By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
February 24, 2008

Michael Arrington’s post today on Techcrunch describing the promise of an iPhone-only social network — one that, among other things, could tell you where your friends are and what they’re up to at any time — hits a topic that a Swedish ex-pat named Peter S. Magnusson nailed back on July 1, 2007, three days after the iPhone was released.

His theory: Apple (AAPL) missed a huge opportunity with the original iPhone because, at a fundamental level, Steve Jobs doesn’t understand social networks.

Eight months later, there’s no evidence out of Cupertino that anything has changed on that front, and Magnusson’s thesis is as relevant today as it was then. You can read his original piece here. Below the fold: our July 3 take on it, with a link to the spirited discussion it sparked.

San Francisco, July 3, 2007: Now that the initial euphoria has passed, developers have started to talk about what’s missing from Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone: things like Flash, Java, streaming and full AJAX — the linchpin, as Matt Buchanen at Gizmodo puts it, of innumerable Web 2.0 apps. (See iPhone Web 2.0 Standards Support Sucks and subsequent comments.)

These things can be fixed.

But there may be a deeper problem, one that Swedish entrepreneur and blogger Peter S. Magnusson (left) puts his finger on in a long, thoughtful post entitled iPhone’s Missing Killer App: Social Networking. At a fundamental level, Magnusson says, Steve Jobs doesn’t understand the new end user.

After several graphs extolling the things that are right with the iPhone (“It is a fantastic device… a work of heart… any technology enthusiast needs to get this”), Magnusson zeroes in on what’s wrong — and he’s not talking about the battery, the recessed headphone plug or the network provider. He writes:

“At it’s heart, the iPhone is a projection of the original vision of bringing clunky desktop applications like email, contact databases, to-do lists, telephones, note taking, and web browsing to the palm of your hand. Because that is essentially Steve Job’s generation — transitioning from the mainframe office environment to the PC-based office. Jobs can’t quite get rid of the notion that a mobile device is nothing but a really small personal computer….

“Here’s my theory. Apple can only do really interesting products if Steve Jobs understands the end user. And Jobs does not understand the 21st century computer usage paradigm. In this century, people don’t send memos to each other. And that’s what email is – electronic memos.

“Today, people chat; they blog; they share multimedia like pictures, video, and audio; they flame each other on forums; they link with each other in intricate webs; they swap effortlessly between different electronic personae and avatars; they listen to internet radio; they vote on this that and the other; they argue on wiki discussion groups.”

What made the iPod a breakthrough product, Magnusson says, was that Jobs really knows music. “He’s an artsy guy. He’s even known to have a real good musical ear. That’s why the iPod was awesome. Jobs actually understood the target customer.”

Social networking and Web 2.0 are another matter. Magnusson writes: “It’s a generational thing, I guess. Steve is even older than I am, and I’m having a real hard time keeping up with the times. Plus he’s busier than I am.”

Magnusson closes by describing some of the things he would have done with the iPhone, if he were Steve Jobs. It’s an interesting list. A sample:

  • Social networking would have been front and center
  • Location-aware signaling would be built it. The phone would sense if you were in your favorite coffee shop and flag that to friends.
  • The wifi software would support peer-to-peer; it would let you know what people in your vicinity are listening to
  • It would include a bunch of multiplayer games that you can play right away with friends (or strangers!)
  • Calendar would sync with online services, not wait to be connected with a big, ugly PC.
  • Messaging would be integrated into a single view, with iconic/font/color indicators to separate news items, blog entries, text messages, chats, etc.
  • Personal podcasting would be seamless.
  • There would be an official Apple iPhone wiki that all iPhone owners are immediately subscribed to for communal sorting-out of issues.
  • There would be official Apple iPhone support forums that are directly accessible from the phone.
  • The Google Maps function would plot all the iPhone owners with a little red dot; you can click on the dot to send a message to them. Or click on yourself to make a “talk” comment that nearby iPhone owners can “hear”. Or click twice on “yourself” to “shout” to iPhone owners that are within a few miles. A simple “/ignore” function would allow you to silence pesky shouters.
  • Etc. You get the picture.

For the full article, click here.

For my money, it’s more important that Jobs fix the things that keep the iPhone from replacing corporate Treos and BlackBerrys (like a way for the IT department to remotely disable a lost or stolen iPhone). And I suspect that some of the things Magnusson is missing (like iChat or a way to comment on a YouTube video) are among the goodies Steve Jobs is already planning to send down the software update pipeline.

As for the rest — the world of Flickr, Twitter, Myspace, Facebook,, the RSS universe, etc — this is the direction iPhones creators (or whoever is going to replace the iPhone) will need to push things if they want to make the must-have mobile platform for the social networking generation.

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For more, see the comment thread attached to the July 3 post here.

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