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iPhone, iPhone, iPhone

Jun 20, 2007 2:59 PM, By Paul Thurrott


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Well, at least give Apple some credit for generating an unprecedented amount of hype. Unless the upcoming iPhone smart phone is a total dud—and let's face it, that's not going to happen—Apple has achieved the holy product trinity of anticipation, lust, and—I'm guessing—short supply. Furthermore, the company has cunningly handled the pre-release months by easing out details about the product over time. Brilliant.

So, what's the deal with the iPhone? Is this the must-have device of the year, or is it just another road bump on the path toward mobile nerdvana?

Given that I don't have an iPhone in my hands—and, until recently, didn't expect to get one—I'm still a bit mixed on it overall. The product looks decent, even excellent. It has the expected Apple design touches and UI innovations. But there are some problems. Here are the concerns that I think are relevant, as I now understand them. Things might change as the iPhone's June 29 release date approaches, and of course Apple updates its products regularly, so expect even more changes down the road.

Design. The iPhone is better looking than any smart phone—period. It's also bigger and heavier than most smart phone users might prefer, so it's a mixed bag overall. And what about that touch screen? Will it scratch easily in your pocket, like an iPod? Stay tuned.

Keyboard. The iPhone doesn't include a hardware keyboard, which makes it a non-starter for the two most important smart phone markets: business users and users who regularly send text messages. I don't care how good Apple's virtual keyboard is: Without a real keyboard, there's no tactile feedback, and thus you can't type easily on it without watching the virtual keys. Apple would have been better served by providing the device with a slide-out keyboard. This is a key area in which Apple has completely misread the market, and the company is only making it worse by pretending that it has invented a new market.

Network. The iPhone will work only with AT&T's cell phone network, which has been disparagingly referred to as a "2.5G" system, compared with superior 3G systems such as the Verizon EV-VO network that I use. (On the flip side, the iPhone does natively support Wi-Fi, which will come in handy, more so in the coming months and years.) Switching mobile phone providers is expensive, and limiting the iPhone to just AT&T will make the device artificially less relevant than it could be. And if you're in Europe, you're just plain out of luck for now: Apple hasn't announced its European mobile phone service partner yet.

Compatibility. Although the iPhone will work just fine with all POP3 email accounts and will work in superior fashion with the natively designed Gmail and Yahoo Mail systems, it won't work with most corporate email systems, which—in tandem with the lack of a real keyboard—makes the iPhone a non-event in the business world.

Internet. My Motorola Q can browse the Web, and do so via its superior EV-DO network, but most Web sites aren't designed for the device's small screen, and finding sites that do work natively is difficult and frustrating. The iPhone, by contrast, offers a "true" Web experience because it has taken a desktop PC-based browser—Safari—and jammed it into a mobile device with a nice, large widescreen display. However, Safari is also an iPhone weakness because so few sites are designed for this niche browser. Why, oh why, couldn't Apple have just gone with the superior Firefox browser? That would have made this category a slam-dunk.

Battery life. Apple now claims that the iPhone gets 8 hours of battery life for phone calls, which any cell phone user will immediately peg as a ludicrous claim. However, Apple had previously claimed just 5 hours, so something positive has happened here. A user-removable battery would make all the difference in the world.

Storage. The iPhone comes with just 4GB or 8GB of storage, depending on the model, which will limit the device's ability to store your entire media collection. Movies, which should look wonderful on the iPhone's widescreen display, are particularly problematic. A typical 2-hour movie purchased from the iTunes Store weighs in at around 1.5GB. Worse still, this kind of content will rapidly sap battery life.

Availability. If you want an iPhone, be prepared for short-term disappointment. You can order the device only through certain non-franchised AT&T retail stores, Apple retail stores, and—presumably—Apple's online store. I say "presumably" because, as of this writing, you can't actually preorder an iPhone anywhere, get on a waiting list, or even learn how the sales will be handled. Obviously, you'll need to sign a two-year commitment with AT&T, standard practice in the US cell phone market. The details, alas, are lacking.

Pricing. The iPhone is expensive. Really expensive. Whereas I was able to snag my Q for just $100 (or free, after a $100 mail-in rebate), the iPhone will cost $500 or $600 depending on which model you get—in addition to whatever monthly fees you pay through AT&T. This pricing structure places the iPhone at the absolutely upper echelons of the smart phone market. When you combine this fact with the availability and functionality concerns I've noted above, you can see some reality setting in: Yes, the iPhone will be successful. It's most definitely, however, not a good buy for most phone users.

Overall, I'm intrigued by the iPhone, mostly because I'm just now transitioning from desktop-based email and personal information management (PIM) software such as Microsoft Outlook to Web-based Google services, and the iPhone's interaction with these services is top-notch. Traditional email and business users, however, will find problems with the iPhone, as will anyone who pecks away regularly on today's smart phone keyboards. This situation, I believe, is the real risk with the iPhone, although Apple could easily push into traditional smart phone territory by releasing a keyboard-equipped iPhone in the next year. For now, hype will win out over common sense, and I have no doubt that people will be lining up to get an iPhone and create lines reminiscent of those that greeted Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace several years back. Personally, I'm not going to wait in line for an iPhone. But I most certainly will be getting one. How can I resist?



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