When Steve Jobs introduced the new iPhone 4 at the recent WWDC10 Conference, he described the latest iPhone incarnation as being "… the most precise thing we've ever made. There is glass on front and the backside and it has stainless steel around it. Its closest kin is a beautiful old Leica camera." That’s a pretty heady statement from an equally heady mover and shaker. But iconic referencing aside, how true is this statement?
There’s no denying the fact Leicas and iPhones have respectively changed the way we navigate and interpret the world around us. When Oskar Barnack stripped away the bulk and sluggishness of larger-format cameras in his design of the first Leica back in 1924, he offered photographers dramatic new entree to their subjects by making it far easier to capture "decisive moments."
Similarly, the original iPhone dramatically changed the waking hours of millions of users in the form of an all-in-one social media center that you can slip into your pocket, wear on your belt, or easily tuck away when jogging, biking or maneuvering in and around war zones.
Just as Leica cameras have captured the ups and downs of human nature through times of war and peace, the iPhone in its relatively scant time on the scene has proved to be an equally powerful tool for passing along the voices, still images and video of world-changing events by pros and amateurs alike.
But when you view Leicas and iPhones as physical objects and work tools, the Leica trounces the iPhone in the legacy department despite the latter's thin, elegantly styled, scratch-proof glass and stainless steel enclosure.
The Leica M3—the earliest incarnation of today’s film-based Leica M7 and its full-frame digital counterpart, the Leica M9—was introduced in 1954. Yet despite the passage of more than five decades, the silhouettes of Leica’s current M-series cameras are nearly identical to the original M3, even though there isn’t a single part of the original Leica M that hasn’t been redesigned at least once over the years. Aside from the loss of exposure readouts and metadata transfer when using older, non-coded optics on the digital Leica M8 and M9, you can mount almost any Leica M-series lens ever made onto every Leica M ever made.
(If you care about exposure info and metadata, many early M lenses can be factory upgraded to communicate this information.)
In terms of functionality and user friendliness, both the Leica and iPhone are and remain major breakthroughs in terms of easy-to-use technologies. Indeed, if they had not been conceived and executed in an end-user friendly and intuitive form, they would have been quickly filed away, along with similarly wonky fodder by hardcore Trivial Pursuit aficionados.
Will the iPhone be as iconically recognizable 50 years from now? Based on how much technologies change—not to mention the speed at which Steve Job’s imagination seems to run—my guess is that whatever replaces iPhones down the line won’t need a case because it’ll probably be (gasp!) embedded in us.
As for future Leicas, all I can hope for is that they never lose their soul: that they remain logical, simple, intuitive-to-use cameras; and that above all, they remain easily identifiable as being Leicas.