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If you're dreaming of a mobile phone that downloads and shares music, carries your files, and makes movies, why not put all your Apples in one basket
Let me go out on a limb here and say that Apple Computer will probably not launch a wireless phone of any kind early next year.
Clearly all the signs are pointing to an early January launch of an iPod/wireless phone hybrid the next time Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs takes the stage for another of his keynote addresses at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
Assuming it actually happens this time, such a product release will close what must by now hold some kind of record for longest-lived Apple product rumor.
Some new interesting suggestions of features have emerged of late, and from the oddest of places. I don't know who at Apple counts Digg.com founder Kevin Rose—yes, the same Kevin Rose who graced our cover in August (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/14/06, "Valley Boys")—among his or her drinking buddies, but I'm certain they regret it now.
No Morning After
Rose, in case you missed it, got a little blotto on his regular Diggnation video podcast. In an expletive-laden chat wherein a similarly beered-up Alex Halbrecht egged him on, Rose proceeded to spill details about the forthcoming iPhone that he alleged to know, all the while saying he should not be saying anything and wishing he could call or instant-message the person who told him.
It certainly could have been a stunt intended to attract attention for Diggnation. Once his head started throbbing, better judgment might have prevailed, and were he truly worried about spilling some Apple secrets to which he had become privy, he might have held back on publishing the podcast. For whatever reason, he wasn't concerned, and we'll know if anything he said was correct sometime in January.
Rose described the iPhone device as "small as **it." He then said it would launch with "all" the wireless phone service providers, which essentially underlined a rumor that had emerged previously that Apple would launch the phone without the benefit of any particular service provider.
This, of course, would add a level of complexity to the launch, as essentially two versions of the phone would have to be manufactured, one for the CDMA-based networks operated by Verizon Wireless (VZ), Vodafone (VOD), and Sprint Nextel (S), and another for the GSM-based networks run by T-Mobile, a unit of Deutsche Telekom (DT), and Cingular Wireless, a joint venture of AT&T (T) and BellSouth (BLS).
About its design, Rose "confirmed" that the unit will possess some kind of slide-out keypad, a point of much speculation. The most interesting detail he discussed, and one which I hadn't heard before, was that the unit will have two batteries, one devoted to the phone functions, the other to the music and media-related functions. Additionally, it will sell in two storage capacities, four gigabytes and eight gigabytes. The smaller will sell for $249, the larger for $449.
So while there has been a great deal of speculation about whether and when Jobs will unveil this phone, there has been only scattered discussion about what—besides making phone calls and playing music—the phone might actually do.
Tools We Never Use
And while today's generation of mobile-phone devices can certainly do a great deal, they rarely do many of these things well. And here's where Apple tends to shine: translating inherently complex technical capabilities into a simple design, and creating a pleasant consumer experience around them.
Today's mobile phones can track your schedule, maintain your address book, take and send pictures and videos, and scores of other things. But how often do you actually use those features? Not often enough for the wireless service providers who are constantly struggling to find ways to boost data usage among their users.
If any company in the world can create an "experience" around sharing photos wirelessly, for example, Apple can. Here's some other thoughts for things the phone might do, and how it might extend the Apple brand beyond the Mac and the iPod. Some of these ideas may have already been the subject of public speculation, some may not.
Music Downloads: Wireless music downloads are of course an easy feature to expect, but there are also reasons to suspect the phone might not support over-the-air music purchases. Wireless service providers want their customers to spend more time downloading stuff to their phone, and music could make that happen. But most users, I suspect, will simply "side load" their music from their Mac or PC directly to the device.
A wireless download option would necessarily have to cost more per song, say $1.50 each, because the service provider would have to get a piece of the revenue action. A simple mobile-only version of the iTunes store reachable from any wireless provider might be the answer, but somehow, I think it might also be off the table. Jobs has shown himself unwilling to move away from the 99-cent per download price that has set the benchmark for the industry.
Sharing Music: Jobs has publicly dismissed device-to-device music sharing, which has been implemented on Microsoft's (MSFT) Zune player. You're better off sharing an earbud with your pal than navigating all the steps required to send a song from your Zune to your friend's, he opined. But often, after Jobs dismisses a feature, he turns around and appropriates it—and often improves upon it. Remember how he dismissed portable video mere months before the video iPod appeared?
Apple already has a better model for sharing songs, and indeed, an entire iTunes music library over a local network connection. It's one of the benefits of Apple's Bonjour networking technology. Two computers on a network can, with sharing enabled, see each other's iTunes libraries, but they can't copy those songs from each other.
A mini version of Bonjour that allows two phones to share a song with certain limitations when they're in close proximity to each other would be kind of cool. And, tell me I'm wrong, but I think it could be done via Bluetooth.
iTunes Ringtones: I don't care all that much about ring tones. Give me a tone that sounds like a phone, and I'm fine. But other people do, and it seems to me that easy creation of ringtones from the iTunes playlist should be an obvious feature. And while we're at it, how about hold music? It may be a bit of a stretch, but wouldn't it be cool if you could pick a song from your phone to act as the music someone hears when they're on hold during call-waiting?
Portable iApps: The phone should sync not only with iTunes but, for Mac users, iPhoto, iCal, Address Book, and Mail, thus making photos, calendars, and e-mail and contact lists routinely portable. This has been a weak spot on the Mac landscape for some time. Unless you're using a Palm (PALM) Treo, or a wireless phone compatible with iSync, there are a lot of hoops to jump through to make your data portable from a Mac.
I happen to use a Research In Motion (RIMM) Blackberry, and have intermittently used a third-party software application to synchronize the data on my Mac with the Blackberry, but I do it only rarely, as the sync operations rarely work correctly. Finally, Apple could do this right.
Photos and Video: Will it have a camera? It had better, since practically all wireless phones do these days, thanks to cheap CMOS sensors from companies like Micron Technology (MU). And there's no earthly reason why that camera shouldn't be able to shoot short video clips that can be imported into iMovie.
Indeed, integrated iSight cameras are now so small they can be built into the display frame of a MacBook or MacBook Pro notebook. Some rumors have said the screen on the phone is "breathtaking." If true, it tells me that the phone will by definition be video-ready, in every sense of the word, both for watching and for creating.
Some rumors emerged a while back about video-chat capabilities. I wonder about this. Video chat is a marquis feature of Apple's iChat software on the Mac. It sure would be cool if this phone could do video chat, but imagine the cost to battery life. Still, I'm sure it could be done.
And while we're on the subject of power, one would hope that replacement batteries would be easy to swap in and out on the fly. And they should be readily available for a reasonable price, and easily charged in some kind of dock.
Super Headphones: Like any wireless phone worth its salt, the iPhone almost certainly will support a Bluetooth headset. A headset that doubles as headphones is nothing technically new. I've tried a few from companies like Plantronics (PLT), Belkin, and others, but none impressed me all that much. If Apple can get this formula right, the white cords that were the trademark status symbol of iPod owners could disappear entirely.
And the very same headset should pair easily via Bluetooth with a Mac or PC, thus making it useful for audio and video iChat or other chat programs, making VOIP calls via Skype (EBAY) or the Gizmo Project, listening to iTunes from the computer, gaming, or whatever else it might be called upon to do. When out of range of the computer, the headset would switch automatically back to its pairing with the phone.
Data Storage: And there's no earthly reason why this phone, which will supposedly store music and media on flash memory chips, shouldn't have the same "disk mode" option the iPod does. The iPod is not only a music player, but it's a great data storage device. I've used it to take files home from work. When connected to a Mac or PC, the phone should appear either on the Mac desktop or within the Windows finder as an external hard drive, just like a keychain drive.
This would make it easy to back up a disk image of all the important data stored on the phone for that inevitable day when you lose your phone and have to replace it. This backup of the phone data should take place automatically, every time you connect the phone to the Mac or PC. Lose one, and the replacement should load the data from the old one, so that it works as if you never lost it.
And it should not only be chock full of fun features, but it should also help me get things done. All that flash memory should be as accessible as on a USB keychain drive, meaning that if I want to fill some of it full of Microsoft Word files and spread sheets to take home from the office, I should be able to do that.
And it shouldn't matter one bit if the machine at the office runs Windows, and the machine at home is a Mac. And in the event that I lose the phone on the way home, those files should be encrypted, just like they are on recent Macs that support FileVault.
Awesome Opportunities: Finally, it should be readily able for creative software developers to do what they do best: develop awesome applications. Apple should let developers create their own mini applications on the iPhone the way they do on the Mac. Apple developers are constantly devising fascinating little hacks that always make the day-to-day scut work of personal computing more interesting.
Basically I'm looking for Apple to fulfill all those many unfulfilled promises that the wireless phone manufacturers like Motorola (MOT) and Nokia (NOK), Samsung and Sony Ericsson (SNE) (ERICY) have failed to deliver. Because if not Apple, then who?