Friday, April 19, 2024

iPhone 3G: Beyond the Distortion Field

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As I listened to, and then later watched, Steve Jobs’ keynote speech at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference 2008, I must have been caught up in the reality distortion field that Jobs is so expert at projecting. Within a matter of minutes, I went from feeling somewhat ambivalent about the iPhone 3G, Apple’s next-generation iPhone, to feeling as if this must be the apotheosis of handsets and I just had to have one.

So, am I going to be queuing up to buy an iPhone 3G on the day of the launch? No. So what was it that made me change my mind a second time? Simple, I extracted my head out of the distortion field and started to think clearly once again.

See, the thing about Steve Jobs is that he is different from most tech geeks, in that the guy oozes style, charisma and charm. And nowhere is Jobs more effective than onstage in front of thousands of hardcore Mac fans. I’m pretty sure that Steve could pull a napkin out of his pocket with the word “Apple” written on it, and people would want to know when it went on sale. What’s it down to? Hypnosis? New-age techno-religious fervor? Charm? I don’t know, all I know is that it works.

So, when I look at the iPhone 3G from outside of the reality distortion field, what do I see?

Well, I see a 3G-enabled smartphone that’s Web-enabled, has a camera, has a GPS, and is capable of serving as a portable media player. Sure, it’s smart, and sure it’s stylish, and yes, it is thin. (What is it with Apple and thinness lately, is everyone there suffering from some weird techno-anorexia or something?). But fundamentally, the iPhone is a smartphone.

What is more, the iPhone increasingly has to compete in a market where the other players (for example, Blackberry and HTC) have raised their game significantly in the last year or so. RIM (the makers of the Blackberry) has now even started targeting the consumer market with Mac-style ads making it clear that the company is shifting (or at least broadening) their emphasis to cover the same market in which the iPhone has been so popular. (Likewise, at the same time, Apple is emphasizing how the iPhone 3G is enterprise ready).

Once I was outside of the reach of the reality distortion field, I was able to see that the reasons why I didn’t like the first-generation iPhone still applied to the iPhone 3G. First off, no matter how magical or revolutionary Apple tried to make out that the iPhone is, it’s still just a smartphone.

Yes, it runs some flavor of OS X, and yes, the interface is probably one of the simplest to use (more on this in a moment), but it’s nothing unique. There are plenty of other touchscreen-based smartphones out there that can double as media players and platforms for third-party applications. Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, and to be honest, some of the features of the iPhone 3G (specifically, 3G and the GPS) should have been on the first model.

The iPhone 3G sports the same touchscreen, the same processor, the same amount of storage and the same camera as the first-generation iPhone. Looking objectively at the iPhone, it is clear that it is not its revolutionary features that sell the iPhone. Because beyond the excellent — but smudgetastic – touchscreen, revolutionary features are thin on the ground. Its aura derives purely from the fact that it is an iPod/cellphone hybrid that has been blessed by the mark of the Apple. Style over substance, as ever.

Let’s come back to the software for a moment. Apple has managed to make the iPhone interface easy to use, but that comes at a price — the sacrifice of features. The email client is still very basic, as is the calendar application. Basic features such as copy-and-paste still haven’t materialized and new features such as the GPS software seem to be far too simplistic to be of any real use.

Apple hopes that the soon-to-be opened App Store will help make up for the shortcomings of the built-in applications, but I’m not so sure that it will. If you’re going to rely on third-party software to make up for the shortfalls in the built-in firmware package, you might as well go with the Windows Mobile platform because the third-party software ecosystem is far more mature.

Then finally let’s examine that price cut. Apple’s tag line for the iPhone 3G is “Twice as fast. Half the price.” But, is this really the case? Twice as fast of course refers to the 3G network speed, which under ideal conditions is indeed twice as fast as Edge.

But what about the price? Well, an 8GB iPhone 3G costs $199, compared to the $399 price tag that the older model had. Sounds good so far. However, to coincide with the iPhone 3G launch, AT&T has added an extra $10 a month to the unlimited 3G monthly fees compared to EDGE, so over the 24 month period of the contract, that sets you back an extra $240.

$199 + $240 = $439. Half the price, indeed!That’s forty dollars more than the price of the current iPhone. (Oh, and that’s before you add the $99 per year for a MobileMe subscription.)

The iPhone seems like little more than a piggybank for you to put your money into — and Apple to take it out. Come New Year you’ll be wishing you’d waited to buy the revamped 32/64 GB version…

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