Earlier last week, as the day was coming to an end and I was speaking with my 5 year old at bedtime we shared the highlights of our day. I started by telling him the company that created the iPhone is about to come out with . . . I paused—how do I describe it?—well, a “big iPhone” I said. About this big, I gestured holding my hands about 10 inches apart. “Wow, Amazing!” was his instant reaction as his eyes lit up. Even my 5-year-old knows that bigger is better, especially when it comes to tactile interfaces. In fact, the advantages are probably more obvious to his generation than it is to ours.
For this first generation born into a world of the iPhone, Wii and soon the Xbox’s Project Natal, the distance between the metaphor created by these devices and the reality of their interaction is constantly shrinking. My wife is currently doing her PhD research on the merits of tangible interfaces for young children in education and the data is telling. There is no doubt that there is great potential to enhance learning with tactile computing. Through that lens the “Bigger iPhone” is akin to a bigger yard to play in or a bigger room. This insight is telling. For these kids the iPhone’s primary function is by no means a phone. It is first and formost a gaming device, followed by a networked camera, followed by everything else. Through this lens one can see the importance of the iPad in the historical trajectory of our human-computer interaction. What’s lost in all the complaints about what the iPad is lacking (multitasking, camera, etc.) is that people need to view the iPad on more than its merits as a first-generation product. Rather, they need to understand it in context of the evolutionary arc of computing.
Don’t think about the iPad as just a computer. Its true potential lies in its potential as a communications device. Already, it functions as an electronic reader, helping to bring the world of books to computers. But there is video and audio too, with the potential for VoIP apps and even one day a camera for video messaging. The artificial walls that separate our notion of communications and computing are being broken. It is time for the dawning of communications apps. Think about it. It makes absolutely no sense that we have these parallel universes on our devices that are relics of technologies past. The notion of voice as one stack of technologies and the rest must perish. Communications, both audio and video, will be weaved into the fabric of the app space. For example, an API should allow developers to integrate Skype-like P2P communications into their apps opening a new world of utility.
Only a company like Apple can have this kind of leverage over the telcos and only in the very near future will they be able to bring about this change. This goes for the iPhone as well as the iPad. The two are joined at the hip through 140,000 shared apps. In their dash to fortify their lead against the hordes dressed in Google colors, Apple must use its window of opportunity to push the envelope on what one can do with a touchscreen computer, but not yet with an Android-powered device. They must learn from their OS wars with Microsoft. Google will continue to copy their every move as did Microsoft before it. Fueled by their advertising money printing presses, Google gives away what Apple attempts to sell. This means Apple must drill deeper into the telco stack. Think of visual voicemail as a simple prelude. But they will have to go much deeper, making the communication experience itself evolve. Video calling will be made a reality with iChat for iPhone OS, and not just one-to-one calling but conference calling. Many claim that video calling is just a gimick and that it has never really caught on despite being available decades in one form or another. To them I would argued that it has never been attempted by a company with product-design excellence like Apple and furthermore it has never been integrated into a vibrant app ecology with tens of thousands of developers applying their creativity.
By opening up the communications stack via the API in a holistic way and introducing video and P2P realtime data transport, Apple will open a new world of communications apps that will further blur the lines between computers and communications devices. Imagine Xbox Live-type experiences where a group of teenagers fire away while being on a group audio chat, calling Hertz to reserve a car while seeing the agent and using swipe gestures to choose your car, even playing REAL strip poker (see illustration).
Utilitarian business communications, social interaction and gaming will all evolve and co-mingle on the platform. The iPad doesn’t need anything other than a data connection to function as a phone as well as everything else.
Whether they like it or not, the telcos will be relegated to running efficient data pipes competing on price and service. The iPad will further blur the lines between device categories and contribute to the coming confusion. As I wrote in a prior post this will significantly impact the media world as well.
Here’s another prediction: the coming iPad and next iPhone will have a front-facing camera and rest assured it will be put to good use. The lines between a device you put up to your face (a phone) and a next-gen communication device you speak at will continue to collapse. The fact you put it in your pocket or carry it around will also not define it as a “phone” anymore. In many ways the legacy technologies are coming full circle. You can be sure that when the inventors of the Internet sat down and brainstormed the topology of the network they used the metaphor of a phone number to explain the notion of it being a phone number of a computer. Now the phone number is the IP address of a person. It follows you in a nomadic form that is true to the human condition.
Extending this metaphor one can recognize another potential gap in the strengths of the forces aligning themselves against Apple. Namely, Facebook monopolizing the social graph. We carry with us on our “phones” our most intimate of social networks. Your contact list coupled with the frequency of communication you have with those people on your device makes for the most useful social graph of all. Without users needing to do anything they don’t do already, that social graph could be made extremely useful. Not a network of hundreds of people you didn’t want to say “No” to and friended despite your better judgement, but rather an intimate network of your real friends and family with a simple proximity threshold based on communication frequencies. Having someone’s nomadic IP (phone number) is an indication of a real relationship. Apple is in a position to capture that and control this namespace and add value to it. They already own Me.com and can build out that core MobileMe service to become the equivalent of a DNS service for telephone numbers by resolving them to peoples names. Think of it, a phone number is unique and is mapped to a person. It’s not so useless after all. With number portability people are holding on to these numbers with the same vigilance that some IT folks hold on to our static IPs.
What Apple should do is move Me.com to a freemium model ASAP and start amassing a high value social graph that will have increasing returns for the future of its platform. There is no reason for them to give up the addressable space of users to Facebook and Google when they own the point of origination and the best way to access consumers, their nomadic IPs. So there you have it: the path for Apple to combat the two other majors, who are all inching onto each others turf in more ways then one.
The winners, like with all such competitions (as long as no one wins), will be us. Welcome, iPad. Me and the kids are waiting.
Guest author Edo Segal (@edosegal) has launched and sold several companies. In 2000 he founded eNow, which he sold to AOL in 2006 (after it was renamed Relegence). Today, he runs his Incubator/Investment vehicle Futurity Ventures, which recently launched a new search engine for wisdom. iPad image via Flickr/Scott Chang, REAL strip poker illustration by Edo Segal.