Monday, January 28, 2008

Why I Miss My iPhone, and Why You Should Care

(Cross-posted from

This fall, as part of being a speaker at the Office 2.0 Conference in San Francisco, I received an Apple iPhone. Now, of course, as a self-appointed Free and Open Source Software evangelist, I resisted any initial desire to be come attached to the device, and promptly found an online set of instructions to allow me to use the web-browsing functions on local wireless connections without actually signing up for the cellular and data plan.

After a few weeks of using the iPhone in this limited fashion, I then discovered that there was a way to activate the phone and data capabilities on a pay-as-you-go plan, and I signed up in this fashion--justifying the $59/month decision as a little bit of research to learn more about the phone. I would, I assured myself, just do this for one month (two at the most), since the phone minutes on this plan were paltry, and since I had no real use for another cell phone. My immediate reaction, once I had the full capabilities of the phone at hand, were that the iPhone was just another frustratingly proprietary device.

First, I've always hated the iTunes paradigm. I'm a drag-and-drop kind of guy, and anything that involves synching bugs the heck out of me. Just let me take my files and put them where I want them to go. Don't make me learn the idiosyncrasies of your program so that I get so used to them I later depend on that knowledge and consider it a skill--thereby locking me into your upgrade path.

Second, not only was I not able to drag an MP3 file from my computer to the iPhone, but I couldn't even save a media file I was finding online in the iPhone Web browser onto the device. Now, I admit to being a bigger audio junkie than your average guy, loving to listen to any lectures or recordings I can find, but this would frustrate even your most basic user. I'd be searching the Web, find a great audio or video file, and there was no way to store it! I'd have to bookmark the site, then look it up on my regular computer later, download it, and then synch it to the iPhone. How idiotic is that?

Well, not as idiotic as I thought. I'm sure there were some significant decision-making sessions in Big Steve's office about this particular functionality issue, and they likely revolved around a lot of strategy that I'm not really capable of understanding, but the end result was that being unable to directly download these files opened my vision to a whole new level of Web access that I had not even considered. If you have a cellular-enabled Web device, like the iPhone, you don't actually need to download those files. You don't need to download them because as long as you have cell service, you have access to them. And that's amazingly liberating. Anytime I wanted to listen to something, I no longer had to download and transfer, or even just download. All I had to do was to click on the link, and it played. The "paradigm" of managing a body of files to listen to (and I'm skipping the video files because I'm more oriented to audio than video, and because video still has bandwidth constraints) went right out the window.

I now no longer had to think before going to the gym or on a drive with time to spare. Planning my listening before knowing what would interest me was no longer a task I had to take time for. Granted, where cell access was not available (like on an airplane) I might still have to keep some files stored that I could listen to, but my relationship to audio content on the Web changed because of the iPhone. I don't think I fully realized it, though.

Just before Christmas, my brother suggested that Apple might be likely to announce a new iPhone model at the start of the new year. I thought about this, and about the $59/month I was spending, and determined that before the holiday vacation I should sell my iPhone and call an end to my experiment. With the help of Craigslist, I was able to unload the iPhone at a decent price in the space of just a couple of hours, and I went happily on my way. I thought.

Not a day goes by when I don't really miss the direct-play functionality I'd gotten used to. In fact, even though my regular cell phone has the ability to access the web in a modified way, I also realized how much I missed having a full Internet browser at my fingertips--Wikipedia was my constant companion (I can hear my children groaning as I pulled up yet more information than they want to know about something that they really didn't care that much about in the first place).

But my experiment with the iPhone and the resulting sense of loss have so kept me focused on it and other Internet devices, that I've come to a conclusion about student computing that I don't think is widely-held: the small, hand-held size, always-on Internet device presents a much more powerful model for ubiquitous student computing than any laptop model, even including the new smaller devices like the XO or the Eee PC.

I don't doubt the ability of the XO to dramatically engage students in programming, or the small-form-factor of the Eee PC to allow portability, but I have a hard time seeing either in the backpack or schoolbag of every student. But I could see an iPhone there. In fact, a good percentage of these students are probably already carrying a cell phone, and the step from cell phone to Internet device is about the most natural progression that I can imagine. And frankly, as much as I care for the programming and the programs, more and more of what I see making a real difference in students' lives is the communication--which doesn't require agreeing on or "selling" the more complex aspects of what we are considering in the base functionality of student computing devices.

Even without the full adoption of web-based course management programs like Blackboard and Moodle, there are super-easy ways to allow student-student and student-teacher communication (hey, email, or even IM!), and to make accessible online calendars, assignment, and research links and information. I've got to believe that the always-online Internet device would be a low-maintenance, high-leverage slam-dunk success if offered to every student right now. It's not going to solve the same issues that providing a full computer would also face (appropriate use, filtering, etc.), but I believe would find immediate acceptance and creative usage without the maintenance and training issues of educational laptops.


There are, of course, two hurdles to my vision of the future. The first is the actual cellular connection required for an always-connected device. It's harder to imagine the success of these devices if they only work while at school, or even if they work at home but require a wireless connection there. This one stumps me, as I continue to come to the conclusion that it would require a national network for student access--and that seems to introduce the very complexity I was hoping to avoid. The second hurdle is one that I think is only short-term. The Internet device would be significantly more useful it it actually could be docked to a regular keyboard, mouse, and monitor while the student was in class or the library, allowing him or her to keep and manage all history, passwords, and shortcuts--a personalize Web manager of sorts. At the rate that we are seeing technological advances, I don't think it will be but a year or two (if that long) before our Internet devices will have the capability of displaying a full-screen browser window in such a fashion.