It started over drinks at South by Southwest Interactive this year. Seven friends and colleagues were busy checking in at one of the festival’s go-to watering holes, and I reached into my coat pocket to pull out my phone to check my e-mail.
One by one, my friends looked at my phone, a Treo 650 that dates back almost seven years. Each of them reacted in a similar way, starting with “WOW! I haven’t seen one of those in years.” They all wanted to hold it.
My phone was certainly showing its age. The average cell-phone user gets a new device every 20 months. Technology moves ahead quickly, and many phones are used hard and put away early.
But the Treo 650 was one of the first fully functional smart phones. Before iTunes evolved into a media gateway, the Treo gave Macintosh users a way to synchronize media, contacts, calendars and e-mail accounts at the push of a button.
It had a keyboard that power users still envy, and (because it grew out of the Palm Pilot interface), it handled contacts and appointments with a degree of sophistication that the current offerings fail to match.
Over the years, as Apple bolstered iTunes to favor the iPod, iPhone and now the iPad, synching the Treo became a somewhat cumbersome affair. My laptop and the cellphone started to drift apart, victims of competitive technologies and Apple’s multi-year agreement with a company that is not Verizon.
Even when Apple and Verizon signed an iPhone deal, I was slow to jump on the bandwagon. The Treo had been a workhorse, a tribute to what a solidly engineered technology can do in this day and age.
It took an iPad, MobileMe (Apple’s paid data-synchronization and cloud service) and my friends at South by Southwest to convince me that I needed to let the Treo go. That, and the realization that the Verizon iPhone can double as a hotspot for up to five devices at once.
So this weekend, I traded in the Treo, which could hold only 32 MB of program and media data, for a 32 GB iPhone 4. Shiny. New. The folks at Verizon didn’t ask me to return the Treo.
Other than being fond of a phone, which seems to be a common affliction, I offer this story as a touchstone for 21st-century publishing. What made the Treo work, and what makes the iPhone work, started with a commitment to seamless content sharing across devices, platforms and places. They put the user first.
Palm grew up when business information was the story. Apple made media the coin of the realm. That’s our challenge and our opportunity.