June 20, 2007 | Issue 43 • 25
Apple's New iPhone
Apple is set to release the much-hyped iPhone Friday, June 29. Here are some of its most highly anticipated features:
Nanotechnology enables it to reassemble itself when thrown against a wall
Exclusive link to Google Street View so you can watch yourself using your iPhone at all times
When moved from hand to ear, makes Lightsaber sound effects
Prominent Apple logo
Reproduces through asexual budding
Has way, way more PRAM than the last thingy
Comes with an iPhone hat, so people know you own an iPhone during the brief periods you're not using it
(From The Onion)
So what’s really interesting about the iPhone, at this point, isn’t the phone as much as the reactions to the phone. There may never have been a product before about which so many confident predictions of success or failure have been made before all but a few people have ever seen the damn thing in person. And there may never have been a product in consumer electronics before that’s making this big an entrance. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo wish they could have gotten this kind of buzz.
This doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of slamming going on. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber has all but been making a sport of tracking “iPhone Doubters,” most recently deconstructing a New York Times piece. The explanations for why the phone is sure to fail are predictable enough that most observers could have written half of them before the device was even announced: it’s too high-priced, it doesn’t do anything that other phones don’t already do, Apple has no experience in this market, the touch screen is a stupid idea for [pick one of a half-dozen reasons], the battery life will be terrible, the data speed is too slow. Only the wildly Apple-obsessive are going to go out and buy this when it’s first available and, well, nobody else will.
Other than the gratuitous Apple fan bashing (the psychology of that is best left for another post), most of those points are reasonable. It is a damn high price, you can get other devices (for less) that match the iPhone feature for feature or surpass it, the touch screen keyboard is a big unknown at best, and the cell data standard the iPhone uses is slow. What with all this common sense antidote to irrational iPhone hype, you’ve gotta wonder just what AT&T is thinking by telling their stores to beef up security and crowd control on June 29th. And what Sprint is thinking when they tell their staffers to expect up to 6% of their smart phone customers to abandon them immediately. What industry analysts are thinking when they write that the iPhone may capture 26% of the smart phone market. What financial analysts are thinking when they keep listing Apple’s stock as “outperform.”
Well, no, we don’t have to wonder what they’re thinking. They’re thinking the iPhone is going to be liquid money. Executives at the carriers who refused to deal with Apple are, at this moment, preparing their résumés.
So what does the iPhone actually have going for it?
Let’s look at the price a moment: $500 or $600, depending on whether the iPod is a 4G or 8G version. That is damn expensive for a smart phone, let’s face it. But think about it as an iPod alone for a moment: if you removed the phone part and just had this be a wide-screen iPod with the touch-screen UI they’ve demonstrated, you’d have a unit that Apple could probably get away with selling for $300 or more. This is arguably the best video iPod ever, not a phone that does MP3s as an afterthought. Is this $300 worth of iPod and $300 worth of phone? Before you write that off as completely irrational, ask how many people out there have spent more than $500 total on both an iPod and a smart phone already. Big number, right? That’s what Apple is betting the potential market is here, and on that point, I don’t think I’d bet against them.
But, okay. Is it really that good a smart phone, given what we know about it and what we know about smart phones on the market now? If I compare it to a Sidekick III, the iPhone seemingly gets its ass handed to it: the Sidekick has a web browser and e-mail client and SMS and camera and all those things, plus a real keyboard, plus an integrated SMS client, plus a large library of third-party applications you can get delivered to it over the air.
Of course, to actually make a phone call on the Sidekick, the process is something like: click the phone app, scroll to “look up contacts” and click, scroll down the contacts and click. In a phone call, you can mute it by, um, pressing the menu button and finding mute. I think. I’m sure there’s a way to do a conference call on it, but fuck if I know.
The takeaway point here is that the Sidekick is regarded—correctly—as having one of the good user interfaces for a smart phone. But from a usability standpoint, the iPhone kicks its ass.
I’m not going to wax rhapsodic and proclaim that the iPhone is a revolutionary reinvention of the mobile phone. The truth is, though, that a lot of consumer electronics products—car radios, video players, and definitely cell phones—have terrible human engineering. There’s little to no thought given to how self-evident a function is or how easy it is to access it relative to how often the function will be used.
And if there’s one thing that Apple is (usually) good at, it’s human engineering. The UI differentiated the iPod from its competitors; there were always MP3 players with more features, but it was just easier to use, and iTunes was easier to use library management software. At risk of linking to John Gruber again, he’s one of the people who’s gotten what the iPhone’s “killer app” is: it’s the interface, stupid.
The iPod is illustrative here. Some pundits and technophiles still don’t get why someone would “put up” with a device that has fewer features and costs more, and figure it must just be because they’re uninformed fashion-conscious sheep. In some cases, that’s probably true, and of course now the iTunes Store has the network effect going for it (which also applies to the iPhone, of course). But the idea that people might be choosing to buy iPods because they don’t want to “put up” with a device whose multitude of features are painful to use seems to be off the radar. It shouldn’t be.
So will I, your humble coyote, be in line to get an iPhone, to pony up $600 initially and $70 a month onward? (Not much more than I’m paying now, mind you, but even so.) I don’t know. I won’t say I’m not tempted, although I won’t say that I don’t have reservations, either. I trust folks who’ve actually used the iPhone, like Andy Ihnatko, who’ve said that the touch-screen keyboard works surprisingly well, but I’ve been known to hit 100 wpm on a normal keyboard and upwards of 30 wpm on a thumb board, and I just don’t see that happening without tactile feedback. (I suspect my Sidekick has also given me first stage RSI, so I’m not sure slowing me down wouldn’t have positive side effects.) I use my Sidekick a lot for IM.
And certainly not least, there’s an inherent risk in being an early adapter. A lot of the iPhone will crash and burn! articles are based on facts not in evidence or projection (“I’m not interested in an iPhone, so it can’t have that big a market”), but the million-dollar question is how well the iPhone’s been executed. The advance reviews are starting to pop up now, of course, and so far they've been pretty good, although not without criticisms.
But whether or not I’m actually in line on Friday (no, I’m not definitively ruling it out), I’m definitely going to be watching.