Still Drinking the iPhone Kool-Aid

</span> The November issue of Wired showed up in the mail today, sporting a cover story joining the chorus of disapproval for the Motorola ROKR. Something is terribly amiss with all this ho-hum criticism and head shaking though. The real question isn’t why the ROKR is so disappointing, it’s why the heck were you so excited in the first place?

The sad fact is that most phone manufacturers and wireless carriers have yet to get a grip on simply designing phones and networks that work as fantastic communication devices. Wireless e-mail is barely adequate. Bluetooth functionality is, for the most part, feeble. Many networks still have King Kong-size holes in them. Carriers seem so busy salivating over half-baked schemes to get you to consume bandwidth they lose track of the fundamentals–communcation, not entertainment. (Crappy cameras and $2 ringtones? Give me a break.) So what made anyone think that this would be a sure-fire hit?

I think at its heart, this taps into a much larger issue regarding convergence devices, and design, in general. Most convergence devices basically suck. There, I’ve said it. Why? Because many simply consist of several discrete devices mashed together inside a single case. Even the very well-integrated devices fail to reinvision their design as a complete whole, something greater than the sum of its parts.

Yet very few companies seem to possess the knack for this kind of innovation. So this other, mediocre type of thinking predominates. “A phone and a music player? Together? Yeah, that would be great. Two features are better than one!” No, no, no. Come up with something truly new. Does incorporating one type of functionality somehow enhance the others? It doesn’t necessarily follow that it will. Better yet, do the combined functions create some new type of capability or form that was previously unattainable? Someone may very well come up with a truly successful design that integrates wireless communication and music playback. Just don’t be surprised when it’s in a form that you didn’t expect.

Which leads me to the Apple factor. A lot of the buzz leading up to ROKR probably had a lot to do, and justifiably so, with Apples involvement. Apple is a company widely known for a unique history of exactly the type of insightful and germane innovation I’m ranting about. What is now painfully obvious to everyone though, and should have been obvious before, is that there are huge mitigating factors–Apple has virtually no incentive here. Design a device for somebody else’s company to undercut your own? To say nothing of carriers looking for their cut? The entire market for music on wireless devices looks like the Wild West right now, with every motivation at odds with the next.

Asking Apple to make this product a smash hit would have been like asking Apple to bash their right foot with a baseball bat. Gee, can’t imagine why they didn’t line right up for that one.