Mass Appeal: Of Phones and Applesauce

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| June 17, 2008

There's a nice post from the other day on JK On the Run warning smartphone makers to "Wake up and smell the Applesauce."  The gist of it is this: It doesn't matter whether or not Geeks find every feature they want in iPhone 3G, because it's so easy to use that people who have no idea what a smartphone is will be using it to surf the Web and check Email on the go.  Nokia and Sony Ericsson can keep hardcore phone nerds excited with 8 megapixel cameras and dual-sliding form factors, but Apple's going to gobble up the mainstream market by bringing smartphone features to a device easy enough for "Aunt Sue" to use.

JK's got a point, and I've tried to speak to it before in more general terms, talking about usability being this year's Killer App in cell phone land.  Right now I've got three high-end touchscreen phones sitting on my desk: iPhone (current generation), the LG Vu for AT&T, and the Samsung Instinct for Sprint.  All three phones are pretty similar in terms of form factor, features, and target user - at least in the eyes of the consumer who doesn't know or care what Stereo Bluetooth offers that regular Bluetooth doesn't.  Seriously.

The big differences between these devices comes down to price, network, and the experience of using the thing.  A phone geek interested in full Bluetooth file transfer support and Voice-activated GPS might jump ship from AT&T to Sprint just to get Instinct, but most people won't.  But most people - or, at least, enough of most people to make a difference - will consider leaving Sprint for AT&T to get an iPhone.  Trust me, I've seen it in action.  

Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile - the average cell phone buyer was intrigued enough by a $499 iPhone to Email me asking, "Can I use it on Verizon?  If I unlock it?"  At $199/299, that same buyer will seriously consider jumping ship if the iPhone experience appeals to her.  And after months of answering questions at dinners and cocktail parties, and a few days last week showing my Mom how Web browsing works on my iPhone, I can tell you that the experience appeals.

Instinct and Vu look cool and offer boatloads of functionality.  So, too, will the upcoming LG Dare for Verizon.  But neither Instinct nor Vu is as easy and fun to use as iPhone - it's that simple.  I'm not speaking as an iPhone owner or Apple fanboy here; instead, I'm reporting what I've observed in the past six months or so of showing people my iPhone and whatever other high-end device I happened to be reviewing at the time.  Web browsing is always what gets 'em, too. iPhone's browser is better and prettier than anything else out there, especially when combined with the multitouch display.

Dare, on the other hand, has the benefit of Verizon Wireless' massive user base and reputation for excellent network service.  I could see a well-executed Dare being enough to keep iPhone-interested VZW subscribers from jumping ship.  And phone nerds like me will certainly be interested in that 3.2MP camera with flash on Dare's back panel.  Of course we're also interested in iPhone's forthcoming App Store, which threatens to blow the lid off of the current US model of carrier deck software offerings in favor of something at least a little bit closer to the current come one, come all atmosphere of the iPhone Jailbreak developers' community.

JK's article focuses in on iPhone's current ease of use and forthcoming combination of 3G data speeds and super-competitive price of entry.  In his words:

So you other smartphone makers better smell the Applesauce and get things a lot easier to use.  Not for the geeks but for the Aunt Sues out there.  There are many, many more Aunt Sues than there are geeks and as the iPhone 3G is launched all over the world there will be millions and millions of Aunt Sues who will be able to get their hands on one.  So you'd better get that super easy to use smartphone out pretty soon and get the word out to the Aunt Sues out there or you may end up sucking wind.

I couldn't agree more.  BlackBerry addicts and cameraphone nerds are one thing, but the Aunt Sues of the world who might finally be interested in upgrading from their three year old RAZRs and Nokias - these are the folks hearing "$200 iPhone," remembering there's an Apple Store in the local shopping center, and wondering if their current cell phone contract is up yet.  All of the Voice Commands and VCAST Music Stores in the world aren't going to sway them if surfing the Web and sending photos over Email is just plain easier - and more fun - on iPhone.