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Apple iPhone Preview

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 most certainly not going to happen --Apple has achieved the holy product trinity of anticipation, lust, and, I'm guessing, short supply. Furthermore, the company has handled the iPhone's pre-release months in a cunning fashion 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 just another road bump on the path to mobile nerdvana?

Obvious problems with the iPhone

Given that I don't have an iPhone sitting here (yet), and didn't until recently even 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 issues that I think are relevant, as I now understand them. Things may change as the iPhone's June 29 release date approach, 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 would prefer, so it's a mixed bag overall. And what about that touch screen? Will it scratch easily in your pocket, like an iPod, even with its newly-announced glass screen? Stay tuned.

Keyboard. The iPhone does not include a real hardware-based keyboard, which makes it a non-starter for the two most important smart phone markets: business users and those who regularly send text messages. It doesn't matter how good Apple's virtual keyboard is: Without a real keyboard, there is no tactile feedback, and thus you cannot type easily on it without watching the virtual keys. Apple would have been better served by providing the device with a slide-out or even an add-on keyboard. This is a key (ahem) area where Apple has completely misread the market, and the company is only making it worse by pretending that it has invented a new market, implying that the old rules simply do not apply anymore. Hogwash.

Network. The iPhone will only work with AT&T's inferior data network, which has been disparagingly referred to as a "2.5G" system, compared to superior 3G systems like the Verizon EV-DO network I happen to use. (On the flip-side, the iPhone does support Wi-Fi natively, 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 has not (yet) announced its European mobile phone service partner yet.

Compatibility. While 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 will not 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. While my Motorola Q I use can browse the Web, and do so via the superior EV-DO network, most Web sites are not 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 as 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, of course.

Storage. The iPhone comes with just 4 GB or 8 GB 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 movies purchased from the iTunes Store weighs in at around 1.5 GB. Worse still, this kind of content will rapidly sap battery life.

Availability. If you do want an iPhone, be prepared for disappointment in the short term. You can only order the device through certain non-franchised AT&T retail stores, Apple retail stores, and, presumably, Apple's online store. I say presumably because, of this writing, you can't actually pre-order 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. See below for more information. Also, consider this: If you purchase an iPhone and decide you don't want it, AT&T will charge your $175 to get out of the contract.

Pricing. The iPhone is expensive. Really expensive. While 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 places the iPhone at the absolutely upper echelons of the smart phone market. When you combine this fact with the availability and functionality issues noted above, you can see some reality setting in: Yes, the iPhone will be successful. It is most definitely, however, not a good buy for most phone users.

How to Get a iPhone at Launch

On June 29, 2007, at 6:00 pm local time in the US, eager consumers will be able to pony up at their local Apple Store or select AT&T retail outlet and purchase an Apple iPhone and associated two-year network service contract. Well, that's the theory anyway. The truth is, if you think you're going to just waltz into a store on the 29th and get Apple's latest mobile device, you've got to reset your expectations. Things just aren't that simple.

First, the stores that do carry the iPhone on the 29th will have limited supplies, so you're going to have to get there early--possibly the day before--and camp out. If this doesn't completely turn you off, remember too that not all AT&T retail stores will be carrying the iPhone. So call your local establishments ahead of time and find out whether it's worth bothering.

Another tack to take is to simply order the device online: Though the iPhone is not (yet) available even for preorder, Apple says that it will be selling it via its online store as well as at its retail stores. Presumably, Web-based orders will take weeks if not months to fulfill, so the earlier the better: Stay tuned to reliable Apple-oriented news sites like Macsurfer for information about when Web orders become available.

There are other details to attend to. If you're not an AT&T/Cingular customer, you're going to have to cancel your current wireless service in order to switch. That can be expensive, since most US-based cell phone users are on a two-year service agreement, and wireless companies will typically try to recover an amount equal to the remainder of your contract. That said, Type-A personalities will discover that they can often talk wireless company reps into lowering the buy-out cost, so be prepared to put up a fight as you've got nothing to lose. Also, you're going to have to set up an iTunes Store account if you don't already have one, as the iPhone requires this for registration. So download iTunes 7 today from Apple's Web site and get ready. (While you're there, make sure you subscribe to my podcast too.)

In the end, you'd be best served by waiting. But if you really want an iPhone at launch, you can get one. You just have to be prepared to make the appropriate sacrifices.

Final thoughts

Overall, I'm intrigued by the iPhone, mostly because I'm just now transitioning from desktop-based email and personal information management (PIM) software like Outlook to Web-based Google services, and the iPhone's interaction with these services is top-notch. Don't mistake my critical comments here as disparaging remarks. Instead, remember that traditional and tech press alike has been highly non-skeptical about Apple's latest product, which is no doubt a boon to the company but a disservice for potential customers, who should be make aware of all the facts before making a purchase decision.

With that in mind, traditional email and business users will find issues with the iPhone, as will anyone who pecks SMS messages or email regularly on today's smart phone keyboards. This, I believe, is the real risk with the iPhone, though 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" 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?

This is an updated version of the article iPhone, iPhone, iPhone, which first appeared in the June 20, 2007 issue of Connected Home Express. --Paul

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