Jonathan Takiff | Apple iPhone about to debut: Should you bite?

Posted: June 27, 2007

THE GIZMO: Never before has a consumer-electronics product been as hyped, analyzed and anticipated as the Apple iPhone - the first combination iPod, mobile phone and Internet communications device rolled into one sleek and tidy package.

When the product goes on sale at AT&T and Apple stores this Friday at 6 p.m., hordes of Apple fanboys (and girls) will surely be lined up to buy them. But should you be emptying your bank account and switching carriers to acquire one? Let's investigate.

NOBODY'S EVER DONE THIS BEFORE: The most obvious visual and functional difference between the iPhone and other multimedia communications/entertainment products is the lack of a conventional keyboard.

Most operations are carried out on a touch-sensitive 3.5-inch color screen that covers almost the entire face of the device. The display is graphically transformed to the task at hand - be it skimming your finger down a list of phone callers who've left messages, checking the weather forecast, or viewing a streamed YouTube video (more than 10,000 will be available for perusal, at launch.)

The most impressive feature of the iPhone is its uncommon inclusion of high speed Wi-Fi Internet connectivity, in addition to phone and Internet access via AT&T's Edge network. This combination (and Bluetooth, too) will allow the device to "multi-task" in Wi-Fi hot spots like no other smart phone ever has, said Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group, tech analysts with long and deep connections to Apple.

"Say you're in a strange town and decide you want to eat lobster. You can do a Google or Yahoo search on the iPhone that finds the closest restaurant that features it and brings up a map to plot the location, then have the phone automatically call the place to make a reservation, all in just a second or two with just a couple of screen taps."

BUT NOBODY'S EVER DONE THIS BEFORE: Apple has had two years to fine-tune the OS-X-based operating system and Safari browser to run the iPhone show. But we hear that the firmware is still being tweaked on a daily basis.

So, will programs clash and crash when, say, you're listening to a tune and get a sudden urge to snap a picture with the built-in two-megapixel camera, and then try to e-mail the captured image to a friend while a phone call is coming in?

Also, will the Apple product survive repeated drops, as almost all mobile phones endure? Or will it be more, ahem, sensitive, as some iPods have proven to be. (At least there's no delicate disk drive in the iPhone. Music, video, etc., all get stored on solid-state flash memory.)

Just a couple weeks ago, Apple announced it was making a last-minute switch from a plastic to a more scratch-resistent, tempered-glass face plate. Also fresh out of the gate is Apple's Multi-Touch technology, which lets users perform cute tricks such as swiping across the screen to turn on the device, or "pinching" fingers together or apart to zoom in on a portion of a photo or Web page. Multi-Touch also is wise enough to sense (and shut off) the screen when you lift the phone to your face.

The relatively large display accommodates four-finger typing, said Doherty, better than the typical two-thumb tedium of other smart phones. But how easy will it be to enter text on that flat-glass surface? When you tap a letter or number, the character will momentarily enlarge to show it's been entered. And the built-in spell checker/word predictor will fix errors and finish words for you, Apple promises.

But without any tactile sensation to these keys, you won't be able to "feel" your way across the keyboard. Just skipping back and forth through iTunes-loaded music tracks will require a glance at the screen - until Apple or some third party comes up with a plug-in remote control.

WHO'S GONNA BUY THIS?: Out of the gate, the iPhone won't be compatible with Blackberry, Windows Media or Palm-based corporate e-mail services. And the resident IT guys that deploy those devices are discouraging employees from attempting technical "work-arounds." Their fear is that the iPhones will pick up viruses and corrupt a company's computer system.

SERVING A DIFFERENT MARKET: Apple chief Steve Jobs sees the iPhone as more of a hip, "everyman" product, anyway - a multimedia pleasure chest for the same cool, multitasking set that's been clamoring for the iPod since 2001. Jobs predicts he'll move 10 million iPhones in its first year.

But the price of the iPhone - $499 for the model with 4GB of flash memory, $599 for the 8GB version - puts it in the same lofty territory as Sony's high-tech, multimedia PlayStation 3 game system, which enjoyed a brief spurt of passionate buying among early adopters, but has not really hit home with the youthful masses in the way that, say, the $250 Nintendo Wii has. Surely Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile are making the same mental analogy, as they plan their next competitive offerings.

Also, you better believe that AT&T - Apple's exclusive (for five years) iPhone marketing and service partner - is going to demand a significant chunk of change (say, $60 to $100 every month) to make this communicator run through all its tricks.

APPLE INSIDER: A tech-industry exec who used to work at Apple reminded me that, "It's conventional wisdom you should never buy a first-generation Apple product." He also said that "the second- and third-generation iPhones are already being prepped for release, respectively, just before Thanksgiving and then at MacWorld in January."

Richard Doherty speculates that Apple could quickly cut the cost of an iPhone to $350 by "eliminating the Wi-Fi." He suggests that models in the near future will feature larger, four-inch screens and AT&T's current, sluggish, 2.5G (generation) transmission technology will be upgraded to a more-robust 3G standard. He also notes that Apple has a history of rapidly increasing a device's memory. "With the iPod it's been 50 percent a year."

Given that a single feature-length film download from iTunes occupies about 1 GB of memory, a movie buff's first-gen iPhone could get clogged fast. One way around that - not yet announced but likely coming - would be for Apple to offer a variation of its .mac head-end data locker service. "You could keep 10 gigs worth of music stored in their server, and then tell the system to download, say, a specific 2 gigs' worth for the weekend - different music than you'd like to hear during the week," said Doherty. "Apple has lots of cute tricks up its sleeve like that one, that's going to make this product very desirable and hard for competitors to match." *

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