is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Thank goodness for Subtraction.com, right? Because without it, there would be only a gaping maw where there might otherwise sit a surfeit of news coverage and analysis of Apple product announcements. And certainly without Subtraction.com, there would be no possible way of learning what I’m telling you right now: that Apple has, just yesterday, fulfilled years’ worth of wishes made while snuffing out birthday candles, crossing fingers behind backs, and tossing pennies into water fountains. Stop the presses, you heard it here first: there is an iPhone, and it’s magnificent.
Almost as if just to spite me, it does everything I could’ve dreamt of asking of it just last week: it’s a phone, it’s a camera, it’s a personal digital assistant, and it’s a platform, too. An honest to goodness computing platform, from what we can tell at this early date; an Apple-authored operating system that fits in the palm of your hand. We’ve waited a decade for Apple to redress all the shortcomings and unfulfilled promises of the Newton, and that patience looks finally rewarded.
Sympathy for Palm
I’m not going to go into every detail about the product here, but here’s what struck me immediately after playing with the tantalizing demos available on Apple’s Web site: Palm really blew their long lead time and the wonderful opportunity they had to really own the smart phone market. You can argue about the relative merits of the Palm Operating System, but at least from we’ve seen so far from the iPhone, it’s clearly rooted too deeply in a technological frontier that was cleared by the end of the last decade.
In Jobs’ presentation, he repeated Alan Kay’s advice that those who are serious about software should make their own hardware. Apple has benefitted from this wisdom for years, stubbornly remaining in the hardware business even as the market has, until recently, consistently urged the company to focus only on software.
Few technology companies can claim to make ‘the whole widget,’ and Palm, like Apple, is one of those lucky few. Given their early lead in the portable devices market, Palm should have been able to parlay their hardware and software advantage into a truly innovative device long before now. Instead, they’ve been caught apparently sleeping by this iPhone, and Apple looks set to eat their lunch. Shares in the company were down almost six percent yesterday.
I’d been disenchanted with my Palm Treo 650 for some time even before yesterday’s announcement, but now, looking at its bulky, awkward frame and interface, I’m more convinced than ever that I’ll soon leave it behind.
What sealed the deal, though, was a quiet milestone that the iPhone hits in design sophistication: it’s the first mobile device that I know of — and certainly the most elegant — to use the typeface Helvetica throughout its interface.
Everyone knows I’m a huge Helvetica fan, and you could sell me almost any device that uses the typeface, in part because there are no devices that do. But there’s a reason that this particular usage seems to signal something more to me.
Helvetica is not the most expensive of typefaces to license, but its plain elegance is easily dismissed by product managers who don’t see the percentage in using a truly elegant typeface, especially when much cheaper and ostensibly more distinctive typefaces can be had easily.
Someone on the iPhone’s product team had to go to bat for Helvetica, someone with a truly articulate design sensibility, and they had to argue for it in the face of the easy availability of much trendier alternatives. Digital devices have rarely been exemplars of excellent typography, and the fact that the iPhone team took the time to address such a subtle but significant aspect of the design is meaningful. We’re just turned a corner, I think; design for mobile devices isn’t going to get much easier anytime soon, but it’s going to look a lot better sooner than we thought it would.+