February 10, 2011
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Everyone is learning the wrong lesson from the smartphone wars.

The most recent entertainment in the ongoing competition to put a computer in every pocket is a controversial memo from Nokia CEO Stephen Elop that details Nokia’s shortcomings. John Gruber has the overview.

The first iPhone shipped in 2007, and we still don’t have a product that is close to their experience. Android came on the scene just over 2 years ago, and this week they took our leadership position in smartphone volumes. Unbelievable.

Gruber correctly observes that Nokia’s problem – everyone’s problem playing catch-up with the iPhone and iPad, is incoherence. People see the iPad selling. They copy the most obvious things – the touchscreen, the rounded corners, the black frame with silver trim. They add some software and stuff.

That doesn’t work. "Touchscreen, check. App store, check." Gruber writes. " Gaming, check. The trend Nokia missed out on? Kick-ass production values, quality, and experience." In an age where most of the “technical press” thinks that Apple’s advantage is some special design sauce that Steve Jobs personally sprinkles on new products, Gruber’s got his eye on the right ball.

But he’s wrong.

The iPad isn’t a success because the build quality is good, or because the animations are polished until they shine. The iPad succeeds because it lets people do stuff they need to do, and lets them make stuff they want to make.

All the polishing and shining helps get you to stop and look; what makes the deal is utility. Usability gets you in the door, but utility is what makes the sale, and what gets people to come back. The build quality is nice, but look around and you see lots of people with beat-up iPods and laptops and iPhones. They don’t have build quality, not any more. I know a university professor who travels around the world lecturing, and in his pocket he’s got an iPhone with a cracked screen. Not a great experience, not since he dropped it on the Paris pavement, but it still works and he’s got work to do.

It’s nice to make pretty things, but what really matters are the things that let us get stuff done.