Even as the world waits for the mythical Facebook phone to surface, there’s another social phone that has done pretty well: the iPhone 4S. It may not be exclusively social, but in many ways, the 4S embodies the theme of how mobile devices are inherently designed to connect people with each other.
Fellow columnist Cathy Taylor already wrote about Steve Jobs as an unheralded social media guru. Her rationale is beyond sound, although I’m not sure if the inimitable Mr. Jobs would have associated himself with the 220 people on LinkedIn (and far more on Twitter) who have used “social media guru” as their title. Cathy looked at Apple’s broader contributions and Jobs’ legacy, but what about the 4S itself?
I’m using the 4S as shorthand here. Tens of millions of people who haven’t bought the 4S can still access any of its features through Apple’s new iOS 5 mobile operating system. Both the 4S and iOS 5 were released publicly this month, and now we can see what they can do.
For the purists, the original point of Foursquare had little to do with points and badges. It was all about finding friends. The 4S and iOS 5 strip away all the gamesmanship and check-ins. Instead, they automate the process of sharing locations and finding friends.
Users won’t be focused on ramping up their friend tallies here. Many friend requests will wind up being temporary. One can locate friends over the course of certain travels or an event, and then end the connection.
Other apps beyond Foursquare have tried this. Marco, for instance, debuted in March 2010 and offered temporary sharing, with the added advantage of using SMS to connect people who didn’t use smartphones. Find Friends is limiting in that all users need iOS devices. That presents new opportunities for other apps to incorporate such functionality.
There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about Apple’s latest approach to social media. Beyond bringing people together in person, Apple now makes it easy for people to send each other printed cards. This has the potential to change people’s behavior in unexpected ways. Suddenly it becomes more important to have physical addresses in your contact list.
One short, simple word was added to sharing options in the new iOS browser: “Tweet.” Am I more likely to tweet links now that this is part of iOS? Sure. Will people sign up for Twitter just because they can tweet from the iPhone? That’s unlikely. Mostly, it will increase the volume of posts from iPhone-wielding Twitter users. Tweeting is just one of many options now, joining options to add a bookmark, add an article to the reading list, add the link to the home screen, email the link, and print the page. There’s a lot of clutter, and any more options will require Apple to redesign the menu.
The most important new feature on the 4S that isn’t in iOS 5 is Siri, Apple’s voice-activated virtual assistant. Does Siri encourage more social behavior?
It all comes down to the beholder, or in this case, the person beholding the iPhone. Social media may make us share more, and it may remove inhibitions, but it doesn’t turn an introvert into an extrovert. Similarly, the voice commands may be so intuitive that people use their mobile devices more to call, text, email, and schedule meetings with others. Or maybe people will check the weather and stock prices more often. It depends on the user.
Apple did prove that by adding a touch interface, people would interact far more with their devices, and with the media accessible through those devices. Apple rewired our brains so quickly that people like me, who grew up with keyboards and mice, now tend instinctively to touch any computer screen. If Siri succeeds, we’ll spend more time talking to our devices too, regardless of whether they accept voice commands.
Will those commands be more social, though? It’s not likely, but it’s entirely possible. It depends how much friction Apple removes in social encounters. If it becomes so incredibly easy to locate close friends nearby, send them printed notes out of the blue, share stories with anyone interested, and reach out to people via voice-activated prompts, then it will be intrinsically rewarding to do these actions more often.
The 4S and iOS 5 are perfect symbols for where social media is heading. Apple didn’t launch some new social network, and even the most social features like Find Friends don’t directly compete with social apps like Foursquare. Rather, Apple understands that our existence is largely social, and its devices should fulfill those needs for its consumers. That’s true for all brands now, and it’s up to brand managers to best orient these brands toward their consumers’ social needs.