Brain Pickings

Brian X. Chen on How the iPhone Changed Everything

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Business advice from Steve Jobs, or why everything you knew about multitasking might be wrong.

Last month, we took a look at how Shakespeare changed everything. It turns out, the great bard may have some stiff competition in the face of another cultural agent: the iPhone. At least that’s the premise of Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In, a fascinating new addition to this list of essential books on the future of the internet by Wired contributor Brian X. Chen that explores how the “Jesus phone” transcended its status as a mere gadget to become a powerful force of cultural change.

Today, I sit down with Brian to chat about the secret to Apple’s success, open experiences amidst closed platforms, and what we can do to be smart information omnivores.

q1

What was it about the iPhone that transformed it from a personal technology to a conduit of cultural change?

There are two pieces to the iPhone zeitgeist: the product itself and the App Store business platform. Somehow, Steve Jobs negotiated with AT&T to carry the iPhone without even allowing the carrier to touch or see the device; the handset’s hardware and software were designed entirely by Apple. This was a significant turning point in the wireless industry, because previously carriers told the manufacturers what features to put in their handsets.

The second piece is just as significant: the App Store, which opened in 2008. The App Store allowed any programmer put up an app for sale in the App Store. And for the customer, the App Store was an extremely simple way to purchase apps with the tap of a button. The store opened the floodgates for hundreds of thousands of “apps” — 400,000 to date.

Now the iPhone isn’t just a smartphone, but also a medical device, a musical instrument, an education tool and thousands of other apps. A single app has potential to compete with an entire industry and impact our culture.

q2

How has Apple managed to find and retain success in a vertical, closed business model in the age of sharing, open-source and collaborative consumption?

It’s interesting that Apple is the most valuable corporation in the world today thanks largely to its vertically integrated business model, whereas in the past it was a niche player in the PC industry with the same approach. One broad reason is that times have changed, and now that computers have become a mainstream staple, the iPhone entered the picture to offer something fresh, new and more convenient for customers than ever before.

The fundamental reason the iPhone is so convenient is because its design and app ecosystem are tightly controlled by one company, Apple.

Furthermore, despite being closed and exclusive to Apple hardware, the iPhone, and now the iPad, are succeeding thanks to the gigantic army of developers providing apps. Many of these apps do enable people to share and collaborate (e.g., we still have Twitter apps, a Dropbox app, Facebook, etc.) Even though this is a “closed” platform, we still get more from the iPhone experience than we do other platforms, because there are more programmers contributing to the App Store compared to competing stores.

q3

A lot has been said about how social technology is changing the way we think. Where do you stand on this, as it pertains to the iPhone?

Many journalists have already concluded that the “multitasking” we do in this always-on lifestyle is bad for the brain. However, little research backs these claims. One study on “media multitasking” by Stanford found that people who juggled around a lot of media (e-mail, videos, music) were poor at concentrating compared to those who didn’t consume much media. But a study by University of Utah found that a small number of people are incredibly good at multitasking, which challenges the theory that multitasking is bad for the brain. I urge people to be cautious about drawing hasty conclusions.

I’d say rather than live in fear of smartphones, we can be more productive by asking ourselves what we can do NOW with this technology to make ourselves more powerful individuals.

What apps can I download to be better at my job, or help improve my health, or contribute to a community? In my book I tell stories about people using always-on technology in incredible ways, like a blind man who is able to use apps to “see” and take pictures, and scientists using smartphones to diagnose malaria in Africa. This is the future at our fingertips.

Ed. note: Always On is out today this month and a must-read for smartphone-slingers and cultural scholars alike.

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