Trade-Offs

A big part of design is managing trade-offs. To crudely paraphrase a (purported) quote from Abraham Lincoln, you can please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

A simple trade-off between two things is like a seesaw: move one up and the other goes down. Think, say, of buying a new external hard drive — the trade-off there is between higher storage capacity and lower price. Or, say, how big to make a push button — bigger buttons are easier to hit, but there’s only so much space on a screen. Multivariate trade-offs are more complicated, but the basic gist is the same: you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Brian Caulfield’s “Seven iPhone Disappointments” piece for Forbes got me thinking about this. There’s a bit of a straw-man aspect to the way his list is framed — a “see, even the iPhone is imperfect” angle — but it’s a fair list of iPhone criticisms. And while it does prove that the iPhone 3G is far from perfect, it goes a long way toward showing just how strong a position it’s currently in, and how well Apple has managed iPhone design trade-offs so far.

Here’s Caulfield’s list, with my commentary:

  1. The Cost — Yes, AT&T’s monthly data plans for the iPhone 3G are more expensive than the original iPhone data plans — but they’re exactly the same as AT&T’s plans for other 3G smartphones, and very much comparable to the cost of smartphone plans from Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. The higher-cost data plans may give pause to existing iPhone owners considering an upgrade, but the iPhone looks terrific, cost-wise, compared to competing smartphones.

    So on the one hand, yes, price is still a limiting factor for the iPhone — there are a lot of people who can’t or won’t pay $70 a month for a phone. But on the other hand, this is true for all existing smartphones.

  2. No Flash Support in MobileSafari — I’ve covered this extensively, but in short, it’s a classic trade-off. On the one hand, Flash support on the iPhone might be cool. On the other hand, it’d likely hurt battery life, would enable annoying ads, and wouldn’t work with any Flash apps that assume there’s a mouse or keyboard present. But the whole thing is moot because there isn’t any other phone with a web browser even nearly as good as the iPhone’s that also supports Flash. The iPhone without Flash only compares badly against an imaginary iPhone with Flash, not any actual existing competing phone.

  3. No Replaceable Batteries — What Caulfield really means here is “no easily swapped on-the-fly batteries”. (You know a list of iPhone “disappointments” is getting thin when the swappable battery thing comes up as #3.) Again, though, it’s a simple trade-off: swappable batteries are useful, even essential, for people who burn through an entire charge in under a day. But sealing the case allows Apple to design batteries in unique shapes. User accessible batteries are, in all cases I’m aware of, thicker, and the access panels are often squishy or squeaky or junky. After a year of actual real-world iPhone use, it seems clear that the iPhone’s unswappable battery stores at least enough power to get the vast majority of users through a day — just like with the iPod.

  4. No Video Recording — I would love for the iPhone to shoot video roughly of the same quality as my Flip Ultra. But taking a step back from video, I’d also love if the iPhone could take still photos of the same quality as a standalone point-and-shoot camera. But people in hell want ice water.

    Image-quality-wise, the primary problem with the iPhone’s camera is the lens. It’s crap — very much a mere phone camera lens. There are other phones with standalone camera-quality lenses, Sony Ericsson’s coming-later-this-year C905 leading the pack. But better lenses are (a) bigger, and (b) more expensive. To ask for better image quality or video support without acknowledging that it would make the iPhone more expensive (and probably thicker1 and heavier) is to ignore the inherent trade-offs.

  5. No Cut-and-Paste — There are times when I want to copy and paste something on my iPhone — usually a URL — so badly that it almost literally hurts my fingers that I can’t. Not sure what the story is on this design decision, but judging by what we know about the 2.0 OS, if it’s ever going to happen, we’re still in for a wait. It’s a tricky UI problem given the iPhone’s interface, but that it’s still missing in the 2.0 OS strikes me as the one real head-scratching I-don’t-get-it omission.

  6. No Multimedia Message ServiceSee below.

  7. No Voice Dialing — These do seem like curious omissions, but the obvious answer is that Apple simply hasn’t gotten to them yet. You can’t keep adding features without pushing the release date for new software forward. MMS and voice dialing seem like inevitable iPhone features, but neither seems like the sort of thing that would warrant delaying the release of the 2.0 OS. (It’s possible that the same is true of copy-and-paste.) The iPhone 2.0 OS is in many ways a lot like Snow Leopard: not much different from the previous OS in terms of user-visible features, but significantly improved under the hood.


In short, if you want to know what to expect from the iPhone product platform going forward, consider the iPod. Given how successful the iPod has been, I can’t see any reason why Apple shouldn’t follow a similar timeline with the iPhone.

The original iPod shipped in October 2001. The second generation model came the next summer, and the only signficant difference was that it switched from a moving click wheel to a touch-sensitive one. Most notably, Apple didn’t expand to a second form factor until January 2004 with the iPod Mini. Photo support in the fall of 2004, video support in 2005. One new thing at a time.

In one year with the iPhone, we’re getting three new things: 3G, GPS, and a full-fledged third-party SDK. The iTunes Music Store didn’t appear until April 2003, and it didn’t support Windows users until October 2003, two full years after the debut of the original iPod. So with the App Store coming just one year in, if anything, the iPhone platform is moving faster than the iPod did.

So, patience.


  1. My Flip Ultra is about three times as thick as my iPhone, and all it does is shoot video. 

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