The iPhone: Steve Ballmer is Laughing, But�

Monday Jan 22nd 2007 by John Welch
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Now that the release hoopla is over, our Apple guru takes a hard look at the pros and cons of the new toy. Plus: a humble opinion about Steve Ballmer.

"The time has come," the Walrus said, "to speak of many things." With apologies to Lewis Carroll, the time has come to discuss what happened at Macworld. By this of course, I mean the iPhone. Well, there was some other stuff announced, but really, this was the iPhone Macworld.

First, I'd like to address the people who are somehow stunned or surprised that Steve only talked about the iPhone, the Apple TV and the new Airport Extreme. If, after the iPhone, you thought that he was going to talk about much of anything else, you haven't been paying attention to how Steve does Keynotes. He does focused Keynotes where each product announced is able to be in the limelight. There was no way that announcing the iPhone and talking about Leopard and iLife '07, and anything else would have allowed that.

This was the iPhone's keynote. Even from my hotel bed, where I was laid out on Tuesday with a vicious stomach flu, I realized that.

So, what's the deal with the iPhone?

Target Market

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It's not aimed where most of the smartphone market is aimed. It doesn't do Exchange or Notes (at least at the moment – the obvious caveat here is that we don't really know anything about the iPhone yet, so this is really all quite speculative). It doesn't have a big API or a push for third party. It doesn't have all kinds of things that people consider "necessary.”

It's locked down to a single carrier in the US, and it's pretty expensive. Steve Ballmer managed to literally laugh at it, so what's the deal?

First, the Exchange/Notes connectivity is a non-issue. The iPhone isn't aimed at the people who need to be tied to work on that level. It's aimed at people who want a more sophisticated phone than the standard flip or whatever they have. The price is most definitely an early-adopter tax, but unlike the Rokr, this is not a mediocre phone with iTunes tacked on.

It will have IMAP support, which means if your email provider supports IMAP and the IMAP IDLE command, you essentially get "live" synchronization with your email server. It's not Exchange, but it's not POP3 on a schedule either. The Yahoo deal strikes me as a "yeah, yeah, we got your push email too" kind of thing. But if Yahoo will do that deal, it makes me wonder about others.

I will, however, bet that when Leopard and Leopard Server are released, you'll see synchronization support for the groupware features that Apple is introducing in these products.

The third party applications issue is interesting. On the one hand, sure, we all want more toys for our gadgets. However, this is not a requirement, as the iPod shows. Still, people are used to third party applications on smartphones, so what's up with Apple not actively embracing this?

In my "real" job, I support Treos and Windows Mobile phones, and I will state, without doubt or hesitation, that just as poorly written third party software can cause problems for your Mac or Wintel box, it will cause a phone to have problems as well – to the point where it cannot function as a phone. Endless reset cycles, consumption of resources, etc.

I have phones that I have to reboot a couple of times a day due to third party software issues. So Apple wanting to avoid that is a good thing. It would really suck to find out your phone is now a brick when you need it to get a tow out of a snowstorm.

The Battery Conundrum

This brings up one of the silliest objections: that somehow, not having a removable battery will make the iPhone "impossible" to hard reset. Okay, um, no. No, it only means you won't do it by removing the battery and pushing a button. Again, we don't know how this will be accomplished, so maybe it's a little premature to say that it won’t be an impossibility. But the battery thing is a non-issue. If I can get proper life out of it, I don't need to replace it. Design the battery and your power management circuitry correctly, and the removable battery is much less of an issue.

The single-carrier thing is again, neither surprising nor an issue. The Razr was a Cingular-only toy for quite a while, and if you were an early adopter, it wasn't cheap. My PPC-6600 Windows Mobile phone from Sprint cost me as much as an iPhone, and that was with a two-year contract and a rebate. So neither the price nor the carrier is unusual.

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As far as Cingular goes, well, Apple already had a relationship with them, and there's only two GSM carriers of any size in the US: Cingular and T-Mobile. Cingular's coverage isn't perfect, but it's much bigger than T-Mobile's. So for the first couple years, in the US, it's a Cingular exclusive. Considering that Cingular has had to make changes on their end, for things like the iPhone's voicemail setup, I'm not surprised. If Cingular is going to make changes, (and folks, telcos making changes is really rare. Telcos never make changes), then they want something in return besides another handset.

Do I Want One?

As far as Ballmer laughing at it...well, he still laughs at the iPod, and his best response to that to date has been the Zune, and being Universal's puppet. Let's just say that his ability to judge the future is not real impressive from my POV.

The big question for me is, will I be getting one? Probably not. I like Sprint, they treat me well. Should that change to where I'm willing to change carriers, then yes, the iPhone would be quite interesting to me. But for now, I like where I'm at, and I'm kind of lazy.

I'll give the Apple TV and the new 802.11n the same coverage in comparison to the iPhone as everyone else, that is not much. However, I do find it interesting that the new Airport Extreme has the ability to act like a Network Attached Storage device. So you now have an Airport Extreme NAS, movie downloads, and a central point to stream those movies to and from your computer. Seems to be a decent decision to me. It also means that all those EyeTV users have a place to store shows and movies that isn't the hard drive of the Mini they're using it with.

I'd love to have more information on the access controls for the attached disk storage, but still, an 802.11n NAS that's easy to set up? Oh heck yeah I'm thinking about getting one.

The truth is, we don't know what we don't know about the iPhone yet, and when you think about how Jobs likes to do things, that's probably deliberate, as it gives him great flexibility in future announcements. So stay tuned, it's just getting interesting.

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