As the smartphone market matures, technology pundits confidently predict the saturation of the market and the inevitability that, soon, everyone who carries a mobile phone will be carrying a smartphone.
Smartphones will become commodities—cookie cutter devices rolling off the assembly line, one like another.
To a great extent this seem obvious, as new electronics hit the market and last year’s toys fall out of favor.
Among smartphones, the form factors are similar, screen sizes are settling between the 4-to-6 inch range, color variations are predictable, and internal hardware consists mainly of a relatively small array of components from the same half-dozen manufacturers.
One is as good as another, right?
When it comes to Google and the Android operating system, one smartphone running Android is as good as another. Google gives away Android for free to any manufacturer who wishes to use it in its smartphones.
Because Google makes it money from online search and advertising, the company is very happy to have as many people as possible using Google search and eyeballing those ads that appear on web pages.
Clearly, Apple takes a different approach. Only Apple sells iPhones, and only iPhones use Apple’s iOS operating system.
Have you ever noticed that when Apple CEO Tim Cook talks about the iPhone, he usually drops “the” from the phrase. He’ll say something like, “With iPhone, we have the world’s most popular smartphone.”
You could chalk this up to the fact that at any given time, Apple is selling several models of iPhones. For example, right now Apple offers the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the iPhone 5S, and the iPhone 5c. So one could argue that Cook is simply talking about a category of products, and often he is.
But I think there’s something else at work here.
iPhone as icon
Is iPhone an icon, and what the heck is an icon? Merriam-Webster Online has a number of definitions, for example, “a small picture on a computer screen that represents a program or function.” Nope, that’s not what I’m thinking of.
What about “A conventional religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians”? Well, Apple has been called a religion, but no, that’s not the definition I was looking for.
Is the iPhone “an object of uncritical devotion.” Certainly, Apple devotees have been described as fanboys (or the more derogatory fanbois), who slavishly buy anything Apple comes out with. But, no that’s not it.
What I’m talking about is closer to this definition: “a sign (as a word or graphic symbol) whose form suggests its meaning.”
iPhones have become so ubiquitous, so familiar, that they are instantly recognizable even by people who don’t own one—particularly when the home screen and apps are visible.
Not just the physical object
But consider more closely the phrase “whose form suggests its meaning.” There’s a layer in the iPhone lexicon beyond simple recognition. This precise thought hit me a few days ago, when my wife handed me her iPhone 5S to show me a photo.
From a purely physical standpoint, her iPhone 5S is significantly smaller than my iPhone 6, but it is an iPhone, nonetheless.
At a Christmas party this weekend, a niece showed off her new iPhone 6 Plus. Because I was taking photos at the party, we set up Airdrop so that I could quickly share some of the photos with her. It took literally 30 seconds to do.
The party was a family gathering, so I rounded up folks to take a family portrait. There were a few friends there as well, and I handed my iPhone to one and asked him to take the portrait. He wasn’t an iPhone owner, but he already knew how to use the iPhone camera, so I didn’t have to show him how.
iPhones are recognizable as having a multitude of functions that are easy to learn, access, and use. When people see one, they understand they are looking at a tremendous toolkit that just happens to fit in one’s pocket.
What Apple has done with iPhone is truly to have created an entire world of possibilities, of which all iPhone devices are just physical manifestations. An icon, indeed!
Creating a product of that scope is akin to capturing lightening in a bottle, something that few companies are able to do—even once. Apple seems to do it with regularity.
Hope Santa brings you an icon or two this year. Merry Christmas!