Te Manawa interviews Dr Bob O’Driscoll about his experience with one of the first iPhones bought in the world, in 2008. That very phone is now on display as part of the Nova exhibition. This interview can also be listened to on our Radio page (episode 6).
What was the build-up to the release of the phone like? Was there a lot of hype, did you spend a lot of time gathering information about it?
I guess I had a number of smartphones that I’d bought in the years before Apple released the iPhone, and they were things of great promise and very limited capability. It was a time when phone manufacturers seemed to be engaged in a race to incorporate features in their phones, and so the boxes that the phones came in used to have little icons all around them; it could do this this and this, and it seemed to be a race to have the most features. The exercise seemed to be scoring features which you could tick off as having, but in practice they didn’t necessarily work, so it could be quite frustrating. I can remember in a meeting at Massey, having my phone go off with a reminder, and I’d actually turned it onto “mute” but it still went off, and it turned out there were three places in the phone where you could turn it off, and unless you got all three it wouldn’t turn off, and it was that sort of anti-social, unfriendly behaviour that these things exhibited that was so completely irritating.
I was quite excited when Apple brought out the iPhone because I’d bought an iPod a few years before. When the iPod came out, it was a thing that I couldn’t see to me would be a particularly useful device, because I don’t listen to music as I walk round and so on, and I bought one, one day, because I wanted the little disk drive out of it to show students at Massey. It was cheaper to buy the iPod than to buy the disk drive separately.
I played with this thing and found it was actually wonderful to use, and it had a very useful thing for me in that I could use it in my motorcar, and it addressed the issue that you have in a car that the music runs out very quickly; if you put a tape in it would only play for a short time, or a disc…but with an iPod you could stick it in and listen to music for a whole trip. So I had this device that turned out to be extremely useful in a way that I hadn’t thought of. I bought an iPod Touch when they came out, and again have been just absolutely amazed just how nice the thing was to use.
So when the phone was coming I was quite excited, I thought it would be something that would probably work, so I resolved to go and get one. So I lined up…
How big was the line, was it one of the long ones?
Yeah, it was one of the really long ones. I went down to Vodafone in the Square, and people had been queued up for ages for it. People had come up from Wellington to get in the queue, and I arrived a couple of hours early and thought maybe I wasn’t in time. As it turned out I got the very last one! They had the place all shut off and were just taking people in I think a couple at a time because I think that was all they could handle, so people were all queued up. Yes, so I got one then. And it was, of course, one of the first in the world, because New Zealand, with our time zone, they released the phone at midnight on the particular day, and New Zealand got to midnight first, so people actually came from all over the world to be in New Zealand to get hold of them first. In Palmerston North they didn’t open at midnight, they opened at nine o’clock as usual.
How come people came up from Wellington? Were they not selling it down there?
They couldn’t get one! They’d queued up in the night time in Wellington and missed out, I think, so they’d come up to Palmerston North to see if they could score one.
Like a Plan B.
I think it was Plan B, and I think some of the ones who were in the queue were employees of the places that were selling them and weren’t allowed to buy them from their store so had to go somewhere else, so there were all sorts. I was definitely the oldest person in the queue, there were mostly young, fairly keen people.
The one that I got was the first model that was sold internationally, and New Zealand got it on Day One.
What was the jump like in technology, in terms of what it represented and what you had before?
It was just an amazing experience, because the thing actually did everything and it worked absolutely perfectly. The way it operated – the way phones had been pretty much up until that time – was that they all had numeric keypads or keypads of a sort, so it was a sort of given that phones had to have buttons. Apple eliminated the buttons on the iPhone, and they also had a new type of touchscreen that was very responsive; previous ones had relied upon pressure to operate, and this was the first time one had had a capacitive one, so it enabled a subtlety of interaction that wasn’t possible with the previous thing.
So the thing worked by touch, it worked beautifully, it was absolutely intuitive. It was actually way better than I imagined. It was just one of the things that you get that turns out to be a real delight, and you go “wow, this thing is quite amazing”. And of course it set the pattern for phones from then on, because it had an enormous impact, and at that stage, for smartphones, Blackberry was the standard, and in terms of phones in general, Nokia was the company that made by far the most phones.
Both Nokia and Blackberry regarded the iPhone when it came out as something of a gimmick, to their cost. In fact the companies that are really successful now in phones, like Samsung…Samsung saw what Apple did and did it very very closely, and were successful because of it, in fact because they captured the sort of essence and cottoned on very quickly to what was needed. It turned out that they perhaps had a wee bit of a head start in the sense that they were actually manufacturing the phone for Apple so they had an inside look at what was going on.
There’d been a progression of handheld devices; the first one that was really significant to me, and I’ve actually given Te Manawa, was that Hewlett-Packard brought out the first scientific calculator. I’ve given Te Manawa a number of devices that I’ve considered disruptive, in the sense that when they came out, everything changed afterwards. What scientists had done before them was they’d used slide rules, and that was how they did calculations in the lab. You had a slide rule and you might have a big sort of machine-type calculator to do heavy-duty calculations, but for portable carrying around with you it was always a slide rule.
Hewlett Packard brought out this device that would do everything a slide rule would, and do it much better, and that just totally changed things. Their scientific calculator set the pattern. Scientific calculators – pocket ones – just look like that HP35 now. It looks a very modern device even though it was pre-LCD displays; it used LEDs. But it still looks very modern even though it was 1974. So that was the first hand held device that had a big impact.
Portable navigation things, again, were another thing that really fascinated me. Of course, having done tramping and things, and navigated with compasses and maps, to actually have a machine that would tell me exactly where I was was just wonderful, and I bought very early a handheld Garman navigator. And of course cameras – I’ve always been interested in photography – started getting smaller. One of the things I used to think about when I was riding my bike out to Massey was “these pocket devices – it surely is possible eventually to make a device that combines all of these” – and of course the phone when it came out had GPS built into it, it had a camera built into it.
Of course, nowadays phones have absolutely incredible cameras for a portable camera; a phone will really give dedicated cameras a run for their money. The navigation things in phones are second to none nowadays. So you actually have this device that combines all these handheld things into a phone! It’s changed the way people operate, hasn’t it, because it’s their personal organiser; there was a period when there were Palm Pilots and things like that that people had to organise their lives – again, that’s done – to do your internet nowadays; it’s your phone!
In just 8 years.
Yeah! It’s just all changed, hasn’t it. So that device coming out, that sort of internet-connected device is one of the first things that the iPhone was, it was an internet-connected device, and I’d had phones that purported to be internet connected, but they didn’t work. They only worked with a special watered-down version of the internet and so-on, whereas these things just went and grabbed the internet – it wasn’t a compromise, it just did it. Before if you wanted to do it you could sort of do it but you had to find websites that could do the sort of thing that the phone could do and it didn’t really work. I had one phone and it didn’t work at all. It advertised that it could do internet, but I never could never get it to work, and I eventually got the phone company that sold it to me to admit that, yeah, it doesn’t actually work. Hey, but it says on the box…! But no, it didn’t. And so that was the dramatic difference with the iPhone: it said it would do these things, and it did! There wasn’t any nonsense about it, it just did it properly.
Apple wrested control of the design of the phones away from the phone companies. Companies like the cellular providers used to determine what facilities the phone would have, and then stuck – a whole lot of people called it “bloatware” but it was their software, that would work well or not so well – a on the phones, [which] generally interfered with their operation. What Apple did was say “this gets our software and you can’t stick anything we don’t approve of on this device, we will not let you”. And so they actually had complete control of the device and made sure that its integrity wasn’t destroyed. The iPhone worked because it’s a combination of the software, the hardware, and the whole deal – all as a package, all totally integrated..
I think Apple’s drive is the experience of the user, whereas I think [with] the cellular providers, the phones were to sell their product, you know, make people connect to their network and keep giving them money; the experience with the phone wasn’t first in their minds. Whereas Apple…when I heard reports of Steve Jobs’ reaction to the phones that were around before the iPhone, I thought “yep, that’s how I feel too!” and I could sort of sense a kindred spirit, that here was someone who was in a position to do something about it – he was going to sort this thing out and produce the sort of phone that people might want to use, rather than what you were given.
You mentioned this phone still works, eight years later
Yeah, it’s fine! It still goes. I’ve tended to – because I’m a bit of a technology geek – keep buying the latest one, and that’s the only one that’s not still in use in the family, so all the ones I’ve bought since are still being used. And that one I kept; it was the oldest one and I thought that it probably was a significant device and that it was an appropriate thing for Te Manawa to have and I’d sort of kept it aside, but it’s still running, it still works just fine.
It sounds like – you mentioned the calculator – you’ve developed a bit of an instinct for knowing which technology is worth keeping on.
Yeah, I’ve always been interested in the interaction of people with devices. As you know, my interest at Massey was in electronics, and I’m fascinated with electronic devices that are inaccessible to people. A classic one I guess is the video tape recorder that used to come with a zillion buttons. Everyone had one, but very few people could program one to record programmes because they were so complicated to operate, and so the way the way people interact with these electronic devices has always been a fascination for me.
I remember hiring a car once and wanting to turn up the volume on the radio. I actually had to stop the car and sit down, because it was just an array of buttons. I’m trying to think “well where’s the one that changes the volume?” This thing is just so terribly unfriendly! How can you do that to someone, give them something that’s just so totally unusable.
There wasn’t a knob.
There wasn’t a knob! You know, a big knob would’ve done it, yeah. And it’s those sorts of things, the way you interact with things has sort of fascinated me, so I’ve been interested in devices that perform well and are actually useful to the user, and what is it about those things, it’s always been a fascination for me.
So HP with their calculator, when they brought it out, they put in a huge amount of effort in terms of the design of it – how would you actually make something like this that would actually be useful to the user, and so on. It was interesting to me that it was an industrial designer who determined the configuration of it, not the engineers who were designing the device. They had to produce a device that conformed to what it had to deliver in the end. It really impressed me at the time that Hewlett Packard, they devoted one issue of the Hewlett Packard Journal to the development of that one particular thing. It showed how they’d done it, and there was a huge amount of effort on how the final user would interact with it, and how it would deliver the goods for them, for the user. So it was very user-focused, the design, and they did it extremely well. If I showed it to you, it almost looks like a modern calculator because basically they got it right first time.
Has it been fascinating watching the iterative improvements from 2008 to the present day?
Oh yeah, yeah. It’s really interesting, because several times I’ve bought a phone and thought “right! This has got all the things I need, I’m not going to have to-” and then they manage to do something that I hadn’t thought of and I think “wow, I’d never do without that!” Things like fingerprint recognition for unlocking the phone. That’s just wonderful! You put your finger on it, and I hadn’t thought that that would happen, because I’d experienced fingerprint readers that, like other things, sort of worked but mostly didn’t. And I was horrified when I heard rumours that Apple was going to do it, and I thought “oh no, this is not going to work”, but actually they produced something that does work, and it works extraordinarily well. That’s amazing, that you can do it. It’s just great.
I’m looking forward to later this year when they update the software for their computers because I won’t have to type in my password to unlock my computer – my watch, the fact that I’m wearing it, will unlock the computer, so that’s quite useful!
How much further do you think they can go along the design track they’ve set themselves on?
I’m always surprised. You think of things and…these guys are better at it than me and I keep getting surprised at the sorts of things they do. I’ve got Apple’s watch, which effectively works in conjunction with the phone. I’ve always been a bit of a watch geek in the sense that I’ve always wanted a watch that was extremely accurate; now for the first time I’ve got a watch that is accurate to a twentieth of a second always. When you change time zones it changes automatically, and when daylight saving happens it changes. So as a watch it’s absolutely fabulous, but it has all these other things. When somebody sends me a message it taps me on the wrist and I can read the message on my watch, or if the phone rings I can answer it on my watch. Just all sorts of things like that that I think “oh, oh that’s quite cute, it can do that too”.
That’s almost at once quite futuristic but also kind of retro, sort of Dick Tracy-style…
Yeah, yeah, well I mean it just looks like a watch, but it does all those things, and it’s actually working in conjunction with the phone. The phone’s doing all the work and the watch is just an ancillary to it, but when you’re walking along you don’t have to get your phone out of your pocket and fumble, you can just slide your watch up. It’s one of these things that, again, I probably spent the longest trying to decide if I was going to buy, and it’s turned out to be one of the things that’s delighted me enormously, just how well it works, so it’s quite surprising.
I like things to keep looking new. It has this wonderful coating, it has about the hardness of carbon. That’s that black coating; it’s nearly a year old and there’s not a scratch on it. The fact that they were able to do that – it’s just silly little things about it.
I’m not a big watch man or phone man myself but it’s still…
B: No, as I kid I was always interested in how things worked, so I always took everything that I could get apart and look inside. And at Massey whenever anything new came, people would hand me the screwdriver when I came in, because the first thing I wanted to do was see inside, so I’m always just curious as to how things work, I’m fascinated by the way things are done. I’m interested in these sorts of things just as devices and so on. They are actually very beautifully made, inside and out. Old computers, you lifted the covers and it was just horrendous to look inside. This is one of the things that distinguishes the Apple computers: when you look inside they’re actually very beautiful, very tidy. They worry about the bits you can’t see. I think Steve Jobs told a story about his father insisting that he paint the back of the fence that people can’t see just as well as the front, because it was there, and even though you couldn’t see it, it had to be right. It’s that sort of philosophy that I think he instilled. Just the attention to detail, no matter where you…you know, if you open it up you get the feeling that the people creating these things actually care about them.
Not a wasted cubic micrometre.
Yeah, so that sort of fascinates me. That’s the sort of thing that worries me too, I like everything to sort of look beautiful and be very nicely done.
That first iPhone surely rang those bells.
Yes it did. It ticked all sorts of boxes and things for me, which is why I got quite excited about it at the time, yeah.
Images by Udo von Mulert