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A new etiquette for the iPhone generation

Armin Henreich's infamous "I Am Rich" Apple iPhone application - a $1,000 ruby screensaver - was pulled from Apple App Store shelves months ago, but its message still resonates loudly. Now the iPhone, the tech symbol of the in crowd, is on the verge of crossing the line into excess and arrogance.

"I'm not sure, under the current economic conditions, that it's a great statement to make," says Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group. "You may not want to flash it."

From "my apps are cooler than your apps" contests to "sent from my iPhone" email footers, people love showing off their iPhones. That's not surprising, given that the users most compelled to buy the latest and greatest handsets and mobile phones are "alpha dogs", according to Sarah Welch, COO of Mindset Media, which helps companies target adverts based on personality traits. It's when alpha-dog enthusiasm goes overboard and becomes bad manners that others get annoyed.


Yet the Apple iPhone's cultural impact is much more than just another wedge separating the haves and have-nots; the iPhone changes how people interact with each other and their surroundings. Traditional mobile phones and iPods already audibly isolated people in their own little worlds, and the iPhone's visual carnival pushes that isolation further.

With more iPhone-like devices hitting the streets (most notably, Research in Motion's BlackBerry Storm and T-Mobile's Google Android-based G1), the notion of a siloed nation is neither far-fetched nor far off.

Indeed, traditional mobile phones rattled American culture in only a few short years. In 2006, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put the kibosh on the use of mobiles while driving in California, which led to a rash of tiny Bluetooth headsets sprouting from people's ears.

"You can walk around and be insane, and people will think you're just another person with a headset," Enderle says. "With mobile phones, we were largely talking on the phones, and that created a problem. We've moved to things like the iPhone that are much more visual, which makes the problem more pronounced."

The visual nature of the iPhone can be a big distraction. Will consumers, walking around with their heads down as they play a game or look at a map on the iPhone's mini-screen, collide with each other like pinballs?

Glibness aside, there are real and tragic consequences to being visually distracted. Last month, a train engineer in Los Angeles was allegedly text messaging on his mobile moments before he crashed into a freight train, killing 25 people, including himself.

"These things are significant distractions," Enderle says, "and I think the culture is going to have to wrap its arms around a certain number of behaviors that reduce those distractions."

Tom Kaneshige writes for InfoWorld US.

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