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Thursday, January 11, 2007

iPhone: The world's best micro-tablet ... not Phone

So by now, everyone must have been pouring in and arguing all about the iPhone device that Apple Computer released at CES(oops) Macworld. If you missed the master-presenter, Steve Job's video, you can see it here.

As I see it, the iPhone is a marvelous design. No question about it. Infact, when Steve started by saying "The Killer App is making a call !" I thought he got it right on. Consumers want good voice, easy use, reliable communication. But then as he went on to talk about Photoalbums, using two fingers to zoom in and out, and so forth, I wondered what it had to do with 'making a call'. Having said that, I thought the Random Access Voice mail feature is very nice and very useful. Ofcourse, this is a feature that is not restricted to the iPhone - I bet it will come in on all phones with even the smallest LCD - since this is really a network side feature.

How much the iPhone means to you depends on whether you consider your phone as a 'lifestyle' device or a 'communication device'. When the iPod was released, it effectively turned around the portable music player industry as we knew it. A lot of it was attributed to it's design but an equal amount of importance was attributed to its 'clickweel' tactile feedback and responsiveness.

Now don't mistake me for a 'old timer' - in my professional job, I am neck deep into mobile applications and am rather excited about the new applications that one could potentially host on the iPhone, considering its excellent video and screen size, but I do feel that the iPhone is not a revolution for the phone industry, and here is why:

a) The penetration of mobile internet usage world wide is only a small fraction of the revenues of voice calls to justify a 'communication' device needs to be better at surfing than voice calling (which means, not too many people actually surf the net with the phone. Specifically, I recently read a report which sights that in the US, mobile internet penetration is 19% while in EU it is 24% or so - I apologize, I don't have the link for this right now source). So I'll bet a vast majority of people in the world need a good phone far above a good photo album device, if they need to carry only one device in their pocket. (see this too)

b) If you look at world wide sales of mobile devices, it is interesting to note that Nokia, Samsung and pretty much most of the major players state that bulk of their revenues come from low-tech phones - no fancy LCDs, no fancy touchscreen. While they all see a rise in sales of smartphones, competition on the other hand also drives down their price. Again, these figures simply describe a global market trend across a wide spectrum of people profiles. It is not necessarily the intent of smartphones to overtake sales of 'dumb-phones', but an observation nonetheless of user trends.

b) Tactile feedback is of utmost importance. Take the case of TV remotes. All LCD remotes have been around for a great while. Yet, their sales are miniscule compared to plastic-key remote controls. Do you know why ? People don't want to keep looking at their phones all the time to do things. When I get a call, and am driving, I feel around for my 'answer' key and hit it. As I type this email, not once am I looking at the keyboard - I feel the keys and their location - and the tactile feedback makes my speed much faster. You know what has the potential to change the landscape of the phone industry and yet keep tactile feedback ? How about shape changing plastic ? But who knows when it will be ready for consumer grade use. A touch-screen LCD is a touch-screen LCD, no matter how many applications you stuff into the iPhone.

c) Multi touch sensors are really very nice. When I first saw a demo at Ted here by Jeff Han, I was very impressed. But I am not sure how great multi-touch is for such a small screen as the iPhone. People get carpal tunnel syndrome from keeping their thumb apart for the spacebar in a regular keyboard. I wonder what new syndromes will be discovered as users start using two fingers to 'squeeze' or 'expand' their browser screen :-) Yes, I saw minority report, and Tom Cruise's multi-touch sensor virtual screen was fabulous. But that was a 72 inch giant, not a little pocket screen.

d) I hate grease and smudge on my phone :-) Between calls, I keep rubbing my blackberry screen against my shirt, with my keyboard locked. Gee, the finger slide to unlock the iPhone looks easy to bumble up on, and there is so much more LCD real estate for me to smudge. I know Apple has used as smudge free a screen as possible, but 'Smudge-free' is almost like 'Wrinkle-free' - not really.

d) Again, repeating Mr. Job's first statement 'The killer app is making a voice call', I think the iPhone does not really believe that, if a battery life of 5 hours is considered.

e) Ummm, really, what happens if it falls ten times during a month on the floor. It is reality ! I keep my phone in my pocket all the time and I often bend down and out it pops with a large thud on my floor.

So all in all, for me 'my ONE communication device needs to be'
a) Foremost, an easy to use phone with great voice and clear quality
b) Should be able to withstand falls ( I don't claim to drop it from 3 storey buildings - but the usual pop out from the pocket)
c) Tactile feedback, so I don't need to always see what I am doing

I am glad that they chose to go with GSM. I know in the US, GSM's coverage is still not as good as CDMA, despite Cingular's claims, but I think it is the right direction.

So finally, to me the iPhone is a great secondary device and for those who value making a statement more than effective use, it would be a great device. And it does need to be mentioned, that Apple is not the first here - the Asian market has had innovative touch screen designs for mobile devices for a while. If you visit Korea or Japan, you will know what I mean. Of-course, they don't follow with the fabulous marketing here in the US. If you don't believe me, google for LG KE850.

Of course, the iPhone does not need to be a phone replacement to be successful. The success of the blackberry was that it offered push email and a great keyboard and scroll wheel - it's phone quality wasn't as great as traditional cell phones. I can quite see the iPhone being an immediate hit in Hollywood as well as teens with rich parents.

But I wonder, if instead of calling it a 'phone revolution' , 'micro-tablet revolution' (while also makes calls) is a more apt title ?

(Update on Sep 14 2007)

It looks like people keep re-discovering this post of the iphone. With the successful
release of the phone, and the subsequent $100 credit and $200 price drop, it is natural that people are on the lookout. Since this post,which was mostly postulating on my part, since it was authored before the iphone was released, several folks have sent me emails asking what I think now, assuming I have tried it. So here are some responses

a) Have I tried it ? Yes, many times. Kept it with me a couple of days too so I can make sure I get a good feel (you know, sometimes, irritants are just things one needs to get used to)

b) Will I buy it ? Not yet. Not because of the price - I am known to spend a lot of money on gadgets :-). But because of the following:

b.1) typing is a big pain. No tactile feedback. Typing on virtual keys is very slow (comparing to blackberry). And over a few days, I kept pressing the wrong keys. Drag-typing works, but that's really slow typing.
b.2) No corporate email integration yet (I hear they are working on it)
b.3) Audio quality is at the same level as a blackberry (which is not that great). So if it's audio was significantly better, it would be a great incentive.

c) Did any of my opinions change after using it ? Well, yes - one. The smudge part. It is very easy to smudge the iphone, but also very simple to wipe it off with any cloth. So it did not bother me as much as I thought.


  1. He announced it at MacWorld, not CES

  2. mea culpa - corrected

  3. Beautifully put.

    I would definitely say that tactile feedback is the killer feature. I am a long term blackberry user and before that the Sony P700. The Sony had touchscreen and it was awful. Sure it was cool to show off to to friends and onlookers as their jaw dropped.

    but in reality it was just a big piece of eye candy. i like a button to be a button! :)

  4. I think without a stylus or button screen and just having a touch screen for a phone operation, iPhone (i don't think they will launch with that name anyways - with motorola suit) would be tedious. Will have to see the product. But i think i liked the idea which Nokia tried with Internet tablets N700, 8000 series wifi with stylus keyboard, and use skype on it to talk - that atleast gives you a feeling and you using a device to listen to music, browsing and calling - without it being sold as a packaged - so your expectations are lower and you are more satisfied by extracting the value adds ..

  5. I just got a data plan on my mobile. I pretty much do not need my computer anymore since I do so much with my mobile phone. The neatest thing is that I can even watch naughty movies:) It is pretty neat, it's called Mobile TV. All I do is point my phone to and they have adult mobile movies in different formats like 3gp movies, symbian, pda or whatever. If you have any other cool sites, please let me know! This one, though, even has a free daily mobile movie.

  6. [...] iPhone - world’s best micro-tablet? - This post was written before the iphone was launched. Like others, I had an opinion too about what the iphone would be [...]