TECHNOLOGY NOTES

Find Me

Search

What If iOS Didn't Exist?

I was thinking the other day about the state of computing and specifically about smart phones in the last few years. A friend prompted me with the question, “What would things look like today if iOS never existed?”. Intriguing question. It is obvious with fairly little examination that iOS changed everything. Today, on the fifth anniversary of the release of the iPhone, it’s appropriate to look back think about how colossal an impact iOS, and the iPhone in particular, had on every piece of technology that followed it.

~

It’s been documented elsewhere what phones looked like pre-iPhone but looks aren’t everything. I think about the day I brought home my original iPhone. I was interested in the device but hardly sold on it. I was patiently waiting for them to come to some carrier other than AT&T because the company where I work was tied to Sprint. Until the iPhone came to Sprint, I thought, there was no way I was getting an iPhone.

In my position, however, thinking strategically about technology decisions is something I do on a frequent basis. The iPhone had every indication of being a big thing to me because I thought the aesthetic was forward-thinking and sleek and I loved the idea of a software keyboard – at the time, an opinion that was held to be pretty crazy.

So, after talking to a colleague, we decided to pick up 2 or 3 iPhones and try them out, paying the phone bills ourselves and expensing them rather than going with the corporate plan. As I drove home with my AT&T store bag stuffed with sealed plastic inner-bags filled with iPhones, I remember being pretty excited. Once I got the device activated and synced up, I was 100% sure this was the future of mobile computing.

But, let’s think back to that day and imagine that had never happened.

1. No Finger-based Touch Interface

The pre-iPhone smartphone landscape was dominated by stylus-based phone interfaces which, at the time, were seen as revolutionary. The Nintendo DS adopted it as a cutting edge navigation element and Windows Mobile phones and Treos used the stylus as the main form of navigation (although the late-model Treos had a directional button for jumping between controls on-screen as well).

Had the iPhone not come along, I doubt that another company would have the will to stick with a finger-based/gesture-based touch screen interface as the prevalent feeling at the time was so heavily biased towards a control-encrusted interface and a stylus.

Granted, there are now styluses that work well with the iPad but the iPhone is happily finger-based and there’s little doubt that Apple’s innovation in this area was instrumental in changing the entire industry. I, for one, am very happy that the iPhone doesn’t have a stylus after being stuck with the Treo for so many years.

2. No Software Keyboard (or Auto-correct)

Without the iPhone, the software keyboard wouldn’t exist. At least it wouldn’t exist for quite a while. The devices released around that time, even the Android prototypes, looked like Treos and Blackberrys, encrusted with keys and buttons.

So, while there would be some optimizations around the keyboard form factor, I believe that the hardware keyboard would have been here to stay for quite some time. The software keyboard needed a champion who would face the withering idiocy that follows when you do something that different from what is going on in the market at large.

A key factor in the success of the software keyboard was auto-correct.

At the time of the iPhone’s release, the idea of auto-correction while typing on a software keyboard in real time was very different. I remember a lot of people swearing up and down to me that they’d never use a software keyboard. After using Treos and Blackberrys for years, I was ready to shed the keyboard and had high hopes that Apple’s implementation would be pretty good out of the gate.

There was much made of the fact that the OS would predict where your finger was due to land based on the word you were currently typing and make that spot bigger to hit – an obvious advantage over a physical keyboard. Still people didn’t believe it until they used it, and worse yet, you’d really need to use it for a while to get the full benefit of the OS training and get your fingers used to where to go. Once you gave yourself over to the auto-correct, entered a few weird words and intentional misspellings into the ducking dictionary, you could fly on the software keyboard.

And, of course, after getting a lot of grief from every phone manufacturer, pundit, and Blackberry fan, software keyboards started appearing on all models and makes of smartphone and now physical keyboards are slowly, and thankfully, disappearing.

Why do I hate hardware keyboards so much? Well try having an “e” key stop working on a hardware keyboard and get back to me…

3. Flash

When Apple took a “stand” by stating that their phone wouldn’t support Adobe’s Flash, it was seen as quite controversial. It still is for some, but Apple’s push for HTML5 standards ultimately paid off for millions of users who don’t have to worry about poor battery life, pegged processors and an unstable OS. Ultimately, “no flash” is a non-starter since very few, if any, phones run Flash well currently.

At the time, I remember how upset people were that the iPhone wouldn’t run Flash. It was seen as a major shortcoming of the OS (still is) but no other phone ran Flash at the time. Looking back, I don’t see how it became such a hue and cry and was seen as such an Achilles’ heel. There are some video websites that still won’t display on the iOS Safari browser but that’s a small price to pay for the battery hit the phone would surely take if Flash was allowed.

I know that the only time the fan comes on on my Macbook Air is when I’m playing a Flash video and the battery drains visibly. It’ll be a great day when Flash goes away but the iPhone will be seen as the first nail in the coffin. Ironically, five years after the iPhone’s introduction, today the Android team has announced that it will no longer be supporting Flash. For something that was a distinguishing factor, a divisive sticking point, and was (for some misguided reason) rubbed in the noses of Apple supporters as a failing, it turns out that Steve Jobs probably was right after all.

4. No Visual Voicemail

This feature has since been taken for granted but before the iPhone and their partnership with AT&T, nothing like this really existed. I remember thinking this would be a nice feature when the iPhone was announced but, in reality, it only really made a difference for me until Google Voice entered the picture.

For me, personally, voicemail is a terrible technology. Like the fax machine, it was born out of necessity in a time when the technology wasn’t available to present anything better. Now that there is a prevalence of text messaging (or iMessaging), and given the ubiquity of email, the need to leave a voicemail seems as quaint as rotary dialing.

That said, would this push towards the atemporality of the voice messaging paradigm have happened as quickly if not for how easy the iPhone made communication? Granted, I sent a lot of texts on my Palm Treo but the iPhone made communication on the whole a lot easier for me; it was more seamless and brought ubiquitous communication to a whole new level.

5. No App Store

The entire app ecosystem, as it exists today, was brought on with the advent of the iTunes App store.

Prior to this, there was an amalgam of standards to buy software for your mobile devices. At the time, the Palm Treo software development community was the most active and there were a lot of apps available for it but the infrastructure to support it. It was a hodgepodge of ad-laden sites that were poorly run, looked sketchy and had an extremely convoluted app purchase and update workflow.

As bad as the options were on the Treo, they were miles ahead of the Blackberry app ecosystem which was a barren, nightmarish place.

Suffice to say, there was no Android app store to speak of at the time of the iPhone’s launch.

So how would the world have fared in the App department if Apple had never launched iOS? Well, many Mac developers would have remained in their niche, developing applications for Macs. If there had been no successful launch of the iOS App store, would Apple have launched their Mac App store? I suspect not and, as a result, Mac developers would have continued to roll their own distribution system (like the un-sandboxed apps are dealing with right now).

With no App store to push things along, it’s likely that the cottage industries that existed at the time would limp along with developers struggling to create applications based on the whims of carrier-restricted hardware, fragmentation would flourish, much like we see with the Android App store today.

It is amazing to consider how much power and control the App store has given developers. The charges leveled against it always cite the nearly-random app approval process and the proverbial “walled garden” as big minuses to such a system but would we have a Tweetbot without the iOS App Store? The great text editors like Nebulous Notes or Elements? The amazing productivity tools like OmniFocus? Sure, people could have built such applications, but before the iOS App store there was no good way to make money off of them and the overhead for a small development shop was immense due to the amount of infrastructure required with building the software, dealing with billing, dealing with tech support, dealing with distribution, etc.

6. Carrier Stranglehold

Prior to 2007, the carriers enjoyed a stranglehold on the phone hardware manufacturers and consumers that was very difficult for most people to reconcile. You had very little choice at the time. You basically picked a carrier and stuck with them. They relied on that lock-in and once they had a captive audience, they frequently changed the rules (never in the consumer’s favor) giving people less features while charging more money.

The law that passed (under protestations of the grasping carriers, of course) that allowed for portability of your phone number between carriers was the first chink in the armor, but it wasn’t until the iPhone’s introduction that we saw a carrier bow in any way to a hardware manufacturer’s demands.

Apple forced AT&T into a new model. Their phone had no carrier badges, there was no carrier malware/crapware installed on the phone that couldn’t be removed, there was no carrier “skin” as we see on Android devices today. It was Apple’s phone, delivered on their terms, using AT&T as a provider.

Nowadays, you can see more and more evidence of the carriers reacting to being treated as a dumb pipe by removing unlimited data plans, complaining about how much their revenues have dropped due to iMessage’s introduction, about how their profits have dropped due to paying Apple a bigger subsidy. All of these grievances are being rolled out to the press to presage the higher rates they will inevitably seek to extort from their customers.

Think back to how text messaging used to be prior to the iPhone’s introduction; some plans offered 200 messages for $10 and unlimited texting was sometimes more than $30 a month on some carriers. With the ability for users to run instant messengers on their iPhone (they were very popular early on), it started cutting into the amount of messages that people needed to send. After Apple’s surprise announcement of iMessage, the carriers ability to rip off users (by charging a markup of over 6500% by some accounts) was minimized to an even greater extent.

Judging from how Google and others have kowtowed to the carriers even after the introduction of the iPhone, I think it is fair to say that if there was never an iPhone, the world of mobile technology would be controlled by the carriers and the ability to push the edges of technology would have been poorer for it. You only need to look at the carrier’s lack of progress (or interest) in updating all of their customer’s Android devices to the latest OS to see how much they want to serve their user base…

The Competition

It is fun to think about how the competition would have evolved had their been no iPhone. Of course, this is all wild speculation but it is certainly interesting to imagine what would have happened to the likes of Palm, RIM, Microsoft or Google had Steve Jobs and Apple decided to listen to Steve Ballmer’s helpful advice that there was no way they’d succeed in the mobile market.

Palm

Let’s take Palm first – a company I am well acquainted with after using their devices for years over many iterations and OSes. Their Palm OS was long in the tooth in 2008. They had released a line of Windows Mobile phones in the Treo form factor. They looked really slick until you actually used them and then the usual Windows Mobile problems would show up – slow performance, memory-clogging apps and constant reboots.

Palm form factors would likely have remained the same for quite some time without someone pushing them for higher-resolution touch devices — a hardware keyboard, stylus, and a small screen that would sport better resolution over time but probably remain the same relative size and shape. At the time, Palm was having trouble changing form-factors for some of the same reasons that Android has now (and Apple may have in the Fall if the pundits are right) — software that is built on a device and honed over a period of time for the size and shape of the screen doesn’t do well when you make significant changes. Backward compatibility becomes key and none of the hardware manufacturers at the time wanted to jettison their legacy compatibility and alienate their developer community (for good reason).

Palm would have slowly moved their software away from their Palm OS to the Windows Mobile 6.5 environment, kept their compatibility with legacy Palm apps using third party emulators, and probably had their hardware designs follow whatever software solutions that Microsoft was cooking up post-Windows Mobile 6.5. There was no “touchscreen” world outside of stylus-based touch at that point. Without Apple driving that bus, it’s unlikely that anyone would have tried anytime soon either.

RIM/Blackberry

The mighty Blackberry was riding high in 2007.

Back when we started evaluating the iPhone, we were told we first had to prove why RIM was a bad first choice. To anyone who had either (a) used the iPhone or (b) used a Blackberry, it was pretty obvious which way RIM was headed back then, but there were a lot of naysayers.

Without an iPhone to push them, RIM would have continued to sit on its laurels and roll out small, light phones with hardware keyboards meant to satisfy the older crowd of mobile phone user. They never would have rolled out their biggest disaster (and most-returned phone) ever, the Blackberry Torch.

As time rolled on, RIM would keep honing this form factor with thinner, lighter phones and incrementally better software, but their OS was a terrible mess back then. The Bold was slow and awkward with a paucity of features. It’s settings screens were a mish-mash of badly named controls for features that no one wanted.

Back then, I hated the Blackberry because it was an extremely harsh environment to use, support and develop for. If you ask me, the most significant advantage of RIM’s decline is that I no longer hear the term “crackberry”. Good riddance, RIM. You and your garbage phones.

Android

It’s hard to imagine that much of what is now Android would exist without iOS and the success of the iPhone. Android pre-dates the release of the iPhone but it looked much different than it does now. Competition is good, huh?

While some prefer the software keyboard and auto-correct scheme that Android uses (with the ribbon of suggested words taking up valuable screen real estate above the keyboard), the iPhone’s seamless word substitution and correction-canceling certainly give it a run for the money; I obviously prefer it.

The two software makers embarked upon their creation of their respective operating systems from two very different places. Google wanted to create a generalized operating system which would allow for extension by others while Apple chose to forge their own path with an OS they would manage themselves. Apple’s App Store was announced fairly early on in the process and clearly Google was hoping that the ability to modify the OS and capitalize on its flexibility would bring developers in droves.

Without Apple as their foil (and obvious inspiration), I believe Google’s Android team would have continued down the stylus-based path for the foreseeable future. Hardware keyboards, stylus slots and button-encrusted layouts would be the preferred method of user interaction and with the competition being the likes of RIM and Microsoft, the need to innovate would have been non-existent, so they would have just moved the ball incrementally forward, rather than the audacious chances they took post-iPhone.

The Industry as a Whole

The entire industry has changed, mostly for the better, due to the introduction of the iPhone and then, significantly, the rise of iOS.

Since then we have seen all of the major players in the mobile space, the desktop space, the phone carrier space, the software development space and the ebook space react to the changes brought about by iOS’s innovation. We have even seen the rise of a new type of computing with the release of the iPad. No, I’m not saying that Apple invented tablet computers but its hard to argue against it being the first tablet that sold significantly. Ultimately, the iPad’s success spelled doom for the netbook industry.

The world, and the technology in it, push inexorably forward regardless of the appearance of a device or operating system. If the iPhone had never launched, we would still have smartphones and, eventually, we would have tablets as well. Apple’s iOS was definitely a game-changer however. It affected so much that came after it that it is impossible to re-imagine the world without it. Even as a foil for operating systems like Google’s Android, it moved the bar so far forward that other companies were either force to react (as Google did) or die (as RIM is in the process of doing). That’s the sign of a true revolution. I’m glad they got it (mostly) right.