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Understanding the real innovation behind the iPhone

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When the iPhone emerged in 2007, it came with all the promise and pomp of a major Steve Jobs announcement, highlighting its user interface and slick design as key selling points. We know now that the iPhone transformed the mobile phone business, the internet economy and, in many ways, society as a whole. But technically speaking, the iPhone was not very innovative.

Its software and the interface idea were based on the iPod, which was already reinventing the digital music industry. Touchscreens had appeared on earlier phone and tablet models, including Apple’s own Newton. And top-line Nokia phones had more memory, better cameras and faster mobile connectivity. What made the iPhone transformative was the shift in concept underpinning the entire iPhone project: Its designers did not create a telephone with some extra features, but rather a full-fledged hand-held computer that could also make calls and browse the internet.

As a scholar of management, design and innovation, I find it hard to predict what the next truly revolutionary technological development will be. In the 10 years since the launch of the iPhone, so much about modern life, commerce and culture has changed. In part that’s because the iPhone, and the smartphone boom it spurred, created a portable personal technology infrastructure that’s almost infinitely expandable. The iPhone changed the game not because of its initial technology and cool user interface but rather as a result of its creators’ imagination and courage.

Inventing mobile apps

As the iPhone took shape, its designers found themselves torn between making a phone or a computer. Engineers and marketing executives alike worried the new device would kill the iPod market that had driven Apple’s corporate resurgence for five years. Nokia, the biggest player in the cellphone market at the time, had similar technologies and prototypes, and also feared outcompeting its own successful mobile phone product lines that used a simpler and more old-fashioned software platform than that on which iPhone was built.

Apple took the leap, however, by installing a fully capable computer operating system on the iPhone, along with a few small application programs. Some were phone-related, including a program that handled making and receiving calls, as well as a new way to display voicemail messages, and a system that kept different contacts’ text messages separate. Others were more computer-like, including an email app and a web browser. Of course, the music-playing features from the iPod were included too, linking the phone with the emerging Apple music ecosystem.

Initially, that was about it for apps. But skilled computer engineers and hackers knew they were holding a palm-sized computer, and set to work writing their own software and getting it running on their iPhones. That was the dawn of the now-ubiquitous app. Within a year, these apps were so popular, and their potential so significant, that Apple’s second version of the iPhone operating system made it easy (and legal) for users to install apps on their phones.

Shifting priorities

The prospect of making a fully functional hand-held computer changed how users and manufacturers alike thought about mobile phones. For Apple and every other phone company, software became much more important than hardware. What apps a phone could run, and how quickly, mattered much more than whether it had a slightly better camera or could hold a few more photos; whether it flipped open, slid open or was a bar-style; or whether it had a large keyboard or a small one. The iPhone’s keyboard was on-screen and software-generated, making a function that had required dedicated hardware into one running on generic hardware and dedicated software.

At the time of the iPhone launch, Nokia offered about 200 different phone styles to meet all the different needs of its hundreds of millions of customers. There was just one iPhone model at the start, and in the ensuing decade there have been only 14 major styles – though today they come in different colors, not just white and black as the original did. This is the power of software functionality and related simplicity.

The heightened importance of software on a mobile phone shifted the industry’s economy as well. The money came now not just from selling devices and phone services, but also from marketing and selling apps and in-app advertisements. App developers must share revenue with the companies that control smartphones’ operating systems, providing serious earning power: Apple holds about 15% of the mobile phone market, but reaps 80% of global smartphone profits.

Whatever the next tech industry game-changer is, and whenever it arrives, it will likely have some connection to the smartphone and related infrastructure. Even today, exploring virtual reality requires only installing an app and connecting just a bit of additional hardware to an existing phone. Similarly, smartphone interfaces and cameras already monitor and control intelligent and automated homes. Even as devices are developed to operate all around us, and even in our clothes, many of them will be able to point to the iPhone as a conceptual ancestor and inspiration.  – Written by Kalle LyytinenIris S. Wolstein Professor of Management Design, Case Western Reserve University

Originally published in The Conversation

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Health

Surge Of Smartphone Apps Promise Coronavirus Tracking, But Raise Privacy Concerns

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Topline: A pan-European team of researchers announced Wednesday their plan to release a smartphone app that would notify users if they’ve been exposed to someone infected with coronavirus, the latest example of tech-driven coronavirus solutions that have also raised concerns about user privacy.

  • A European project called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing is working toward releasing a coronavirus tracing app in the next week that would use anonymous Bluetooth technology to track when a smartphone comes in close range with another, so if a user were to test positive for coronavirus those at risk of infection could be notified.
  • Contact tracing, or determining people who may have been exposed to someone with a virus, is an established aspect of pandemic control and was used effectively to tackle coronavirus in countries like China, Singapore and South Korea in the form of smartphone tracking.
  • University of Oxford researchers and the U.K. government are working on a similar project— but unlike other smartphone tracking systems, the British version in development would be based on voluntary participation and bet on citizens inputting their information out of a sense of civic duty.
  • The U.S. government is in talks with companies like Facebook FB and Google GOOGL and other tech companies about tracking if users are social distancing using large amounts of anonymous, aggregated location data— this information is less precise, and more likely to anticipate outbreaks rather than pinpoint individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
  • 1.5 million Israelis have voluntarily downloaded a mobile app that alerts users if they’ve come into contact with someone with coronavirus— but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has still ordered that potential coronavirus carriers have their phones monitored, a controversial move the government says is necessary, as the 17% of the population using the app is not enough to fight off the pandemic.  
  • Moscow , on a city-wide lockdown since Monday, announced Wednesday that a new phone app that will officials to track the movements of people diagnosed with coronavirus in the capital city would be launched on Thursday, saying the government will lend a smartphone to anyone unable to download the app.

Crucial quote: “We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against [coronavirus]. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps ,” Google spokesman Johnny Luu told the The Washington Post. He made sure to note it “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”

Key background: Private and public entities alike are looking for ways to fight off coronavirus as the pandemic continues. On Wednesday, there were more than 900,000 confirmed cases worldwide and nearly 50,000 deaths.Officials told The New York Times NYT that The National Health Service, Britain’s centralized national health system, is trusted by citizens— and paired with the strong data privacy laws in place, said they think people would agree to join the effort to share their private information to help trace infections. However, American tech firms are reported to still be skeptical about sharing substantial data with the U.S. government ever since Edward Snowden revealed the NSA was collecting information from the firms clandestinely. 

Surprising fact: The information tech companies have access to data that sheds light on Americans’ behavior in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Facebook analysis, restaurant visits fell about 80% in Italy and 70% in Spain— while Americans only stopped eating out at a rate of 31%.

Carlie Porterfield, Forbes Staff, Business

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Apple Is Donating 9 Million Masks To Combat The Coronavirus

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Topline: Apple will donate 9 million N95 protective masks to combat the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, making Apple one of several California tech companies pitching in as hospitals across the country report a shortage of protective gear.

  • Pence thanked Apple for agreeing to donate 9 million N95 respirator masks to healthcare facilities across the country during a press briefing on Tuesday.
  • Pence’s remarks come after Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted over the weekend the company was “working to help source supplies for healthcare providers fighting COVID-19” and “donating millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe,” but did not offer more specifics.
  • N95 respirators are masks that form a protective seal around a wearer’s mouth, filtering  out at least 95% of particles in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which makes them necessary to protect healthcare workers from being exposed to the disease from patients.
  • Facebook has also said it is donating its stockpile of 720,000 masks purchased during the California wildfires last year, which degraded the air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes asking if all of the donated masks were stockpiled because of the wildfires or if the company got them from somewhere else.

Chief critic: Teddy Schleifer, a reporter at Recode, wrote that health systems shouldn’t rely on the generosity of big tech companies to make up for the failures of the federal government. 

“But there is a risk in relying on corporate philanthropy—rather than the government—in solving this problem. For starters, it depends on the voluntary generosity of these companies to deal with an unprecedented emergency, an altruism that could vanish at any time,” he wrote.

Crucial quote: “And I spoke today, and the president spoke last week, with Tim Cook of Apple. And at this moment in time Apple went to their store houses and is donating 9 million N95 masks to healthcare facilities all across the country and to the national stockpile,” Pence said.

Key background: Apple is one of several California tech companies to give away N95 masks. In addition to Facebook, Salesforce, Tesla and IBM have also announced mask donations.

News peg: Doctors and nurses are sounding the alarm that they don’t have enough masks to protect healthcare workers. Not only does inadequate protective gear put important frontline health workers at risk, public health experts say, any situation endangering medical personnel may only further depletes the U.S. health system which already doesn’t have enough capacity to handle a surge in cases. State officials in New York and Illinois have criticized President Donald Trump for not stepping in to force companies to manufacture masks or allocate masks from private companies to ensure that states don’t outbid each other for the same supplies.

Rachel Sandler, Forbes Staff, Breaking News

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Video Games Are Being Played At Record Levels As The Coronavirus Keeps People Indoors

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Topline: With school closures, mandatory work-from-home policies and lockdowns taking place in the U.S. as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, gaming has seen higher engagement, especially over this past weekend.

  • Steam, the most popular digital PC gaming marketplace, reached new heights Sunday, drawing a record 20,313,451 concurrent users to the 16-year-old service, according to third-party database SteamDB.
  • Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, released by Steam-owner Valve in 2012, seems to be the top beneficiary of the increased engagement, breaking it’s all-time peak on Sunday with 1,023,2290 concurrent players, topping its previous peak last month by a million, which itself beat the record set in April 2016.
  • Like other esports, CS:GO has had to cancel events due to the virus, particularly the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice earlier this month, though its peak viewership reached over a million, making it one of the most watched tournaments in the esports’ history.
  • Activision Blizzard’s new free-to-play battle royale spinoff Call of Duty: Warzone, launched March 10 on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, is also likely benefiting, drawing in a staggering 15 million in three days, besting the record 10 million in three days by last year’s battle royale sensation Apex Legends.
  • These new heights follows similar effects of the virus on China and Italy: Telecom Italia’s CEO told Bloomberg it saw a 70% increase in traffic over its landline network, with Fortnite playing a significant part, while Chinese live-streaming service Douyu experienced increased viewership of the country’s most popular games, according to market analyst Niko Partners.
  • While gaming was considered “recession proof” during the 2008 market crash, stocks aren’t immune to the current historic drops: software developers like Activision Blizzard are facing a 9% decrease in price year-to-date, while hardware companies that rely on Chinese manufacturing like Nintendo are seeing bigger drops of 24%.

What To Watch For: If these records keep rising as the closings and lockdowns continue. Arriving this week is Nintendo’s long-awaited Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Switch console, a relaxing “life-simulator” that’s set to have a big day with many fans not-so-jokingly asking Nintendo to launch early.

Surprising Fact: Plague Inc., a game that tasks players in creating a virus that wipes out humanity, surged in popularity late January, becoming the top-paid game on the Chinese app store at one point, but the game has now been removed in China at the direction of the government.

Further Reading: So You’re Suddenly Working From Home And Want To Try Gaming? Here’s How To Get Started.

Matt Perez, Forbes Staff, Innovation


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