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.


  1. Steve, this is an idea that I have been obsessed with since the announcement of the iPhone! Having never actually put my hands on one of these devices, I have still managed to imagine all sorts of uses for the classroom. I recently got a hold of a student's iPod touch and blew him away when I jumped on the internet and started surfing. He didn't even know it had wifi! I have since been perusing a lot of mobile apps for the iPod touch as it seems a much more realistic purchase for our school. Google is busy adapting things like mad for the iPhone/iPod Touch since they are essentially the same as the coming Android-based Google phones. I think that these devices represent a significant new computing platform. Their relatively low price and ubiquitousness means that perhaps public schools can be on the cutting edge of technology again!

  2. Anonymous12:19 PM

    >>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.

    I've synched my iPod all of once--when I first got it. Now it's all drag-and-drop. You just have to set iTunes to manual update. Maybe you already know this, but I thought I'd throw it out there just in case. I hate synching...

  3. I would love to get at least a classroom set of iPod Touches for the classroom. It would be wonderful. I could make podcasts incorporating literature selections that we are going to read. They could edit wikis, write papers in Google Docs/zoho, use wikipedia and our class wikis for assignments, find resources for research papers. The list goes on and on. It would be much cheaper, only about 10K US to get enough for every student to have one. You could sync them all up in iTunes together through a string of usb ports. They would take up less space than others. While we are reading a book, we could search the web for places that they talk about in the book. AMAZING! I just wish I knew where I could submit a grant application to get this.

  4. By the way, Great blog, just found it.

  5. Shawn: Thanks for responding. I'm glad I'm not alone! :)

    Trina: I don't mean to be a nit-picker, but doesn't that still tie me to one computer? With my usb-connecting MP3 player that I love, I can just pop it into any computer I'm at and drag a file over. And since I have at least three computers that get regular usage from me, I find it important...

    Jethro: I love the vision, but I have to say that one of the drawbacks to the iPhone for me was how hard it was to type much content. This is why I think these devices need to become dockable. The Nokia N810 looks like it's keyboard might be somewhat usable, but even then, nothing like a regular keyboard.

    I do have this one vision which keeps popping into my mind here: it's a student on a school bus, looking up their homework and then getting some reading done. I'm not sure why this pushes at me so much, but I really would want access to wireless broadband for these devices. If we can't create wireless clouds for any other reason, let's do it for students, maybe....

  6. I just saw you live in Granite Bay. I lived in Citrus Heights for a few years, and my brother lives in Roseville.

    RE: your concern about typing a lot of content. My experience with my students is that they have a hard time typing a lot of content regardless, be it on a computer, typewriter, or cell phone. I think they would like it because they could type how it was comfortable, instead of trying to type (like on a computer) by staying on the home keys. Personally, I don't see that as being a big deal. I know it would bug me since I have been typing on a computer for years, but since many of them haven't, they may be more capable of adapting to the touch screen typing.

  7. Jethro & Steve: I posted a discussion thread on the Mac Classroom 2.0 group at Classroom 2.0 I think I'm on the verge of getting iPod Touches into the classroom (fingers crossed) and I really want to get as many minds thinking about what could be done with these devices!

    Steve: I hear you on the longterm typing on these devices and the desire for a dock, but I've been thinking along the lines of using them to augment laptop numbers by using the iDevices for research and keeping the laptops as more dedicated word-crunching machines.

  8. Hi Steve,

    I've not really thought to deeply about mobile learning as i am heavily into the delivery of synchronous web based learning. However I kinda had the first inkling of an m-learning moment today whilst writing my latest blog post that feeds in to what you are saying. Have a read at
    (the m-learning moment is in the conclusion)

    I think you are spot on with what you say, whatever the tool is, iphone or whatever i envisage giving them away as part of any course. Not sure how that plays out within the school system, but perhaps the slogan 'a laptop for every child' should change to an 'iphone for every child'

    Cheers Steve

  9. Jethro: I just find that kind of typing SO SLOW. Maybe you're right..

    Shawn: I'll be most interested to follow your progress should you get the devices.

    Steve: fascinating post. I guess I'm a little wary of creating the slogan just yet! Especially since I'm hopeful that they'll be some choice in the devices, and the iPhone won't be the only one to consider! :)

  10. Anonymous12:44 PM

    Hi Steve,

    I, like you and others I have been excited at the prospects of the iPhone since Steve Jobs announced the 'revolutionary' device. Last week I was fortunate enough to get one for research purposes, and after a weekend I was totally hooked. I used to be a mobile phone sales person for several years, and never did I experience the feeling of portability in any device including my Nokia 9300 (a strong device but mine lacked wi-fi , the 9300i has wi-fi)

    Now I know most people have and will continue to grumble at calling the iPhone - revolutionary, but if we look back at the history of the mp3 player that Apple brought in - the iPod, and see how it has liberated people and presented new dimensions to listening to audio and programmes (i.e podcasts), then any one with an iota of intelligence will be impelled to recognise it's revolutionary effects to society. A whole industry was formed around the iPod with major player like Nike, Bose, Belkin making accessories specifically for iPods. I can't think of any portable device creating such interest as the iPod did.

    The iPhone has already spurred other manufacturers to follow suit (LG viewty etc) and even the mighty Google see's a future in similar devices. Remember this is Jobs second bash at a portable touch screen device. The first was Newton which flopped , probably because the average consumer wasn't ready. SJ has had much time to mull over things to get it right. iPhones are here to stay and it's market is steadily increasing (according to SJ's keynote it trails the blackberry in the US).

    If prices drop then I can see it as a major contender for students and staff to access their learning as it has an iPod built-in. I also hope that there will be educational rebates to discount the price.

    Last week I attended the Learning Technologies conference in London UK, and in one of the sessions - former Vodafone Director of Global Learning Management Gordon Bull was also touting the prospects of m-learning but conceded that it was perhaps 2-3 years away because of issues with infrastructure (lack of super Internet Speeds) and devices (not being able to access webpages properly) for now though anything that comes close to the m-learning reality would be for people to have the iPhone.


  11. Mohamed:

    There was a news article today about Google and At&T being shocked by the volume of Google searches being conducted by iPhones--50x more searches coming from iPhone than from any other devices. Wow.

  12. I've had my iphone since summer and about two months ago Apple released the 2.2 update that lets you pull data like podcasts out of the air instead of syncing with iTunes. That single shift made me very happy! My 20 y.o. son received an iPhone for his birthday Saturday. His first comment: I don't need to haul my laptop to campus any more. He uses it primarily to view course syllabi and assignments (and to check sports), and is now happily equipped. My only worry? A whiff of boredom in lecture hall and he'll be deep in the apps. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Steve.


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