iPhone Updates

Wow, what a week. I've had to bring work home again (despite my better judgement and, to some extent, my health), I have a Mandarin test coming up (guess who hasn't had time to study), and Steve unleashed pandemonium upon us all under the guise of the iPhone.

Which reminds me, I've re-arranged the iPhone page (moving most of the content into a "previously..." node) and added some of the interesting pieces I've managed to read so far.

After my immediate thoughts, I've had the opportunity to wade through the hundreds of RSS items that the Macworld keynote spawned, and boy, do I need to re-think the way I've been keeping track of iPhone rumors...

Incidentally, my Bayesian RSS classifier was able to handle the load just fine (which is more than what I can say about PhpWiki, since my being the fourth or fifth Google result for "iPhone" prior to the announcement nearly tore the site to shreds...

Anyway, after filtering out the gibberish and pie-in-the-sky foolishness and picking the odd little nuggets of real information, I have come to a few conclusions that I'm jotting down as iDVD churns away at the Macworld keynote video (this one I want to keep in DVD format - I wish Apple published older keynotes as well).

The first conclusion is, in retrospect, obvious: There are two faces to the iPhone coin - and, as someone whose work revolves around mobile networks, I am of two minds about the thing.

Last Tuesday I gave you my "average Mac Joe User" view on it, and it still stands: The thing (regardless of what its actual success will turn out to be) will redefine people's expectations of how "smart" phones should work.

Note that I don't use the "smartphone" moniker. I have never liked it much, not with the mess that manufacturers have made of it.

But there is another angle, and one I intend to muse about publicly on the off-chance that, sooner or later, I will be barred from doing so.

Conspiracy theorists are welcome to have a field day at my expense, and waste it musing on any hidden meanings to the above. I'm just being careful and thinking ahead, just as every other time that my hobbies crossed over into my working life.

It's Not About Security, It's About Control

The way I see it, Apple intends to have full control of the iPhone user experience, period - just like they did with the iPod.

Steve's oft-quoted statement that they intend to control what runs on the device is a major hint, for sure, but it's a bit extreme -

You don’t want your phone to be an open platform. (...) You need it to work when you need it to work. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up.

Ignoring for the moment the fact that applications running on mobile phones cannot (in any sensible way) make an entire network go down (regardless of technology), the interesting thing, for me, is that he is flying in the face of industry-spanning efforts at delivering open mobile environments where third-party applications can flourish.

Symbian and J2ME are two such examples, and Windows Mobile is another (less "open" in the sense that it's effectively single-sourced) that's becoming very popular for business-oriented vertical applications.

This last bit is sad but true. There is now a veritable invasion of poorly-coded Pocket PC applications written by people who can barely understand Internet connectivity and protocols, and endeavor to squeeze glorified SAP front-ends with Windows-like UIs into 240x320 screens. Such is life.

But going back to my first point regarding this, there is one thing in common about all those environments: There is absolutely no risk for the operator's network from applications. Sure, an application can try to use as much bandwidth as possible, but the lower-level protocols that perform the actual network access are all locked away in silicon, and although some application bugs can cause service degradation, they will only do so for the single user involved - it is extremely difficult to damage a mobile network with a mobile device, and the last recorded case I heard of happened during radio protocol trials with buggy hardware.

Incidentally, the foolish notions hopping around that the iPhone might have 3G via a software upgrade just because there are software-controlled radio modules are just that, completely foolish notions. Software control is used to make devices more flexible for a set of radio modes, but by no means to that extent. This ain't the Wi-Fi Wild West, folks.

On Freedom Of Choice

Now, those thriving ecosystems I mention above are one of the reasons operators and developers like open platforms. Or, rather, industry-standard platforms that enable mobile portals to hold burgeoning catalogues of content and applications that can then be downloaded to your mobile for a fee.

Content downloads (be they ringtones, wallpapers or games) are big business, and one of the main reasons operators hold on to walled gardens. The revenue sharing models and the way to enforce them vary, but the basic idea is that current business practices rely on their working the way they do now.

And, as an extension, mobile phones are extensively customized to take the best advantage of existing walled gardens. Out of the box, your average post-2004 mobile phone comes with:

  • Extensive subsidizing (that's why phones are cheap).
  • A SIM or network lock (to ensure that you'll stick to your contract terms, and hence make the subsidizing viable).
  • A set of GPRS, WAP and application (mail, etc.) profiles tied to the carrier network, including home page, voicemail, SMS and other settings (none of which are trivial to set up on unlocked devices).
  • A set of DRM keys, certificates and policies to ensure ringtones and the like are only used by whomever paid for them.
  • And, increasingly, featured applications or content - which are starting to represent a sizable percentage of the subsidized amount.

And, again, every one of those is a possible contention point between the operator, the handset manufacturer, and the developers.

The best example of the above are J2ME applications. Although J2ME is turning out to be somewhat of a Pandora's box (with the likes of Opera Mini and Yahoo Go sneaking on to devices), games are a thriving part of the mobile business, and one that Apple is spurning - I merely single it out because it involves developing stuff to run on phones (ringtones and wallpapers are trivial, except for the DRM angle).

Now, the only valid reason to miss out on the existing economic model, as far as I can see, is that Apple intends to retain full control of both the device and the ecosystem behind it.

Their likely problem (other than hubris, of course) is drawing the line between their control of the device and third parties (if any).

But that does not seem to be happening any time soon, and, as far as I know (and this is something I haven't seen the developers crying out for iPhone support mention yet), Apple hasn't really opened up the iPod gaming platform to third-parties.

And people should really take a hint from that fact.

The Wiicade Angle

I thought it particularly telling that the built-in Safari browser doesn't support either Java or Flash, any of which would be a viable way of delivering client-side applications to an iPhone.

I have a feeling that Steve was entirely too aware of the possibilities that entailed, and had both runtimes slashed from the device. Otherwise, they would find themselves in the awkward position of (like Nintendo's Wii) having a bunch of third-parties riding in through the browser.

If you think this is an unlikely angle, consider that Apple has always liked exclusive applications - since the dawn of time. They don't really like their platforms being "me toos" when it comes to running flagship applications (in any field), won't port their stuff to other platforms, and their only real concession so far has been iTunes (and Quicktime), since it helps sell iPods.

Update: There is some controversy around this, since Steve apparently disparaged Java publicly and (again, apparently) some Apple people were quoted as saying it would support Flash. Only time will tell.

The Direct Comparison Angle

I've been having a number of discussions regarding the iPhone and how it compares to existing smartphones and devices like the N800, and they ultimately devolve into feature comparisons.

This is, in the end, pointless, since most people will focus on what they want from a mobile phone, and, in all fairness, the people doing that sort of comparison arent't representative of what "normal" people expect from a phone.

Still, it bears reminding that Apple's iPhone is not your average "smartphone". It is surely "smart", but just as iLife was touted as "like Office for the rest of your life", I expect the iPhone to be marketed as the "smart" phone for those people who are fed up with "normal" smartphones.

Again, there are plenty of phones with mapping, mobile e-mail, decent browsing abilities (probably more so than most people realize) and many of the iPhone's other individual features, plus 3G, HSDPA and a cherry on top.

That won't stop Apple from selling these, or (most importantly), to lead the (rather disorganized and unoriginal) pack, just like they did with the iPod.

As always, less is more: less features and better implementation turn out to mean much more to the average person, and today's MP3 player market owes more to Apple than most people would like to acknowledge.

It seems likely that we'll see a lot of rationalization (feature-wise) of existing "smartphones" to emphasise the "smart" bit and deliver less features with better execution.

The Wi-Fi Angle

I had to laugh when I reached the end of this otherwise well-thought-out piece, in which the author (from an obviously US-centric view) tries to jump to the conclusion that Apple can "force Wi-Fi adoption".

Europe has been bathed in a 3G signal for a couple of years now, and sales of HSDPA data cards have been regularly going through the roof. Wi-Fi hotspots do exist, of course, but our rates are cheap enough to make them rather pointless for truly mobile users.

And even if the iPhone ever gets 3G, I fully expect Apple to continue selling music via iTunes and force people to download music to the iPhone via USB, because that's how they have the most control. Not to mention that anything else would mean people would incur in data charges - and deplete their batteries.

Cisco's Own iPhone

Much is still being written regarding trademark issues, and all I think that needs saying is this: the iTV was announced with one name, and will be launched under another. Apple doesn't really have to fight it out with Cisco - and it may well turn out that they simply decided to ride the rumor hype and will change the name to something else later.

Like everything else about the iPhone, it's a matter of Common Sense. And waiting.

Lots and lots of waiting, until the real facts rise above the quagmire of idle speculation...