At Apple and Elsewhere, Restraint is Perfection

In the days preceding the iPhone 4S keynote, speculation had reached its usual, unusual levels. Both industry and mainstream sources were tossing predictions about, quoting…

In the days preceding the iPhone 4S keynote, speculation had reached its usual, unusual levels. Both industry and mainstream sources were tossing predictions about, quoting experts, insiders, analyzing cryptic patents and codes, attempting to unravel the barriers created by the most valuable brand in the world.

In time, as always, speculation spread from the most-expected product - the iPhone 5, in this case - to lesser alternatives; here, the iPhone 4S. One can imagine the depressed shifting of the keynote crowd, the subtle sighs of disappointment in discovering that the estimation was largely for nought. And so the waiting for the iPhone 5 will continue for months, at the very least.

And yet, despite the buzz and research, the sifting through stories and sources, it seems speculators had overlooked that one of Apple’s greatest qualities is the black sheep of innovation: restraint. Remember the disappointment following the three-prong focus of the original iPhone? Pete Mortensen, who recently recounted the event for Fast Company's Co.Design, does: Where’s the 3G, the corporate email, the ability to write real applications for it? A victim of their own hype, it seems, followers had expected something they were never promised.

The absence of these functions in the original iPhone, Mortensen explained, was exactly the point. The outcome of years of development was actually, he said, “a series of strategic choices that Apple made to scale down from all of the possible things a smartphone technically could do to the handful of things that the iPhone could do better than any other product on the market.” Now on the fifth rendition, we have those functions we were waiting for - and those functions actually, you know, function, which may have not been the case years ago.

Last month, I wrote for Fueled about the role of designers in a world where the necessary raw technology was largely in place. What designers do - perhaps what Apple does best - is integrate, bringing advances together in some functioning middle space. Arguably, even Microsoft’s greatest - perhaps only - victory of the last several years is the Windows Phone, which recently won the Industrial Designers Society of America People’s Choice Award in recognition of its user friendliness. Windows, it seemed, taking a cue from the competition, had finally caught up - paring down the possibilities to create a product that actually worked.

Surprisingly, as Apple trudges onward merrily, its competitors continue to overload and underwhelm - despite a proliferation of simplification and high design well beyond phones. Mortensen points to the winners: the iPad, of course, which essentially killed the Research in Motion PlayBook tablet before it came out; the Nintendo Wii, which beat out the more technically-advanced PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; the original Flip camera, better selling than fully-functioning camcorders.

But it gets more basic than that - the best selling apps are mere skeletons of their competitors, serving only a handful of purposes and serving them well. Angry Birds, in all its side-scrolling glory, has been purchased 350 million times as of late September, spawning merchandise, (satirical) films, and even theme parks. As developers scrambled to embrace advanced graphic capabilities, Angry Birds-creators Rovio Mobile took the road less traveled, and it paid off handsomely.

Social networking, not born-of but certainly accelerated by Facebook, recently took a noteworthy turn with Google+, its predecessor’s first serious competitor. Last week, Mashable reported that user traffic jumped 13-times in a single week after the site went public. Its defining element, at least thus far, may be a simplified sorting system for friends, which Facebook has continually sought but never mastered. Similarly, Twitter, like Google+, embraced a single feature of Facebook - a status update in the form of a Tweet - and blew up; after three years, the feature is employed over a billion times every single week. Since then, its interface has expanded slightly, adding advertising, and growth continues.

Over the next several days, Apple will certainly be subject to some scrutiny, victim to speculative excitement that it earned indirectly simply by harnessing itself to user gain. Despite the fact that the keynote was far from short on announcements - iOS 5, Siri, iCloud, and so on - the shortage of an iPhone 5 has left the fan base ruffled. But, “when launching a new technology,” Mortensen reminds us, “it’s far better to constrain the capabilities of your big new idea - even if it’s an artificial constraint - than it is to over-promise and under-deliver.” At the release of the iPhone 4S, limitation to some, we may see, is perfection to others.

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