The 7 Features the 'iPhone Killers' Missed
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Every week, it seems, the press labels some new phone the latest "iPhone Killer."
This week, of course, the first-ever true "iPhone Killer" -- the new iPhone -- was announced. The "3Gesus Phone" adds me-too, "catch-up" features that competitive phones have offered for quite a while, such as 3G and GPS.
The "iPhone Killers," including the Garmin's Nuviphone; Samsungs Instinct and Omnia; HTC's Touch Diamond; BlackBerry Thunder; and others, have software, rather than hardware buttons for dialing the phone and typing messages. They also tend to have other iPhone-like features, such as accelerometers for automatically reorienting the display for landscape or portrait modes.
Despite the low unit sales and probably low margins the "iPhone Killers" command, their touch screen technology and other features are usually advanced and sophisticated. Nearly all of them, for example, have features superior to the iPhone, such as higher-quality cameras. All the major "iPhone Killer" makers do make some really great hardware.
That's why it's interesting to note that some of the iPhone's best and most unique features aren't even all that hard to copy. But copying them requires not engineering prowess, but vision, and the corporate discipline to see that vision all the way through to the finished product without compromising.
Here's a list of the 7 easy-to-copy features that most iPhone killers missed:
1. Huge letters and numbers
Type in a phone number, and it's displayed with very large characters. The numbers on the calculator cover something like ten percent of the screen. Throughout the iPhone user interface, Apple has clearly gone out of its way to maximize type size.
2. Empty, unused space on the screen
Space is obviously limited on any cell phone screen. So most "iPhone Killer" makers cope by cramming information into every available piece of real-estate. But Apple builds in empty white space between the core information.
3. Transitions between functions
Moving from one thing to the next on the iPhone usually involves transitions. Menus don't just appear, they slide from the bottom or the top of the screen. Navigating from one screen to the next involves sliding from left to right (or visa versa). Functions or buttons balloon out from the center of the screen.
4. Do-it-yourself setup at home
Buying a conventional phone at a carrier's store in the mall or wherever can be stressful. You have to wait for the store employee to configure and activate your phone, in most cases. The iPhone involves just buying and walking out of the store with your shrink-wrapped phone. You set it up at home over the Internet.
5. A single cable for USB and wall power
Most phones come with a wall charger, and may also come with a separate USB cable for synchronization and charging. The iPhone has a single USB cable, which you plug into the wall adaptor, which has the wall plugs on one side and a USB port on the other. This simple innovation eliminates 50% of the cables that normally come with a phone.
6. Carrier bypass for music
Music on cell phones has long been hampered by carriers who force users to navigate Byzantine Web sites to find -- then be gouged for -- music, ringtones and software. Apple will still gouge you for ringtones, but at least you don't have to buy your music from AT&T.
7. A lack of choice between models
The tiny number of people who are truly knowledgably and enthusiastic about cell phones may delight in the vast choice available in handsets. But ordinary consumers feel overwhelmed by the number of models available. Cell phone companies roll out each of their "iPhone Killers" as just one more of a gazillion handsets they make. Apple sells only one phone (with two storage capacity options).
What do all these easy-to-copy features have in common? They all eliminate little things that irritate us about conventional phones -- small type, cluttered screens, too many cables, getting gouged by carriers and agonizing about which model to buy.
While competitors look to the iPhone to figure out how to get rich in the iPhone Killer market, Apple looks within human psychology. Clearly, the designers have looked hard at what irritates everybody about cell phones, and have tried to create a phone that frees users from these petty annoyances.
Until a competitor can do this better than Apple, the "iPhone Killers" simply won't.
In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.