Commentary

Honey, I Think You NEED An IPhone

"Would you use an iPhone if I gave you one?" I ask of my fiancé. Now, bear in mind my darling's level of cellular understanding. When I do call her on the feature phone I gave her last year, she has been known to yell at the unopened clamshell, "Steve, are you in there? How do I answer the call?" Everyone has a tech blind spot, but she is a college computer science professor. When I am supremely stupid enough to remind her of this irony, she politely informs me not to expect sex until 2010.

So asking if she wants an iPhone comes with a history...and high stakes.

"Why? You want a new one, right?" she asks me.

Well, yes. The 3G iPhone is rumored to be coming in early June, so like every good Edge network sufferer, I crave one. "I can teach you how to use it. There are books," I tell her.

"Did I say 2010, smartass? How about the next presidential election?"

But, but, but.... The iPhone development is just starting to get really good. It loves broadband. Branded media and marketers are starting to see the platform as a marquee for experimenting with interfaces and imagining what mobile interactivity can be someday.

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She gives me that "we're saving for a house and you are talking iPhone" look.

So I try to demo some of the latest and greatest Web apps on the device.

There is the new Google Reader. Not only is it synced in with my online Reader account and replicates all my Web RSS subs, but the new interface telescopes the item headline down to reveal the first graph of content. It has an easy share mechanism and can be starred for later reference. Google Reader for iPhone even grays out the items you have read. The Reader is sluggish, so it defeats some of the design's good purpose, which is to give faster access to personalized headline feeds.

Google shows how much the interface matters when it comes to sheer mobile content consumption. Easier and faster (not just in the connection but in the interface flow) means we use it more. I know now it will be relatively painless to pop up my Reader while on that proverbial grocery store line and grab the latest news. Likewise, the revised iPhone interface that allows for Home Screen bookmarks has the same effect. It smoothes access to information, which translates into greater use.

NBC's iPhone-specific site is more impressive in its promise than actual execution. NBC is putting full episodes of select shows here. Only "The Office" was available in full form when I last visited, and that was parsed into seven segments. The tabbed interface is more obtuse than it needs to be, with "Shows", "Videos", and "Extras" overlapping in my imagination, but the site does let you explore every major show in some detail and with clips. The idea is good, but NBC on iPhone only makes me yearn for Hulu for iPhone. Mobile video demands an aggregator. And somebody from Hulu should instruct NBC.com that plopping the same Toyota pre-roll in front of all seven chapters is the opposite of a frequency cap.

But the mobile platform does give some old and otherwise invisible brands a chance to shine anew. AP is doing some of the best iPhone development I have seen. Two mobile news sites - the general AP Mobile News Network and Election '08 -- make deft use of the Safari-specific attributes of the browser. The slide shows are magnificent, with captions that pop up as overlays, so you can get a larger image and a longer caption with real informational depth. This is technology serving the interests of content. The Elections '08 interface, which has evolved in the site's first few weeks, is a model of concision. The tabs drop you into stories, photo galleries, videos from the campaign trail, recent quotes and a handy statistic. Again, the interface serves both the purpose of mobile content, quick access, and an editorial mission.

And there are others. Flytunes.fm demonstrates how Internet radio and the phone are a usable combination waiting for a responsive interface. Britannica's iPhone edition is simplicity itself, with a pop-up search box and articles shaped and pruned perfectly for this form factor. The TextOnPhone app will make you believe a man can read a book on a phone (well, men other than the dweebs in IT). The book reader even has a note-taking function and bookmarking, plus the library hooks up with the vast Gutenberg Project of public domain works.

And on and on. My guess and my hope is that developing for the iPhone helps designers think about mobile interfaces and information architectures in new ways they can port to other devices.

My fiancé is not buying any of this, by the way. The iPhone is the bane of our existence, the very emblem of my working everywhere now. At a small engagement party for us a few weeks ago, I clandestinely checked my email to find an editor asking for a last-minute addition. She caught me just as I was feverishly tapping a reply.

"You are not using your iPhone now!?"

"Just telling an editor I can't help him this second."

"I have one word for you...2015."

Looks like all aspects of my life are in 2.5G for a while.

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