Its design is undeniably elegant; both the iPhone and its sister device, the iPad, stand at the pinnacle of modern industrial design. The iPhone offers some 300,000 apps that delight its users. Photographs look gorgeous on an iPhone. “It is the first and best implementation of a highly mobile computer,” said Roger L. Kay, the president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, a market intelligence firm.
Yet for all that it offers, the iPhone has always been plagued by serious drawbacks. The “phone” part of the iPhone has never worked very well, dropping calls with annoying regularity. Even when the phone works, the sound quality is often substandard. You would think in an age when fewer people are using landlines this would matter. Apparently not.
Meanwhile, the iPhone’s lack of a raised keyboard makes it next to impossible to do serious e-mailing. And users have to worry constantly about battery life; if they’re not judicious, the iPhone’s battery can be drained by noon.
At the Verizon Wireless-iPhone extravaganza on Tuesday — in which the two companies announced that the iPhone 4 would run on Verizon Wireless’s 3G network — Apple’s chief operating officer, Timothy D. Cook, was asked why Apple wasn’t going with the carrier’s faster, newer 4G LTE network. Mr. Cook replied that doing so required “design compromises” that Apple was unwilling to make.
They never make design compromises at Apple. They make consumer compromises. Yet consumers have always been willing to overlook those compromises so they can claim they own some of the coolest products on the planet.
“People so love their devices from Apple that they are willing to put up with the stupidities,” said Larry Keeley, president of the innovation and design firm Doblin. “For many users,” he added, “especially the ones Apple loves the most, the fact that the battery gets balky is how you convince yourself to get a new one.”
My oldest son, Amato, who is on my Verizon Wireless plan, told me recently that even though he was perfectly happy with his Android phone, if given the chance to switch to an iPhone, he would probably do it. “I can’t even say why,” he said. “I don’t even know if there is any real rationale behind that desire.”
Is Steve Jobs a business genius or what?
On the other hand, the fact that my son owns an Android phone — and finds it to be a fine smartphone, thank you very much — suggests that the Apple chief executive’s fetish for form over function has its downside. Not everybody, it turns out, is indifferent to whether their smartphones can actually make phone calls. For proof, all you have to do is look at the recent performance of Verizon Wireless, which has been, by far, the country’s most profitable wireless carrier, despite not having the iPhone in its arsenal.
Verizon Wireless could have snagged the original iPhone contract four years ago, but it passed. It did so not because of the iPhone’s flaws, which were then unknown, but because Apple was insisting on terms that it could not accept. These included a guaranteed subsidy for the phone (cellphone carriers use subsidies as important marketing tools), no say in the software design and loss of control of the customer to Apple.
A Verizon Wireless spokesman told me back then that with the iPhone deal, AT&T had handed over “the ability to insure customer service” to Apple, which, he added, “is something we would never have agreed to.” AT&T, which was struggling, felt it had no choice but to agree to Apple’s onerous terms.
The Apple-AT&T marriage has been a public relations disaster — for AT&T. Its network was quickly overwhelmed, in part because it was subpar, and in part because iPhone owners — with a mobile computer at their fingertips — used astonishing amounts of data: 15 times more than the average smartphone user, and “50 percent more than AT&T itself had projected,” according to Fred Vogelstein, who wrote about the problems for Wired magazine.