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Despite attempts to maintain my geek cred, despite my propensity for gadgeteering, despite my favor for the cult of Apple, despite my lust for shiny things with microprocessors, I didn’t get an iPhone when it first came out earlier this year. Indeed, I also didn’t get one when the new versions were released this month. It’s not that I wasn’t interested, or curious, or even maybe yearning for one, at least just a little bit. I’m even more embarrassed to admit this fact, perhaps, because Persuasive Games has been an approved developer since the program was announced, and we’ve been hard at work on our first iPhone games for a few months, announcements for which are forthcoming. Until now, our testing has taken place on devices begged and borrowed.

Time finally caught up with me. Since last week, I’ve been trying to use an iPhone as my primary smartphone. And I feel ready to report on my experience.

You don’t need me to remind you that the iPhone is a shiny object of impressive design. It is slick in hand and light in pocket. Its screen is bright and its many animations produce endless, silent “oohs” even as they become familiar. Accelerometer-triggered rotations, cell tower triangulations, and seamless cellular/wifi data transitions invoke strong levels of welcome magic.

Yet, I am tempted to assert that the iPhone is a horrific smartphone. I’m tempted to say that it is practically unusable for my purposes, which include a relatively ordinary barrage of phone calls, text messages, and mobile email, along with a smattering of mapping and web browsing. Typing without tactile feedback isn’t as hard to get used to as I had feared but still requires a level of concentration orders of magnitude higher than a T9 or mini-keyboard device. Applications load incredibly slowly. Pulling up a number or composing an email by contact name ought to be done only when one is about to order a latte or water a urinal to fill the ensuing delay. Reception is far inferior to other devices and regaining it frequently requires an antenna cycle. Wireless data reception is poor and the device’s ability to handle passing in and out of what coverage it’s able to find is limited. Once again, recovering from such affliction often requires a power or antenna cycle. Tasks interrupted by coverage losses, such as email sends in progress, frequently fail completely (I’ve lost outbound messages entirely). The Mail application is horrendously unusable, borrowing none of its OSX cousin’s elegant color-coded, threaded summary view (nor better, older versions of mobile email clients from Palm and Blackberry) but instead demanding inexplicable click-touches back and forward from folder to folder, mailbox to mailbox.

But to issue such complaints would miss the point of the iPhone. The iPhone is not a device one should expect to “just work,” to borrow Apple’s advertising lingo. It’s a device one must accommodate. It demands to be touched just right, in precisely the right spot on menu, list, or keyboard and with precisely the right gesture. Likewise, it demands not to be touched just after, whether being pocketed or moved or simply turned to place at one’s ear. Doing otherwise erroneously launches, or quits, or selects, or deletes, or slides, or performs some other action slickly coupled to a gestural control.

The iPhone resists issues of usability. It is not a computer. It is a living creature, one filled with caprice and vagary like a brilliant artist, like a beautiful woman, like a difficult executive. Whether it is usable or not is not the point. To use the iPhone is to submit to it. Not to its interfaces, but to the ambiguity of its interpretation of them. To understand it as an Other, an alien being of promise and allure. Touch here? Stroke there? Stop here? Do it again? The impressive fragility of the device only reinforces this sense—to do it wrong by dropping or misgesturing alike might lead to unknown consequences. It is a mobile phone that can send you far out of your way, and yet you feel good about it. It is a mobile phone that can endear you to it by resisting your demands rather than surrendering to them.

Rather than thinking of the iPhone as a smartphone, like a Treo or a Blackberry, one must think of it as a pet. It is the toy dog of mobile devices, a creature one holds gently and pets carefully, never sure whether it might nuzzle or bite. Like a chihuahua, it rides along with you, in arm or in purse or in pocket, peering out to assert both your status as its owner and its mastery over you as empress. And like a cat, it reserves the right never to do the same thing a second time, even given the same triggers. Its foibles and eccentricities demand far greater effort than its more stoic smartphone cousins, but in so doing it challenges you to make sense of it.

Unlike the Blackberry, whose simplicity and effectiveness yields a constant barrage of new things to do, the iPhone recedes into itself at times, offering its owner no choice but to pet it in vain, or pack it away it until it regains composure, or reboot it in the hopes that what once worked might do again. It is a beast of its vicissitudes. To own one is to embrace that fickleness rather than to lament it in hopes of firmware patch or software upgrade.

Indeed, when you meet an iPhone user you will see that they bear much more in common with smug, yet tired, pet owners than with mobile busybodies. “Here, let me show you,” they will say proudly when asked how they like it. Fingers will stretch gently over photos, zooming and turning. They will flick through web pages and music playlists. As with the toy dog or the kitten, when the iPhone fails to perform as expected (as it inevitably will) the user must simply shrug in capitulation. “Who knows what goes through its head,” the owner will rationalize as it might do when a Maltese jerks from sleep and scurries frantically, sliding across wood around a corner.

Unlike the Chihuahua or the Bischon or even the kitten, the iPhone has no gender bias. It need not signal overwrought Hollywood glam, high maintenance upper class leisure, or sensitive loner companionism. iPhone owners can feel assured in their masculinity or femininity equally as they stroke and snuggle their pet devices, fearing no reprisal for fopishness or dorkship.

The brilliance of the iPhone is not how intuitive or powerful or useful it is—for really it is none of these things. Rather, the brilliance of the iPhone is in its ability to transcend the world of gadgetry and enter another one, the world of pet ownership. The Aibo and Pleo, robotic pets that attempt to simulate the form and movement of a furry biological companion, fail utterly precisely because they do nothing else other than pretending to be real pets. The iPhone gets it right: a pet is a creature that responds meaningfully to touch and voice and closeness, but only sometimes. At other times it retreats inextricably into its own mind, gears spinning in whatever alien way they must for other creatures. The iPhone offers an excuse to dampen the smartphone’s obsession with labor, productivity, progress, and efficiency with the touching, demented weirdness that comes with pet ownership. Despite its ability to text, to Facebook, to IM, to Twitter, to LifeCast, perhaps the real social promise of iPhone lies elsewhere: as a part of a more ordinary, more natural ecology of real social interaction. The messy sort that resists formalization in software form. The kind that makes unreasonable demands and yet sometimes surprises. And most of all, the kind that demands stowing one’s gadgets in purse or pocket, looking up, and listening.

published August 2, 2008

Comments

  1. iconmaster

    “Typing without tactile feedback isn’t as hard to get used to as I had feared but still requires a level of concentration orders of magnitude higher than a T9 or mini-keyboard device.”

    Isn’t it possible you’re exaggerating a wee bit here? On the T9 scheme, one has to concentrate on each key until the needed character cycles in. The iPhone can’t be touch typed like a keyboard, but once you learn to trust the auto-corrections you can get a darn good typing speed out of it.

    The comparison to a pet isn’t off, really — it’s just a bit over-specific. Every UI requires a period of acclimation, whether it’s the keyboard-and-mouse combo, a gear shift, or the knobs on a wristwatch.

    A good UI designer doesn’t try to eliminate this acclimatory phase — that’s usually impossible. Instead, he tries to make it *enjoyable,* so the user will stick with it until he gets a handle on things.

    The iPhone, unlike most every other phone I’ve used, is *fun.* In consumer electronics, that’s a real feature.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Of course I’m exaggerating! But really, I think the difference between the iPhone’s software keyboard and the Blackberry’s physical one is profound.

    As for the acclimation, the thing I’m suggesting is that on the iPhone, there is no getting over the acclimation phase. Its purpose is NOT to become transparent, as in the mouse or the gearshift or the Blackberry. Rather, the joy of it is in remaining eternally foreign.

  3. Lucas

    “Its purpose is NOT to become transparent.” Good observation, that.

    I’m not so certain that the iPhone transcends gadgetry. If anything, it seems to be a gadget perpetually: demanding attention, patience, deference, all the while exciting its owner, causing her to apologize on its behalf when it misbehaves even months after she first acquired it.

  4. Recruiting Services

    Very informative, and well-written. Thanks for reviewing the iPhone…doesn’t sound as gimmicky as I originally thought.