Ten years ago, Apple launched the iPhone. Not long after, Apple offered to loan me an iPhone for review. I hated it.
By this point, I was a few years into smartphone ownership. Not only that, I had helped to launch a smartphone that was pretty revolutionary in its own right.
Working on the marketing campaigns of a range of tech firms, I had attended the enormous Mobile World Congress conference for probably five or six consecutive years. One of our clients there provided the OS for a new smartphone from a Finnish start-up. This phone combined a full touch display, gyroscopic controls, and a browser that neatly handled full web pages. So many of the things that would go on to form part of the iPhone story.
This was 2003.
For all our efforts, the MyOrigo MyDevice, as it was called, flopped. It couldn’t get approval to run on enough mobile networks (a slow and painful process then) before the start-up ran out of cash. But it set my expectations for what a smartphone should be.
Without this device, I stuck with Handspring Treos. Bulky, but very effective business tools. There were even a few games for them thanks to their extensive Palm heritage.
Then the iPhone arrived.
By 2007 I was used to having two key features on my smartphones: 3G connectivity and the ability to add new apps. The iPhone I tested had some clear benefits. The touch screen was great, the software was slick and the design was slim. But no apps? No 3G? This seemed like a massive retrograde step. I was happy to stick with my chunky Treo, and later chose a SonyEricsson P1 over the iPhone because of the lack of these — to me, at least — core features.
Of course, eighteen months after the launch of the first iPhone, Apple had introduced the 3G version and the App Store, not just addressing my objections but crushing them. The App Store particularly has been revolutionary, giving anyone a simple, trustable experience in installing additional software.
Steve Jobs initial assertion of ‘desktop class’ apps may have been slightly overselling it. But from that point the iPhone became a serious productivity tool and entertainment device. And now the smartphone, that has always followed this initial template, is the primary platform for all our computing interactions.
It’s interesting to examine Amazon’s Echo/Alexa in the light of these objections. What needs to be added to take Echo from an interesting and clearly popular product, to the template for a class of device that may reach smartphone scale?
I think there are three problems to solve.
This time it’s not about data, it’s about interaction. The smart home is a very clunky construct at the moment. If Amazon can smooth the interactions with a wider range of devices, it would be welcome. This is not unconnected to…
Alexa seems to be reaching the scale where everyone will want/need to be part of its app/skill store. This would be hugely beneficial to users. Finally, there will be one interface to unite the disparate devices around the home. And the many services we have become used to accessing through distinct apps.
Of course, none of these capabilities have any value unless people know they are there. How do you discover skills and interconnection options on a screenless device? It feels to me like there is an Alexa-initiated conversational element missing here. It would need to know who is in the room, not just that someone is there. But imagine a conversation like: “Hi Tom, I’ve detected a Fibaro home automation system on your network. Would you like me to connect?” That would be much more satisfying than the current app-driven controls.