Regardless of its propensity to turn into a brick if its users do anything which Apple doesn’t approve of, the iPhone marks a further step in the direction of powerful mobile computers which happen to do a bit of phoning on the side. And the fact that the most recent iPod is pretty much an iPhone without the phone bit underlines the power and attractiveness of the computing platform.
That starts to make an important difference. Not now, not even perhaps when everybody has got their next mobile phone upgrade. But it’s a pretty safe bet that by the time of the upgrade after that – and so in three to five years from now – the iPhone, or a myriad of iPhone imitators, will be sufficiently ubiquitous to be a communications platform we will need to consider as a channel in its own right. Some of that is already happening even without phones fancier than the ones already in common use. An outfit called Monitise, who clearly have a self-interest in all of this, is already saying that it:
wants to create a fifth channel for banks in addition to call centres, cash machines, websites and branches.
“We are trying to be the electronic bank in your pocket,” [the Chairman] said. “I am relatively confident that within the next 12 months we’ll have most big-name banks signed.”
Monitise claims it is safer than desktop internet banking because it requires a pin number and leaves no data behind on the user’s phone.
The real challenge and real interest though is not in the question of whether we can present information through this channel as through any other – because the answer is obviously that we can. The real question is what would need to happen to service design at a level much deeper than the immediate customer interaction. There are two central differences from conventional internet access, each of which provides opportunities and constraints.
Presence For lots of people, this will be their internet connection, and for many, it will be the first one which is theirs personally – so bringing a further group to the right side of the digital divide. But for everyone, it will mean that the connection is with them rather than something they do separately, at home or anywhere else. So it becomes in part a device to capture the consequences of other kinds of contacts – conversations between humans can be supported by conversations between devices.
Interaction Even more interestingly, the limitations of these devices will be a powerful driver for change. A desktop PC with a full-size keyboard can support the illusion that the conversion of a tax self-assessment form or a benefit claim form from paper to screen delivers service innovation. At one level of course it does – the online self-assessment process is a vast improvement on the traditional paper tax return. But at a deeper level, it hasn’t changed the nature of the interaction. Citizens still spend lots of time and energy reporting data to government that government already knows. Once iPhone-like devices achieve critical mass, that simply won’t be a viable model: their natural use in transactions will be to authenticate, to confirm and to amend. It won’t be to provide large chunks of new data. Addressing that challenge will require many of the conventions of government service design to be completely overturned.