Other Overlooked Omissions?

Okay, so I ranted about the flawed logic about the missing headphone jack, attacking the most common comparisons (floppy drives, optical drives, Ethernet). But there is another that I expect to be brought up, and that was the iPhone itself. There were features absent that some considered essential, and that absence didn’t hold it back. But there were reasons why those weren’t as big a deal.

Even Steve Expected A Keyboard

At the 1997 Worldwide Developer Conference, Steve Jobs held an interesting and unusual “keynote”: a question and answer session with the audience. At one point, the conversation turns to smartphones. In his comments, Steve said that a physical keyboard was essential for a smartphone at the time. His thoughts echoed those that looked at smartphones and mobile devices. Most smartphones of the time had a physical keyboard. The dominant player was Nokia (Blackberry was still a pager-like device at the time), and it’s smartphone had a physical keyboard.

All mobile phones of that era also had another feature: user-replaceable batteries. With the technology available, batteries were lucky to last a few hours, certainly less than a day, particularly when data was enabled.  For anyone on the go, a user-replaceable battery was considered essential, and that line of thinking carried on for more than a decade.

The iPhone Was Definitely Different

When the iPhone was announced in 2007, it was missing two things that most smartphone users had come to expect: a physical keyboard and a user-replaceable battery. Some predicted that these things, alone, would doom the device to failure. But they were wrong on both counts. And for several reasons.

First, let’s get the battery thing out of the way. While virtually all mobile phones (smart or otherwise) featured user-replaceable batteries, the reality was that battery technology and device efficiency had improved to the point where you could go all day on a single charge. Anecdotally, I was working on Wall Street at the time, and people lived on their Blackberries. I don’t recall anyone that I knew having a spare battery with them. The only time a battery got replaced was when it could no longer hold a charge, and the more common response to that phenomenon was to simply upgrade to a newer phone.

That the iPhone didn’t even allow the option of replacing the battery was odd, but it wasn’t like it really mattered. Sure, some people stayed away at first. But for most people, they knew that the battery would last long enough, and then simply moved on.

The iPhone Was A Different Market

That the iPhone lacked a physical keyboard was less of an issue than some make it out to be, because it wasn’t aimed at the enterprise market. And it wasn’t as if this was without a precedent. The most popular, and widely used, personal digital assistant (PDA) at the time was the Palm Pilot. And it didn’t have a keyboard. That didn’t stop the company from selling tens of millions of them, nor did it stop people from finding them incredibly useful.

But the fact that the iPhone was meant, first and foremost, as a consumer device meant that the requirements for it were different, and the expectations were different. If Apple had gone after enterprise first, then the lack of a keyboard (along with poorer overall security and virtually non-existant central management for IT) likely would have hurt sales. It might have been a failure along the same lines as the Newton.

But the compact size and big screen were big draws for the consumer, as was the stylish design. When the iTunes App Store arrived in 2008, it turned the iPhone from “smart phone” into “small portable computer”, and sales continued to skyrocket. Yes, some enterprise users adopted the iPhone, but it was largely a consumer device for the first few years of its life.

Was It Brave?

Jumping into a market with entrenched and established players, that was largely controlled by the carriers, certainly took some courage. Not having a physical keyboard or replaceable battery was a risk. But given that the device was aimed at a different audience, one unlikely to cart around spare batteries or to type out dozens or hundreds of missives a day, it was less of an issue that some might think. It carried some risk, no question. But it wasn’t as if it was unprecedented and those decisions were a likely future path anyways.

However, leaving off a feature that is a standard of the audio world, one that still produces sound superior to anything available via Bluetooth, and that doesn’t require a proprietary connector to work, is a different question. But don’t equate leaving off the jack to the risks taken with the iPhone, because those specific features were less of a risk than some might think. Just getting into the smartphone market was a risk. Missing a couple of common features would have been risky for an enterprise device, but was far less of a gamble for something aimed at consumers.

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