Yesterday this time, I was sitting in the audience listening to Steve Jobs. A day later, I've had some time to think about what I really liked about the Apple iPhone. I think the best innovation, out of many great ones, is how they've solved the problem of web browsing on a handheld device. What so many others have tried to solve with technology, they've solved with user interface design. It's one of the finest uses of design as a serious competitive weapon.
The problem statement is as follows: The web experience on handheld devices is awful. It really is. People are scared to surf the web on a handheld.
The causes of the problem are, in order of severity: 1) Small screen size 2) Lack of a powerful browser that can run common internet plugins such as Flash, ActiveX, toolbars etc. 3) Low bandwidth.
VC's have seen a plethora of attempts to solve this problem, most of which are technology solutions. In the case of video, a number of companies are trying to transcode the content so that it can play on the dumbed down players on the handset. In the case of text a number of companies are trying to take the web content, chop it into snippets and send them to the small screen. Some are trying to glean the headlines and put them in text form so that they are viewable. There is a whole ecosystem of companies that big web sites hired to reformat their content into the WAP page. These WAP pages look like the Internet of 1994. None of these technologies work well.
Enter Apple. First, they wait until EDGE and 3G is imminent and solve problem 3, low bandwidth. Secondly, the reality distortion zone, makes Apple put OS X on the iPhone. That solves problem 2. Whatever file format that works on your MAC (or PC) now works on your phone. No need for the "lite" versions of technologies. You have a uniform browsing experience. This is already huge.
Then comes the two main design innovations. First, make the screen bigger by eliminating the keyboard, that's phenomenal. Second, put the killer UI where a "double-tap" blows up the part of the web page you are reading. You can also do the "pinch move" and blow up sections you need and go back and forth. This is the design solution, it is elegant, and looks like it works. All of the transcoding, reformatting, wapping and all that technological gunk is blown away as if they were made of dust. This is the power of design. What an army of technologists couldn't solve by technology, Apple solved by design.
There is a saying that the D-schools (design schools) are the new B-schools. I don't know if that's true, but the world should be watchful of companies whose expertise is good design, companies like, Stone Yamashita Partners which has design expertise at the same caliber as Apple.