession in your new life. If you can imagine a combination of telephone, credit card, alarm clock, pocket bar, reference library, and full-time secretary, you will have sketched some of the functions provided by your joymaker.

The device itself is undistinguished in appearance; it looks like a jester's scepter and uses voice recognition as an interface. It uses a bluetooth-like facility to take over any of the ubiquitous screens to project information visually if needed.

Users don't need a screen because the backend software for the Joymaker removes the need to scan large quantities of information. The algorithms are so good that they always know what you want and need, based on your interests profile.

"...Then it will tell you what programs are on, what parties you will be welcomed at, who you would wish to know. It's terrible to go on impulse, Charles," she said earnestly. "Let the joymaker help you."

"I don't understand," he said. "You mean I should let the joymaker decide what I'm going to do for fun?"

"Of course. There's so much. How could you know what you would like?"

The key to all this, according to Pohl, is the backend computing services. The device really doesn't matter; in fact, you can use anyone else's joymaker in a pinch.

Essentially, it [a Joymaker] is a transponder connecting you with the central computing facilities of the city in which you reside on a shared-time, self-programming basis. "Shared-time" means that many other joymakers use the same central computer - in Shoggo, something like ten million of them.

Apple is enjoying a short-term bump in popularity by making sure that users focus on the functions of the device that do not rely on networked usage; the device stores a small amount of content locally, like video, music and games.

Apple's success with the iPhone is based on its resemblance to a joymaker; it draws upon the cultural "content" of the Earth. The iPhone's success lies in the fact that people percieve it as an appliance that mediates social connectivity.

However, if AT&T cannot provide adequate Internet and cellphone access, the iPhone will eventually be perceived as a failure. If the iPhone cannot be used to access all of the social functionality that Pohl predicted, and the Internet and cellphone networks can provide (like voice mail lists, payment via mobile phone, computer services that follow you, helpful social agent, personal trainer), it will be perceived as a failure.

By all means, go to the Wired iPhone 3G survey interactive map and play with it. Also, find out more idealized cellphone features in the prescient novel The Age of the Pussyfoot, not to mention more than a dozen stories about real-life joymaker-like technologies and devices.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 8/27/2008)

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