Licensing the iPhone OS?

One of the more eye-catching products I saw at last week’s CES was Pure’s Sensia Internet and FM clock radio. It’s been available in Great Britain for several months now, but it won’t be sold here in the U.S. until the spring. What most drew my attention was its colorful and detailed touch-screen interface. All of the features of the device are accessed via this touchscreen. There are no dials or buttons that I recall. It’s as if an iPhone had been implanted in the Sensia and was running a special Sensia app. Except it was not the iPhone interface. It wasn’t even an iPhone interface imitation. It was Pure’s own original take on an touchscreen interface. In the demo I saw, it worked quite well. There’s just one problem:

I use an iPhone. I am comfortable with and experienced with its interface. I am not particularly interested in having to master a second touchscreen interface. I could do it. But I’d rather not. Unfortunately, mastering the Sensia could be just the start of a slippery slope. As touchscreens become more common, showing up in more and more devices, what if each company developed its own interface? What if you had to master a dozen different touchscreen “operating systems” for all the devices you owned? And you had to be able to remember which actions went with which device? Not fun.

From this dilemma, I see a great opportunity for Apple. What if they licensed a special “dedicated” version of the iPhone OS? What if, for example, a company could create a touchscreen alarm clock and not have to bother to reinvent the interface wheel? Instead, they could license the special iPhone OS, modifying it to be meet the specific requirements of their hardware. Boom — they have an alarm clock that looks instantly familiar to all iPhone users. There would be an iPhone-like Home screen from which all other features are accessed. There could be a Settings app, looking and feeling just like the one now on the iPhone, from which you would set the clock’s main features (such as the time zone). An Alarm app would be used to set the alarm. Another app to access the radio. And so on. Plus, all the touchscreen actions, such as pinching and swiping, would work the same as on the iPhone.

Similar to how iHome’s iA5 works, vendors could even have a matching iPhone app that remotely controlled the clock.

For the vendor, this would give the device a competitive marketing advantage, helping spur sales. For Apple, the advantage is twofold. The iPhone OS could become a de facto standard for touchscreen devices. And Apple would make money both from licensing the OS and (indirectly) via more iPhone sales.

Admittedly, there are lots of obstacles in this path. Apple has never done anything quite like this before. I wouldn’t place any bets on this happening any time soon. But it’s something to consider.

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