Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Sunday, July 1, 2007

iPhone hype

iPhoneOn 28th June 2007, I talked on Radio New Zealand National about the hype around the launch of Apple’s iPhone. The bottom line: there are outrageous amounts of hype, it’s a great-looking phone, and I’d love one!

My notes for the programme are below, and so are the links I gave out.

Q: this iPhone is just hype, right?

A: There’s certainly a lot of hype. Apple has been drip-feeding information about it for months.

Q: but isn’t this just another cell phone?

A: Well the iPod was just another Walkman – remember Walkmans? They were massively popular and the iPod has just killed them off. Apple is positioning the iPhone as a cross between an iPod and a cellphone. And, while there are competing products to the iPod out there, there’s nothing magic about MP3 players after all, Apple’s is still the yardstick for all the others. iPods and cell phones are two gadgets which have both been wildly successful. They are also both utter necessities to teens and twenty somethings.

Q: So what is it about Apple, that their products always seem so uniquely designed?

A: They do, don’t they? That really has to be their point of difference. It goes back to one man – the Steve Jobs, the head of Apple. He was one of the two founders, but got pushed out in the late 80s. After that Apple went into a steady decline to the extent that analysts were predicting it would die. The board asked Steve Jobs to come back in the late 90s and he turned the company around. The story was that he refused salary for his first year back – well he signed on for $1, anyway, and that at the end of the year the board asked him what he would like by way of a gift in recognition. He asked for, and received, a personal corporate jet aircraft. Nice work if you can get it!

Steve is a highly charismatic individual. He appears on stage in front of audiences of the Apple faithful and performs – there’s no better word for it. He’s responsible for the drive to clean, innovative design. When Apple’s current version of its operating system came out he said that he wanted to make it look so good that people wanted to lick it. It doesn’t quite do that for me…

Q: So are you saying you think the iPhone will take off?

A: The share market obviously thinks so. Apple stock has risen thirty percent since it announced the iPhone. Apple only has to release some other detail about the phone and the price goes up a few more percentage points.

Q: So what does this phone actually do? Besides making phone calls, that is.

A: That’s not the first question to ask – first you have ask what it looks like. Like all Apple machines the iPhone is just gorgeous. It’s silver on the back but the virtually the whole front is screen. There are no obvious buttons – there are actually a couple of buttons but they are well hidden. The iPhone looks far more like an iPod than a phone, which isn’t surprising given that Apple has designed it.

It plays music and makes phone calls – but it does those things in a typically elegant Apple way. It does movies, photos, web surfing, email, YouTube and maps as well.

Q: What’s it like to use?

A: No-one outside Apple has actually got one yet so we are relying on the video Apple has released. But it seems that all the functions of the phone are controlled by touching the screen. You control this phone by stroking it.

It has a full qwerty keyboard. There are lots of phones like that, but this one paints the keyboard on the screen and you just touch the images of the keys. Critics say that’s a problem because you can’t feel where the keys are. Not being a touch-typist myself I don’t know whether that makes any difference, especially when you are dealing with a tiny keyboard.

It does lots of very cool and possibly even useful things. For instance, it is integrated with Google Maps. It will show you maps of where you are and give you driving directions to the nearest, say, sushi restaurant.

It’s also hooked to YouTube. You can watch any of the millions of YouTube video directly on the screen. And it does email and the web well.

Q: So this is all new?

A: some of its features have been around for years in the Palm Treo for example – like the way it puts all your text messages as a chat so you can see who said what to whom in what order. Or the discreet switch on the side of the phone which changes it to silent – you can just put you hand in your pocket and make your phone quiet without having to pull it out and work though menus.

But overall the iPhone looks to be something which people who like technology will find hard to resist.

Q: Last week we talked about the difference GSM, the European phone system which Vodafone uses, versus CDMA which is the one Telecom is using. Does this phone do both?

A: No, this is a GSM phone. From an American company, and being released first of all in the US – and it uses the European standard. I can’t help thinking that must have been in Telecom’s mind when it decided to change tack and build a GSM network in New Zealand. I expect virtually all new phones to be GSM only.

Q: So it’s going to be a big hit?

A: It’s a good phone, if the videos are right. But there are problems. It’s really expensive for one. About $600 in the US when sold with a call plan – it might be more like that double that as just a phone. So, landing one in New Zealand could make it a remarkably expensive phone, or even a remarkably expensive iPod come to that. Another problem is that Apple has made it hard for third parties to write software for the phone. That’s greedy of Apple, and it’s also not a great idea because it misses out on all the innovation that wide range of people writing software can produce. But the most major problem I think is that Apple hasn’t engaged all the cell phone companies – it’s just got AT&T in the States, and no-one else as far as I know.

In New Zealand people buy phones from the two networks. And it doesn’t look like Vodafone is very interested. To play music on the iPhone – which is at least half the point of it – you need an account on the iTunes Music Store. Vodafone would strongly rather sell you music using its own online music store and sees iTunes as competition.

And that’s the major drawback – not the expense, because people are used to paying a premium for Apple, or even the lack of third party software – just think of it as a phone not a computer. But the lack of support from the local networks will make it hard for New Zealanders to use iPhone even if Apple start selling it directly over the counter from its suppliers.

Q: So you think it will bomb?

A: Apple has had products bomb before. In the late 90s there was the Newton handheld, a kind of primeval Palm Pilot, which was quite a good machine but was only ever bought by the desperately geeky. It never survived a very funny Doonesbury cartoon at its expense. But, no, I think it will take off in the US. There’s far too much at stake for it not to. And it’s just such a gorgeous machine. But it will take a while – and a change of heart in the telcos – for it to make it here.

Q: So Kiwis will have to buy the iPhone in off the Net and pay whatever it costs?

A: It looks that way for now, if they really want it. But there is a glimmer of hope. There are rumours that the proposed third mobile network in New Zealand, called NZ Communications, is very close to an actual launch. That will be another GSM network providing direct competition to Vodafone and Telecom. Until now it has been trying to use a provision of the law to get Vodafone to share it network with it, but now, if the rumours are true, it has given up on that and is just building its own network. If that rumour is true it’s probably the best news for New Zealand mobile users since the arrival of the first cell phone in the late 80s. Our mobile prices are astronomical and the entry of a third player could really upset the cosy pricing policies of the two incumbents.

Q: When are you getting your iPhone, then?

A: I wish!


Apple Computer’s page about the iPhone.

Steve Jobs introducing the first Macintosh in 1984 and the iPhone in 2007.
And just so we remember…the first cell phone.

posted by colin at 9:37 pm  

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