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The Apple iPhone (Part 1)

OK, here’s my analysis of the iPhone and why I probably won’t be buying one.

Now, everyone who knows me also knows I love Apple’s stuff usually. I have an iPod that I swear by, and I run an Apple Macbook Pro as my primary platform. I’ve always thought OSX was the best balance of functionality and flexibility in an operating system, and as such I’m very happy with it. So the argument contained herein should be interesting from the point of the person voted “Most Likely to Buy the iPhone” at work…

OK, I’ll admit it now; I kept up with the Keynote speech from Macworld this week. I was expecting an announcement about the iPhone because it seemed to make sense. The FCC will still need to certify the iPhone, and as soon as that process begins all the information is made public. As such, Apple would have to do it at Macworld in order to be the company to break the news, not the FCC.

I’ll also admit that on first blush I was impressed. The interface looked slick, and when they said that it was OSX I was quite impressed to see OSX in such a small form factor and running so well.

Even when they announced the price, I was still almost ready to buy because I am a firm believer in smartphones (my cellphone is a Motorola MPX220 that I think is fantastic), and in the release timeframe both my phone and my iPod will be reaching the point where replacement is not out of the question. The price, while high for a dumb phone is actually in the range for a smartphone. My MPX220 cost me $440 brand new (because I don’t DO contracts), and my 4Gb iPod Nano cost me $199. That’s more than the 8Gb iPhone, so right there it almost made sense for me to look at this as an option.

Then came blow 1; the price was with a 2 year contract with Cingular. Now, I’m with Cingular today so that wouldn’t have been such a big deal for me. It was a bit of a letdown because it became clear quickly that the contract dropped the price by at least $250, so to buy the 8Gb iPhone retail would probably be $850 or thereabouts. That’s getting into ridiculous territory for me, but even then I found myself thinking I could probably still justify it if the device itself was useful enough. A letdown, but not out of the water yet.

Blow 2. The partnerships that were announced with Yahoo! and Google seemed cool. There’s been plenty of rumor-mongering around a Google phone device, so this is probably the source of those rumors. Nice, and the Google Maps stuff is really cool. HOWEVER, after thinking things through I started to wonder; with these partnerships what are the odds that Apple is going to actually allow arbitrary email servers instead of just relying on Yahoo!’s or Google’s? If these partnerships exist, then Apple is quite likely to force you in that direction by nature of the partnership. As much as I like my Google and Yahoo! email accounts, I have no need to check them near as frequently as my own email address that is hosted on a completely independently owned and operated server. I understand the need for partnerships in order to have support on the Internet for the device day 1, but in all probability you’re going to be tied to those services. Plus, both of these companies rely on ad revenue to survive… that means my cellphone will now receive advertisements. Hmm… that’s something I don’t enjoy so much and shakes my faith a little in the iPhone platform. I am not sure I want to pay for my data plan just to provide a pipe over which ads can be delivered to me, do you?

The Final Blow. All of the above could have been excused if the iPhone had been an open platform. This to me is the most egregious error being made by Apple in the targeting of this device. It’s cool, it has great hardware and interesting operating system. It definitely provides a slick interface to the phone that really does promise to change the way we look at cellphones. But is that really enough?

My feeling is no. The interface while slick will become arduous and wearing. While I believe the interface is simple and logical enough that it will impact interface design across the entire next generation of cellphones, the “eye candy” aspect will grow tiresome really quickly. It’s like all those eye candy effects in Windows XP that I disabled almost immediately when I installed it so many years ago. The only useful use of eye candy to my mind is OSX’s expose, but that’s something that needs a big screen to really work properly.

Steve Jobs announced last week that the iPhone will not be open to third-party developers. To me this is the final nail in the coffin; I will not be buying an iPhone. To me, a smartphone is a device that will allow you to install arbitrary software as well as do all the functions we have come to expect from our cellphones; calendar, contacts, to-do lists and so forth. My MPX-220 has several applications installed that I use daily. I have my eBook reader with whole libraries of books stored on a 256Mb flash card so I can read when I’m at lunch or out at a coffee shop. It’s also got a world-clock, world-weather and traveling companion software that I use every time I go out of town (and when I’m just curious about the weather in London). These are third-party apps installed on my phone, and I love them. There are also the 3P apps that provide functionality that Microsoft forgot (the MPX-220 is a Windows Mobile device); like a notepad so I can have quick notes stored in an easily retrieved form on my phone. Very handy sometimes.

I am also a third-party developer. I have worked as an independent consultant for companies who have asked for phone-based front ends for their own applications, or even full apps for phones. I have written these for Windows Mobile because ironically Microsoft provides a great and pretty open development API and allows the installation of these arbitrary apps. One company here in St. Louis has an entire sales force who carry around WM cellphones with an application installed for call management, voice notes and all kinds of other functions synced with a central database. This is a third-part application.

Finally, I also have ideas for applications that I want to write for the next generation smartphones. My idea is simple, but hasn’t been done yet and has the potential to really sell well and be used daily. I was just waiting for the platforms to catch up with my idea, and waiting for the networks to be capable. Now even with 2.5G networks, and the upcoming 3G networks the connectivity is there to make these work well. The platforms have already been there (my phone has a beta idea on it right now that works fantastically well but needs work to be released). I think my software will make people look differently at cellphones, but if I can’t port it to the iPhone then I guess that functionality will have to be written by Apple if my idea succeeds. Of course, I can license it to them, too… but that’s not the point.

What do I want from a smartphone? Well, it should be obvious. I want an open, extensible platform that allows you to expand on the functionality and customize the phone to the way you like to work. The MPX-220 is not perfect, it never was… but it provided all of this even with its warts. It’s aging now, but is still very reliable and works just fine for me. Ironically, it now appears that Apple is producing a phone that has all the hallmarks of a smartphone, but lacking the extensibility that is actually paramount to my buying decisions.

I can’t in all good conscience buy something that’s a closed development platform. Hell, one of the reasons I bought a Mac is because OSX has incredible developer support. They even provide all the development documentation, APIs and toolkits for free. Microsoft charges for theirs. I had hoped they would do the same with the iPhone, but it looks like I will be disappointed.

Sorry, Apple. I am as much of an Apple fan as anyone. Hell, I use iTunes Music Store to buy music… I haven’t been to a music store in years. But the iPhone is no better nor more functional than the Motorola SLVR L7 that I bought my wife for Christmas. Sure, the interface is slick and it has a decent amount of storage, but what does it do that the SLVR does not? Hold more songs? Woohoo. She doesn’t use it for that anyway, and 100 songs is more than enough when you can switch out your playlists every time you sync. You’re selling a dumb phone for a smartphone price, and not allowing any third party development. Sorry, that’s short-sighted and in my opinion is doomed to failure.

I, for one will not be buying an iPhone when there are better alternatives available for less money.

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