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An iPhone Reality Check

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on January 12, 2007

Apple’s announcement of the iPhone on Jan. 9 created a reality distortion field much stronger and longer lasting than normal, even for a Steve Jobs keynote. But now that things have settled down a bit, it’s clear that the iPhone faces some major challenges on the way to world domination.

Since I haven’t seen an iPhone other than in pictures, let alone use one, I’m holding off on any judgment on the insane greatness of the design. But still, some issues arise pretty much immediately:

The iPhone isn’t really a smart phone. I have a simple working definition of a smart phone. It’s a handset with an open operating system can load software of their choice without the cooperation or approval of the wireless carriers. Palm, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and, to a somewhat limited extent, BlackBerry devices qualify. The iPhone does not. As Apple vice-president Greg Joswiak told Mac World UK: “There is no opportunity right now for third-party development. Right now the opportunities are limited to the accessory market.”

The iPhone certainly isn't a computer. For one thing a computer lets me install the programs i want (see above.) In fact, we know very little about the software on the iPhone, but the claim that it runs Mac OS X is a considerable stretch: At best, it is a very attenuated version of OS X like Windows Mobile is an attenuated version of Windows. The fact that so much of its functionality depends on a version of the Safari browser is also a source of concern. Most knowledgeable Mac users have changed their browser of choice from Safari to Mozilla Firefox because of the problems caused by Safari;s very poor implementation of Javascript.

No 3G wireless.
This will be a nuisance in the U.S., but it will make the iPhone all but unsellable in Europe and Asia in its current form--the carriers simply won't accept advanced devices without a 3G radio. Apple apparently went with the slower EDGE technology because adding a 3G radio at this point would have forced them to make the phone thicker' there may also have been issues with battery life. It's not clear how soon single-chip radios will be available to let Apple add 3G capability in the current design.

10 million iPhones in a year? The reasonableness of this goal depends on context. The problem is that at least for the first six months or so, Apple will be selling only in the U.S. through Cingular (soon to be renamed AT&T Wireless.) Cingular has about 50 million customers, and maybe 5 million of them own high-end smart phones. The iPhone may be revolutionary, but just in arithmetic terms, 10 million is a staggering revolution.

What about the battery? One decision that clearly detracts from the brilliance of the design is the lack of a user-replaceable battery. This has been a problem with iPods and it will be worse with the phone. Wireless phone batteries live a tough life and it's not unusual for them to start losing their oomph after a year or so. When my Treo needs a new battery, I can replace it in seconds for $25-30; replacing an iPhone battery will run at least $100 plus it will have to be sent in for factory service. furthermore, heavy phone users don't leave home without a spare battery; a dead battery on your iPod is an annoyance while a dead battery on your phone can be a disaster. But the sealed design means a spare is not an option.

The iPhone as BlackBerry killer.
for some reason, Jobs seems to think BlackBerry fans are the iPhone's target market. Nonsense. The BlackBerry is a business device that has found very limited appeal in the consumer world. The entertainment features of the most consumer-friendly BlackBerry, the new Pearl, are , not to put too fine a point on it, pathetic. People get BlackBerrys to get mail, specifically corporate e-mail. People are going to buy iPhones to get entertainment, with mail as a bonus. The products live in almost totally disjoint worlds. The iPhone may challenge some Treo, Windows Mobile, and Symbian (mostly Nokia) products, but its hardly a threat to BlackBerry.

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Reader Comments

Ken Leebow

January 12, 2007 04:19 PM

It's nice to someone who doesn't follow Apple like a Lemming.


January 13, 2007 11:49 AM

As an engineer, I would argue it is computer because it's has OS and accepts user input. I don't think you can say yet whethercertain the iPhone will be closed off completely to third party application/widgets. The battery is an issue, but the solution can be handled by carrying a portable battery to recharge it. There are batteries available that can charge almost any device including laptops, think of it as on charger to charge them all. In some ways, this is preferable solution to carrying around multiple spare batteries. 3G network functionality probably can be turned on in the firmware; this allows the iPhone to be upgradeable when 3G is made available. Cringley thinks the Edge vs. 3G issue is about getting Cingular to make their network compatible with QuickTime. It's about control of content. Cingular distributes video/audio using Real Audio. The iPhone vs. Blackberry debate will play out in the marketplace, but the iPhone displays email in much better way then the Blackberry. Also, the iPhone displays the web better then any other handheld device on the market. The iPhone is the most revolutionary electronic device I have every seen. The UI is a real breakthrough, and the functionality will only get better with time. Kudos to Apple.

Roger Goff

January 13, 2007 10:35 PM

Steve, I always enjoy your columns and comments, but I think you missed the point this time. It's about the music. If someone can have a superior music player that is also their cell phone, mission accomplished. The rest of it is a bunch of marketing babble.

The fact that it gets email is icing on the cake, and I don't think anyone cares what kind of software it runs or if it's really a computer. All of that is completely irrelevant to the ten million folks who will buy one. They just want their tunes and their phone in one box.


January 15, 2007 09:59 AM

Steve, I very much respect your columns, but in this case I think Roger Goff nailed it. The iPhone isn't targeting the business market; it's for consumers. They just want their tunes and phone in one box, and it has the Apple style and ease of use they love. If the iPhone was available right now, I believe its sales curve would go straight up.

Joe Pemberton

January 15, 2007 09:19 PM

The other reality check for Apple is the recent performance of the iPod. With iPod sales in decline for the past 2 quarters, the iPhone is the most natural next step.

You can debate whether the iPhone is a music phone or a smartphone, one thing is clear to me: that the iPhone is the next natural progression of the iPod (where else can the iPod line go?).

Whether it will attract the smartphone market is another question, and whether it will catch on in the SMS-heavy international market is an even better question.


Music phone or Smartphone:


January 17, 2007 01:16 PM

Debating whether or not the iPhone is a smartphone/computer or not misses the point. How many people actually go out and load 3rd party software onto their phone anyway (and then use it, contently, without crashes, clunky interface, etc)? I'll bet not that many. Regardless, I think the real beauty of this phone will be it's awesome interface, design, feature-set, and seamless integration. All that outweighs the fact that there's no 3G (yet) and a built-in battery.

Let's stop taking jabs at the iPhone for the sake of it and admit that if it turns out the way it looks, it will be a killer phone. That much is clear enough.


January 18, 2007 10:03 AM

The iPhone uses a low-quality cell phone carrier. Cingular's J.D. Power customer satisfaction ratings are awful. The last time I checked, they were also poorly rated by Consumer Reports.

Sac Tinko

January 26, 2007 11:36 AM

Steve, I think you should wait to actually use the device before you review it. It's like reviewing a movie based on the trailer.


September 3, 2007 06:00 PM

Careful, your bias is showing!

Writng such a presumptive article before you've even held an iphone much less used one smacks of knee-jerk Apple bashing. The defensivness of Apple fans is often only matched by the offensiveness of Apple detractors in talking trash, in his case before any objective tests were even possible.

The iphone is *obviously* not designed to be a business tool, any objective viewing of Jobs keynote would show that. But at what it does there simply is no comparison. I never could have or would have made a post like this from any of my other mobile devices, smart or not. But I can and am doing it from my iphone!

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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