Below: Helvetica calling. The new iPhone, in all its typographic glory.
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.