By now you probably know that yesterday Apple announced the iPhone, a combination iPod and smartphone. I for one am still in shock, since this is the first time in a long time that Apple has delivered something that makes even the rumors and mockups look bad. Let’s take a look at it. (More after the jump.)
This is actually one of the biggest surprises. Only a couple of weeks ago, Cisco announced a product that they called the iPhone, so everyone had assumed that Apple would be coming up with a different name. Apparently Apple has negotiated a deal with them to obtain the iPhone name. I guess they thought it was important enough to spend some money on. And since they appear to be trying to make another monolithic brand like “iPod” they are probably justified in this.
I think they did pretty well with the appearance of the phone. It’s simple and clean (very Apple-like) and also easily identifiable. It doesn’t look quite like any other phone out there.
The iPhone as a Phone
This is where Apple has really outdone themselves, if the demos on their web site and the keynote address are any indication. I’ve been using cell phones for a number of years and I’ve always been baffled by how terrible they are. The software is confusing and hard to use, the screens are tiny, and the text entry methods are a joke. One reason I use a Motorola RAZR now is that I gave up on ever having a phone with a truly excellent user interface and decided to settle for a phone with an excellent form factor.
The iPhone looks like it will change all that, and I can only hope that it will spur other manufacturers to examine their own offerings. Making calls should be such a simple thing, and yet so many phones make it so complicated. If you haven’t looked at the demos, I suggest that you do so and tell me that doesn’t look much better than whatever phone you’re using now. The visual voice mail (which allows you to select voice mail messages from a simple list in any order) is such a simple and natural idea that you wonder why nobody was able to do it before.
Some people are complaining about how the iPhone is only going to be available through Cingular for the foreseeable future, but I think a partnership like this was unavoidable for Apple to break into the market. They apparently had Cingular make some changes to their cellular network to support some of the advanced features of the iPhone, and this wouldn’t have been possible if, for example, they had released the iPhone unlocked. Some are also upset that it only supports EDGE and not the faster UMTS. I don’t believe UMTS is available in my area (or indeed in much of the US) so this doesn’t directly affect me, although I can see why some would want that feature in such a high-end phone.
The iPhone as an iPod
Yes, the iPhone is a fully functioning iPod, albeit one like we’ve never seen before. First of all, it has no scroll wheel. You control it entirely by touching and screen with your fingers. Rather than use a “virtual scroll wheel” as many had conjectured, it uses more straightforward gestures, and I think this was probably a good decision. The scroll wheel is much better than a normal button-based interface, but if you can touch songs and scroll through them directly, there is no reason to simulate a scroll wheel.
The iPhone is the first widescreen iPod. I’m pretty confident that this and the touch screen interface will show up in future iPod models. All I can say is, it’s about time. Having the screen be widescreen and 1″ larger than that of the video iPod will mean that widescreen TV shows and movies will appear a LOT bigger when viewed on the iPhone.
The only real issue I see with the iPhone’s iPod capabilities is that it only comes in capacities of 4 and 8GB. This is because it uses flash memory for its storage, like the iPod nano (which also tops off at 8GB). Presumably using a hard drive would have made the phone a fair amount thicker, and probably introduced other issues like shorter battery life. It’s a little disappointing that the iPhone can’t completely replace a video iPod in terms of its capacity, especially since it has the best screen of all of the iPods — it cries out to be used for video. Still, 8GB is a reasonable amount and should be enough to store a nice selection of music, movies, TV shows, and photos, if not one’s entire collection.
The iPhone as a PDA
That’s right, I said it. The iPhone is a PDA. While the iPods have had some PDA-like features for some time, the lack of any input method or networking made them information viewers and not true PDAs. The iPhone, on the other hand, not only includes the PDA-like features of the previous iPods (Calendar, address, notes, etc), it adds a much higher resolution screen, an input method in the form of an on-screen touch keyboard, and also adds things like email and web surfing.
Safari on the iPhone looks very impressive — certainly better than any cell phone browser, and also better than the PDA browsers I’ve seen. Having a browser of this caliber with you all the time is just amazing. I can still remember when the Palm VII was released about 7 years ago (also at a price point of around $600)). Its big draw was that it allowed you to access the Internet from anywhere, but it was in black and white, glacially slow and only allowed you to access sites that were specially written for it. It’s incredible how far we’ve come in such a short time. And the iPhone’s email capabilities look equally impressive. I just hope that it’ll be fast enough to allow me to view the large amount of email I have stored on my .Mac mail server.
The main concern I have with the iPhone’s PDA capabilities is that it’s not clear whether third parties will be able to develop software for it. If Apple follows the iPod model, it will only be possible to use programs developed by Apple (or directly approved by Apple, as in the case of the games sold on the iTunes Store). Opening up the iPhone to third-party developers would make it so much more useful. I hope that Apple will realize this and release a development kit specifically for the iPhone.
There’s no getting around it. $499 or $599 is a lot to pay for a phone, but that’s actually pretty fair for a phone with capabilities like this. Compare it to other smartphones and it doesn’t seem expensive at all. Still, the price will certainly make it more difficult for the iPhone to achieve mass market acceptance like the iPod. It may take a generation or two before it comes down in price enough for it to be accessible to most cell phone users. But as a start, it’s a very good one.
The Release Date
One of the biggest surprises about the iPhone announcement was that it won’t be available for several months — in June to be exact. Apple does not generally pre-announce products so far in advance. Maybe speculation about the iPhone had gotten to the point that they felt they had to make an announcement. Maybe they wanted to give people enough notice so that they wouldn’t sign a contract for another phone or provider in the meantime (this certainly worked for me — no way I’m getting another phone in the next few months). Or maybe they just wanted to make the Zune look even worse that it already did. Who knows? The hardest part will be the waiting.
The are still a lot of unanswered questions. The issue of third-party software is a big one, as is battery life, since it looks like the iPhone doesn’t have a removable battery. When you combine a media player and cell phone in one, battery life is a major issue. We also don’t know the details of the plans that Cingular will be offering for the iPhone. Hopefully we’ll get the answers to these questions sooner rather than later.