Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave, you’ve probably heard that Apple generated excitement again at Mac World by announcing the forthcoming iPhone. According to Apple, the new device combines a mobile phone, a widescreen iPod with touch controls, and an Internet communications device for email, web browsing, maps, and searching. The phone will have no buttons but will use a touch screen display instead. As a phone, the new product will use quad-band GSM (but not 3G, at least in the US version), as well as Cingular’s EDGE network, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 2.0 with EDR for use with Apple’s Bluetooth headset. The phone will use Apple’s OS X operating system and will come in a 4GB or 8GB version, and has a camera with 2.0 megapixels.
Of course the device won’t be ready for at least another six months, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from getting excited about it. Apple aficionados and detractors alike have started the blog wars either on why everyone must own this device or why it will fail faster than you can say rotten Apple. What the market will really do will depend on the final product and how it’s rolled out, but it does bring up the question again of personal devices and what people really want.
A lot of people really want one cool device that does everything. The problem with that is that form follows function and multiple functions don’t all fit in one form. It’s a bit like designing a processor. You can put more memory on it, you can put more cores on it, you can keep the temperature below the level of reactor core meltdown but you only have so much real estate to work with. It’s like the old adage that everyone wants something cheap, fast, and feature-rich and generally you can have any two of the three at any given time. Then there are others who don’t want a multifunction device any more than they want a Swiss Army Knife as their only utensil in the kitchen. Yes, they’re useful, it’s good if you’re stranded in a forest somewhere, but it’s not really the optimal everyday choice. Give us the Apple product as an iPod only and we’ll be thrilled… but for goodness’ sake get rid of the phone, the Internet and the camera. They’re just going to eat up precious battery anyhow!
The cool thing about what Apple is doing is they’re pushing the envelope on personal devices. The problem is that we don’t know if it’s a personal entertainment device or a portable office. Perhaps this is where the crucial divide lies. Laptops work as both because they’re larger, have bigger batteries, and can handle both games and movies as well as office applications. Smaller portable devices are still fairly limited. Mobile content is an unresolved issue. With a laptop one can insert a DVD and watch a film or play a game. With a smaller device there’s not enough space to download lots of video—hence Sony’s PSP approach—and downloading taxes the battery. Putting that aside, the cost of downloading data on most mobile networks costs more than purchasing a house in many European countries. One of the reasons European prefer pay-as-you-go models with their phones is that it obviates the debt-inducing phone bill from unanticipated charges. It’s an issue many players in the industry have to solve. And even if you can download it, where do you put it? How big a hard drive can one ultimately fit in this size device? Again it’s a question of real estate.
Apple is delightful because the one thing it gets right where everyone else plays me-too-screw-up is in design. Apple makes products that you want to touch, hold, and play with. One cannot say that about many mobile phones that have hit the market in the last five years. RIM makes products that work for business people. Blackberries are used primarily by people who want email and access to business apps and they’re not a primary download target for those who want to listen to MP3s. iPods are the ongoing favorite for listening to music and to a growing degree watching video, but they aren’t for email or downloading business applications or data. We don’t believe the two should be married in one device, but we applaud the designers for trying something new nonetheless. For now, we’ll keep our business device and our entertainment device separate, thank you very much.