Surfing In Antarctica

March 15th, 2010

I hate the iPad! I love the iPad!

I object to Apple’s sometimes farcical behavior when it comes to App Store policies, rejections, exceptions, etc. But my feelings are extremely mixed. I love the hell out of my iPhone, and I pre-ordered an iPad at 8:30 AM on Friday. I believe Apple has a morsel of magical quicksilver in its palm. As with the iPhone, I’m coming along for the ride, whether or not I like the way they are driving.

The iPhone and iPad are compelling enough, so why haven’t I released any significant apps yet?  I still have several apps under development, but none of them is ready for mass consumption. Mainly because my Mac software takes priority for my attention, but also because I want to make sure I understand how software on touch devices should work before I tackle the problem.

I attended Apple’s iPhone Developer Tech Talk in New York in December. During the reception, I had the privilege of speaking briefly with Apple’s UI design rock-star evangelist, John Geleynse. I got to talking with him about the iPhone and its significance in the world:

“I’ve lost 20 pounds in the last 4 months,” I blurted out. “I don’t think I could have done it without the iPhone.”

I had downloaded an app called Lose It, and thanks to the ubiquity of the iPhone, I was able to use this simple calorie-counting aid to change my eating habits for several months. I was eager to share how this little app had changed my life. I struggled to make my point:

“The iPhone has changed everything. Surfers love waves, right? And they want to surf everywhere. But if you’re a surfer and you want to surf in Antarctica, you’re screwed. But if you had the right wetsuit, you could surf anywhere. You could surf in Antarctica!”

Mr. Geleynse indulged the metaphor, but seemed to be waiting for the punch line.

“So, I lost all this weight, and it wouldn’t have happened without the iPhone. Before the iPhone and before this app, losing weight to me was like surfing in Antarctica: I had no equipment, and no chance of survival.  The iPhone gave me the equipment not only to survive, but to know that survival was possible.”

This is what Apple does well. While the rest of the world iterates on existing solutions to known problems, Apple discovers and solves problems we didn’t even know we had. I didn’t realize that the lack of a ubiquitous, hand-held computer was limiting my abilities. I didn’t know what had been impossible would become possible.

Skeptics of Apple’s innovation tend to be stuck in that mode of thinking which judges solutions only in terms of known problems. Imagine the poor inventor of the scuba suit, who upon first showing his contraption to peers, may have been met with flat rejection: “It doesn’t look very comfortable.” True, the scuba makes for terrible evening wear … unless you’re throwing a party at the bottom of the ocean!

If you’re not looking beyond the horizon, if you don’t care to expand the reach of civilization, or to solve impossible problems, then you don’t need a scuba suit.

If you are looking for adventure, suit up. Antarctica on a surfboard? April 3.

10 Responses to “Surfing In Antarctica”

  1. James O'Leary Says:

    The interesting part about the impact the iPhone has on people’s daily lives to me is that Bill Gates had predicted in _1996_ that something very close to what the iPhone is would revolutionize computing by making it ubiquitous. He called it the Wallet PC, but hey, close enough. (see http://www.bit-tech.net/bits/2006/02/08/road_ahead_billgates/4)

    Tie into this Steve Jobs’ famous observation that Microsoft has “no taste…in a big way”. Their inability to design something that was beautiful, accessible, and easy to use has kept them (at least so far) from succeeding in a market that their founder knew was key and revolutionary 14 years ago.

  2. Andy Lee Says:

    I’m going to give Lose It a try — thanks!

  3. Mark Says:

    You do understand that a number of platforms (e.g., PalmOS on the Treo) had similar dieting apps long before the iPhone was released (and certainly before there were apps for the iPhone). And so, this isn’t something that Apple magically made possible.

  4. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Mark, it’s a fair point. But my point (not well underscored) is that none of the handheld platforms until now has been compelling enough overall to actually merit BEING in my pocket all the time.

    I had a Handspring Visor over 10 years ago, and I used it a couple times before leaving it on the shelf.

    Some of the credit here goes to the developers who sprung up to embrace and make awesome apps for the phone, but a lot of it goes to Apple making the UI extremely responsive, the profile of the device slim enough to fit in my pocket easily, and to have it doubling as a phone and therefore not competing with my other pocket device for space.

  5. Mark Says:

    My wife lives and dies by her Treo 650 (yep, she still does, to this day). It’s with her always, being generally a nice size and shape and offering compelling functionality. It’s so much a part of her that she feels completely lost when she forgets it at home. And of course the Treo was a very popular and successful device until Palm stumbled a bit–it was fast and responsive, had 10′s of thousands of very good apps available, and short of lacking a pretty, multitouch interface was at least as functional and enjoyable to use as the iPhone. In fact, some people say that there’s still no smartphone that offers as much PIM capability as the PalmOS–and many of them are running those same apps in Classic on the Palm Pre.

    So, I would say that Apple’s accomplishment wasn’t in the design of the iPhone or the iPhone OS, but in their ability to market it so effectively. I don’t mean to get contentious or to say that the Treo was ultimately as good a platform as the iPhone. I just hate to see Apple presented as having reinvented mobile technology or having done something magical in the space.

  6. Garrett Birkel Says:

    Mark, the Treo 650 was a great device – no one’s disputing that. I myself thought the Palm Vx was the shizzlick for many reasons, the biggest one being that the battery lasted a month with nominal use.

    But Dan’s point is still perfectly clear and valid: The iPhone’s ease of use compels one to integrate it much more thoroughly with daily life. And suddenly, you realize you are doing things that you always thought were difficult or impossible.

    An interesting measure of this ease of use is the time it takes to accomplish a task. For example, just the other day I needed to go to an electronics store after work, but I had no car.

    Without thinking about it, I pulled out the iPhone, went to ‘maps’, searched for ‘electronics’, poked the closest flag to my GPS marker (HSC electronics supply), and hit ‘directions to here’. Then I hit the ‘bus’ icon. The phone told me to walk two blocks, then get on the 4:15pm #55 bus for $2.00, then stay on it until I got to Lawrence Expressway, then to get off and walk south to the marker. My arrival time was listed at “5:06″ pm and I wasn’t sure they’d be open, so I hit the marker again and poked the phone number, and asked the sales clerk. Then, to make sure I recognized the place, I hit the ‘street view’ button and got a good look at the building.

    This whole operation took me LESS THAN A MINUTE, talk time included, and I did it just standing on the sidewalk.

    How much longer would I have had to stand around squinting at a Treo 650 and poking it with a stylus, assuming this operation is even possible? Every second added saps my desire to even attempt it.

    Once I got on the bus, I used the iPhone to look up PDFs of spec sheets for voltage regulators, and made a parts list, so I could shop efficiently in the store. While I was doing that it played me an NPR broadcast.

    Until you’ve had one for a while, the full impact of the device may not be apparent.

  7. Peter Bierman Says:

    Mark, I think you’re right that Apple’s ability to market the iPhone has been paramount. But I think most of the effort spent marketing it was done during the design phase, where many decisions were made to make it more attractive to customers who wouldn’t previously have considered buying a PDA.

  8. fd Says:

    I share your mixed feelings, exactly the reason why I think the iPad will be big is because it encourages small app development. Instead of having big bloated apps we’ll see apps that do one thing well & people will use these apps in innovative ways.

  9. Elhana Says:

    Problem of iPhone is that it is an evening wear which claims to be able to dive, but as soon as you try to – you hit the fence. Yet it is nice looking and easy to use.
    If you actually want to have a party at the bottom of the ocean or a space flight, then it is not for you, sorry. Go get Maemo/Android. Some people say it’s ugly tho.

    If your original intention is to loose weight, you’d go to a doctor, not to Apple.
    When you buy an expensive phone and find out it’s not much different from a 50$ one you are trying hard to find a good reason you did it – some people find apps like “Lose It” etc and live happily, others face the truth.

  10. Charlie Fulton Says:

    Great post. You have a new reader.

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