Jan 27, 2007

iPhone: the architecture of communication.

Apple’s introduction of the iPhone caused an expected murmur of excitement among the guys on my email list. It also produced some disagreement: is the device a truly "revolutionary" step in personal communication or just another successful case of combining existing technologies?

I am in the former camp but found myself unable to clearly articulate exactly why. While reading "The Architecture of Happiness" by Alain de Bottonthe other day I suddenly understood my hunch.

Early in the book, he briefly outlines a false dichotomy regarding the importance of architecture or lack thereof--that people seem divided between an urge to a) numb our senses to the effect of the aesthetic and b) acknowledge the extent to which our identities are connected to our locations. It's a continuation of the old form versus function argument.

Given design's rise to dominance in the past decade, I think it's safe to say that looks definitely matter, but in the iPhone I see something more profound than that. It's a question of environment.

De Botton also states that certain works of architecture invite us to be certain people within their walls, that buildings "talk" to us about the type of life that can unfold within and around them. So, in some way, a Modern building fits people who like order and are orderly, or the owners of a Tuscan home exhibit natural grace and hospitality. More to the point, a Modern home can help you live more "modernly," whatever that represents to you.

The iPhone, obviously, isn't a building, but all Apple software, hardware and packaging are painstakingly designed with what I'd call aspirational purpose. Their architecture (both informational and structural) is dedicated to accommodating and facilitating our needs, opposed to mitigating technical limitations. They seek to create a specific experience of unlimited possibility for the user.

More and more, we live inside software and hardware, floating high above the 0's and 1's as plush, logical graphic user interfaces allow us to engage in tasks of astonishing complexity just by pointing, clicking or clacking. We don't have to worry about the messy root level, thus the electronic tool becomes an extension and facilitator of our non-electronic lives.

So this means that appearance and environment matter beyond simple visual attraction or status significance. The more harmonious the decor of a device, the more inviting its floor plan, the more we feel engaged and capable, the more "invited" we feel to live a certain type of life within its virtual walls, maybe even a life we can only sense in some vague fashion.

And here's how I think the iPhone could really enhance our lives--in the yet to be discovered, soon to be indispensable, everyday activities...like the search, playlists, maps and blogging we enjoy today. (Assuming, of course, it works as advertised.)

The device sets the table by packaging essential pre-existing technologies (mp3/video player, entertainment database, full Internet connection, cellular phone, PDA) in a physically beautiful, friendly device. The special sauce is the multi-touch software which facilitates a virtually unlimited number of connections between these applications.

Said another way: It gives you the power to do things you never knew you wanted to do. In fact, it makes doing these things effortless and normal. And that's the true genius of prior Apple revolutions like the Mac or the iPod. They recognize that our experience matters, in fact, they cater to it shamelessly, because they know what entices or repels. We're either going to engage with the gizmo or not.

Sure, the iPhone won't help us make these innovative jumps without fantastic engineering and production. But all the technology in the world won't matter unless we, the users, are invited to open the door, kick our shoes off and stay awhile.


Mom said...

So very true. As a house or building causes us to change our posture and atitude as we enter it, so does the feel of an electronice device. I don't want any more devices - yet I am drawn to everything in the Apple store. I have spent several hours enraptured by sleek design, feel and functions. I slow down, lose my sense of time and any awareness of the frenetic store atmosphere. I feel technologically smarter, slicker. I know why putting on an Armani suit changes me, but I don't undestand why I truly want a new laptop when I don't need it. I just want it because I will feel so different.

Tim Rickards said...

I think the challenge is to distinguish between the false "If only I have the new gizmo I'll be [fill in the blank]" and the "Hey, this gizmo makes it easy for me to do things...in fact, it makes me feel better when I do them."

Many people hold beautiful design in disdain and try to separate it from usefulness and proper functioning, when I think it's absolutely necessary.

As for Armani, knowing you I'd say it's about cut and cloth, not the name itself.