the problem with iPhone 4 (and it's not what you think)

“Do you like your iPhone 4?”

I’ve heard this question more than a few times in the two weeks since I got it, and I imagine I’m not alone. I’ve owned and used as my primary phone every iPhone since the original but for the first time the answer to this question, surprisingly, has been a bit more ambivalent than in previous years. It’s gone from a clear “Yes” to a more measured “Yes, but…”

The ambivalence is not a factor of any of the functions or even the features. The display is amazing. It’s fast. Call quality is better, at least for me. Batter life is much better. And did I say the display is amazing? So these are all great, what’s the problem?

No, it has nothing to do with the antenna signal issue, annoying as that is.

The device itself is gorgeous to look at too… but that’s the thing. Apple has always built devices that maintain a good balance between being visually striking and being generally ergonomic (in the broadest sense). With the iPhone 4, for the first time, this balance has shifted.

The iPhone 4, somehow, feels as if it lacks a certain sense of humanity, or rather, it seems to not care very much if it’s something that humans actually use.


Let me run down the list: with the curved back gone, you can’t tell which way it’s facing by touch, and short of trying to find the groove of the home button you can’t even tell if it’s up or down, and the lack of any clear place to grab it from makes it trickier to get in an out of pockets. If you, like me, and I suspect many others, try to pocket your phone with the back facing outwards, in case you run into something, you can no longer do this without thinking, making something that normally you wouldn’t even be aware of feel onerous. The hard edges, the slippery nature of its ultra-polished surface materials, its thickness, and its geometry conspire to make it hard to set on a desk or pick up (in fact, the iPhone bumper, which everyone focuses on for solving the antenna signal problem, seems to me to be something built precisely to alleviate that problem – and the bumper itself then gets in the way, since you can no longer use the dock for syncing). If you had to design a mobile phone so that it would be difficult to pick up, this is how you’d do it.

These are all rules for affordances that phones, especially mobile phones, have established, and there are solid reasons behind them.

And the iPhone 4 gleefully breaks them all.

Like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the iPhone 4 seems to be content with just sitting there and radiating a sense of self-assured perfection.

This is important, I think, not just because of Apple’s massive market share, but because of the host of copycat manufacturers that seem to match everything Apple does without thinking twice. Apple designs have impact far beyond users of its products.

Now, after a couple of weeks, I’m a bit more at peace with these problems, but they’ll never go entirely away. And we can always hope that iPhone 5 will put us puny humans back in the equation.