Where’s the iBill?

I'm crossing over to the dark side. Behold my first iPhone post - but it's not about the phone, it's about the bill.

Justine Ezarik (aka iJustine) has stirred some attention by posting a video unboxing of her first month's iPhone bill from AT&T. It shipped, as she points out, "in ... a ... box." I'll let others handle the tree-hugging, chest-thumping, save-the-environment bit. Instead, I want to tell you a story.

It all started in 1994. A young, energetic, rock-star programmer (modest, too, as it turns out) had just joined a regional long-distance phone company. His charge? To write the next generation of electronic phone bill reporting software. This phone company, you see, sold mainly to businesses, and some of the phone bills got quite large. Cases of paper, large. The electronic call records were provided to the businesses mainly so they could charge LD back to business units and/or employees. Somebody else, apparently, was assigned the responsibility of handing out little lumps of coal to the poor employees.

So the young programmer built the new system, and it was good. It ran on Windows, and it was faster than all of the competing products (it flat smoked AT&T's product, incidentally), and it let users customize the reports. The totals totalled, and the numbers balanced back to the "real" invoice, and people started to ask questions.

"Here I have in my hand a shiny new CD in its easy-to-mail envelope," they began to say, "and there on the floor, in the large cardboard cases, is the invoice. What's up with that?"

So they marched into the conference room and they deliberated. They talked about legalities and customer service. They talked about cost savings and convenience, and they questioned whether anyone who ever received phone bills in cases ever really took the paper out to read any of it. Whiteboards rattled, papers shuffled, gestures were exchanged, and when the doors opened, there was A PLAN. It went something like this:

Customers would be offered the option to receive their invoice in summary form only (cutting the cases of paper down to a few pages), and their call detail electronically. They would introduce this as an option for their largest customers, and expand as it caught on. The stalwart tree-killers couldn't be completely squashed, for they would still mail a summary, but it was a hollow victory. The writing was on the wall, and the age of electronic phone bills was nearly upon them.

That was 1994, folks.

Where are we today? The default phone bill for AT&T is full-detail, printed on paper. There is an option for an electronic bill. That's fifteen years of progress.

I don't lay all of this on AT&T, or any of the other phone companies, for that matter (I happen to know that Sprint & Verizon aren't distinguishing themselves greatly in this area, either). An awful lot of this problem stems from the fact that technology adoption is just a hell of a lot slower than we'd like to think it is.

We live in the technology fast lane. We're always-on, wireless, and connected, but lots of other people aren't. Walk into a bar in St. Louis and ask the first guy you see if he twitters. When you wake up, you'll know what I mean. We take Web 2.0 for granted, but when we make design decisions that impact users, we need to make sure we're not excluding a big hunk of user base as a result.

Back to the iBill. Who really gets the blame for this? Apple. Ol' Steve & the Apple designers. Back in that old phone company, they understood that the most visible, tangible manifestation of "product" was the phone bill. Dialtone was taken for granted - that's what it means to be a utility. The phone bill, though, was the "user interface" for the phone company.

Steve Jobs rocked the UI on the iPhone. I'm not a fanboy, but there's no denying Apple's knack for reinventing the familiar and making us all ask why it wasn't that way in the first place. Sadly, they stopped with the phone and missed the rest of the user interface.

I'm afraid to imagine what we'll have in another fifteen years.

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