Hidden Dimensions - Apple iPhone: Design by Buddha, Inc.

November 9th, 2006

"Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath. Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important. Just lie down."

-- Natalie Goldberg

I remember reading in the newspaper a few months ago about an cell phone executive who thought all this business about downloading music to a cell phone was baloney. He stated bluntly that he was planning to make big bucks by providing a good joke to download. And he gave an example of some fellow in a bar desperately looking for something clever to say, as I recall. His cell phone would save him by providing a witty joke.

When I think about all the cell phones I've had, I can see how cell phones have been driven by the sociology of the workplace. What started out as a communication device has, instead, become a device that caters to the social needs of the business professional. So while the modern cell phone can still be used to make a phone call, it's ultimate purpose is to satisfy the needs of the business community. That is, wrap business employees in an ever increasing frenzy of productivity and corporate agenda.

John Dvorak was right on the mark in his April 3, 2006 column at PC Magazine, Death to the CrackBerry. Basically, he observed on several airline flights that the business people around him were obsessed with their BlackBerries. You see, the BlackBerry can be characterized as a clever device that allows employees, in a generally peaceful and electronically isolated environment, to continue the company's business.

As Yakov Smirnoff would say, "What a concept!"

But it goes even deeper than this. The features of a cell phone are not only added in order to cater to businesses' desire to make their employees more productive, but they are also designed to generate revenue for the carrier. After all, we live in a free enterprise society: build products, create demand, and cash the checks. That said, there can be social problems when the technology marketed so weaves itself into our lives that it alters fundamental values for the worse.

Enter the iPhone.

Design by Buddha

One of my good friends on the Macintosh Web is David Schultz over at Applelust.com. Back in 2001, Dave, who is a philosophy professor at Creighton University, reminded us that Steve Jobs went to India in the 1970s with Dan Kottke and studied Buddhism. Dave weaves a short but compelling article about how this early experience by Steve Jobs influenced his personal philosophy in later years about what a personal computer should be like. Let me just quote a part of Dave's article.

So I think he brings a different set of principles to the table at
Apple. For that matter, he brings them to the computer industry as
a whole. (I mean really, has Michael Dell ever wrestled with Plato
or Nietzsche?) I am not sure what they are (Buddhism gives us many
clues), but I am sure they are there. What I am saying is that
what distinguishes Jobs from Gates, Dell and the rest (all of
them), is that he is the only philosopher in the bunch and this is
what makes him, and Apple, different. If the others are
philosophers in any remote sense, then they are bad ones. In fact,
"Thinking Different" is a distinctively philosophical act, based
in thinking about possibilities, and Jobs knows this. When Jobs
urges us to "think different" I think he is urging us to think

For several years now, we've all been swooning over the possibility of an Apple product we all believe will be called the "iPhone." Why is this? I believe it's because, deep down, we suspect, based on Apple's track record, that the Apple iPhone will be a very desirable product. It will blow away the competition. I will make us look cool just using it. It will be a work of design art. And we'll want one.

Let's look at some of the reasons why we just know we'll drop our Moto RAZRs and LG Chocolates for an iPhone.

Unspoken Design Values

We are accustomed to delving into the design principles of a computer. Expert Macintosh analysts and writers have clearly laid out what's different between, say, Leopard and Vista, and why we should care. To be sure, there are issues related to the design of the user interface and the security architecture. But a lot of the discussion is also based on how the computer treats us. For example, Microsoft went through a period when they thought their OS was a proper vehicle through which to badger the user into paying for an ancillary service (Passport). The attempt and service failed, but the basic psychology is still there: The user is a target and a source of revenue if only one can be clever enough about how to seduce, trick or badger him or her.

One of my readers pointed me to his very insightful Web site about how Buddhism fits into the competitive structure of American business. At the time, he was pointing me to the September 21, 2006 entry. In summary, many corporations pay lip service to caring about the customer, but in reality operate on the basest of instincts: devour the competition. "In this regard, Buddhism has taught Asian nations that a careless, greedy attitude -- in short, bad intention -- makes for some pretty nasty company karma which will eventually become its downfall." He goes on to cite the contrast between GM and Toyota. "Toyota uses reason trying to meet the specific needs of their customers in respect to a number of important niches. Toyota has reaped some good karma, in other words. It doesn't pretend to be like a lion on the Serengeti fighting for its survival."

With this preface, I think it's possible to make some predictions about the design of the iPhone with the principles of Buddha in mind.

1. Fundamentals. A natural human desire is to communicate. That's what drove the technical development of the first cell phones. It's very likely that that human need will be foremost in the design of the iPhone. When we look at the new MacBooks and MacBook Pros, we see an iSight camera built-in. Apple facilitates communication with iChatAV, and the miniature iSight camera in the lid of a MacBook will easily fit into a cell phone. By extension, an Apple iPhone will excel at both audio and visual communication. It will remind us of the things we need and strip away the things we don't.

2. Agenda. The iPhone will be designed to be a source of revenue for its quality and looks. Unlike many other cell phones, which are given away and revenue is made up via contracts and bloated monthly charges, Apple will appeal to the aesthetic sense. But what we also expect is that the iPhone will be light on the agenda side. Apple won't be working real hard to sell us services, like stock quotes. Or jokes. If we're that hung up on geek toys, there are plenty of other devices to chose from. Apple will keep it simple: hold a lovely device in our hand, communicate with friends and listen to music. Trying to extract revenue streams from a free phone is where the rest of the industry has gone wrong, and Steve knows it.

3. User Treatment. When cheap phones are given away, the carriers aren't going to support very much research into how human beings should interoperate with a cell phone. The Western, as opposed to Buddhist approach, is to add features but not elegant functionality. That part is too hard and expensive. On the other hand, most of the more complex phones are a nightmare of menus and tiny keys. So I would look for some new ideas from Apple on how to operate the cell phone just as they broke through with the iPod. Scroll wheels, touch sensitive displays, finger gestures, voice input, and uncluttered and novel displays will rule. This may be the first cell phone with a five page quick reference card instead of a 200 page manual that weighs more than the phone.

4. The Apple Family. Many cell phone carriers have a service such that calls to family members are free. This is really intended to make sure everyone in the family has a phone: more phones in service means more revenue. But it's one of those services which nevertheless, seems friendly in its concept. I would expect Apple, since it's going to make a bundle on the hardware, to use some basic principles of taste and good will to introduce this phone. Just for example, calls made from one iPhone to another iPhone will be free for the first two years. After all, if you buy this phone, you're a member of the Apple family. Think of the jazz this would build in the Apple community and how such a personal touch would propel sales.

5. Clarity of Vision. Apple has gained enormous prosperity from selling iPods. After having sold 65 million iPods, they certainly expect to sell more because the emphasis of the iPod has been personal entertainment. From what I know about Apple, the stale and questionable thesis that no one wants to carry two devices around may not bear up to Apple's traditional approach of baby steps to first evaluate a new market. Trying to cram everything possible into an iPhone and possibly damage the iPod market, growing as a device for storing monstrous amounts of video, is probably too risky for Apple and would offend Steve's sense of design simplicity. My guess is that the iPhone will have flash memory, not a hard disk. It will store a modest amount of music. Remember, the Motorola ROKR didn't win us over because it didn't hold enough music. It failed because it was an expensive yet mediocre phone.

The iPod entertains. It's a solo device. The iPhone affords human communication. It may be premature to force fit these two activities until, at least, the iPhone has proven sales numbers. Whatever happens, we'll be struck by clarity of thought in balancing these two products.

6. Devouring the Enemy. Apple knows that it's new to this market, and I am sure many at Apple are nervous about this new adventure. One guiding principle, likely to be drawn from Steve's experience with Buddhism in the design, is not to try to outdo the competition. The iPhone may be missing features that some business people and PC magazines will cry out for. Not only do the frenzied business people want to spend all their time typing on a miniature keyboard, but they want to look busy and important. If we know one thing about Apple, catering to this particular crowd will not be a concern. In the style of iLife and Mac OS X, geeky features will be minimal and elegance and functionality will be maximal. It'll take a beating in comparisons to the Treos and BlackBerrys where checklists reign supreme, but when all is said and done, checklists won't matter to the iPhone customers.

The iPhone will fulfill needs we didn't know how to articulate. Conventional cell phones force poor design, excessive features, busy work, poor synchronization, questionable security and revenue extraction down our throat. The Apple iPhone will bring into sharp focus the difference in these two approaches.

John Martellaro is a senior scientist and author. A former U.S. Air Force officer,he has worked for NASA, White Sands Missile Range, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Apple Computer. During his five years at Apple, he worked as a Senior Marketing Manager for science and technology, Federal Account Executive, and High Performance Computing Manager. His interests include alpine skiing, SciFi, astronomy, and Perl. John lives in Denver, Colorado.

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