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iPhone, schmiPhone

It's pretty. It's very pretty. But it isn't going to change the world, and worse, it has an ugly parent. Not Apple, *Cingular*.

Long-time readers of this column may remember the worst customer experience of my life as a prepaid customer of AT&T Wireless. That company was, sometime last year, subsumed into Cingular, which a few weeks ago announced we had to move to new Cingular accounts. And get new phones.

You could ask why: the old phones worked on GSM. Anyway, the good news was that the company was willing to transfer any outstanding account balance, which in my case was two refill cards I'd bought ("They'll always be good") on the advice of AT&T Wireless itself as a backup in case of refill troubles. I called them in. Balance never showed up. Phoned Cingular: "Those expired." She seemed surprised it didn't occur to me they would. The "special deal": $40 for the new phone and get some of it back as a rebate. If you want any other phone, you can pay "full retail".

"Can you see any reason why I shouldn't change supplier?" I asked the customer-we-don't-give-a-fuck representative. She told me to visit a corporate store and "maybe they can do something for you."
Cingular's parents, Bellsouth and AT&T, are getting married now – pieces of the pre-1984 AT&T are melting and running together like the frozen, shattered shards of the liquid metal man in Terminator 2. This time next year, Cingular will have been renamed…AT&T Wireless.

This is the company that Americans desiring to own an Apple iPhone (if it's called that, by then, given that within 24 hours Cisco had sued over the trademark) will have to sign up with for two years at a probable minimum of $80 a month. Ick. The US has gotten the consumer protection angle of the cell phone business half right by making phone numbers portable. It needs to do the other half to really open up the market: stop this silly business of locking customers and their phones to one service provider. (It's unknown how the iPhone will be marketed in Europe, where customers have more choice about which phone they want to use with which operator.)

So many mobile phones are sold every week that you don't need much of a percentage to sell a lot of units. But watching Jobs and the other demonstrators show off the new device makes you wonder about what demographic the idesigners were aiming at. At $599 for 8Gb with that two-year contract (more expensive than some widescreen laptops), it's expensive for anybody. Scrolling through contacts is likely to be too unwieldy for power users – it's quicker to type in a couple of letters once you get above a few hundred contacts. As Jack Schofield points out, many people prefer to operate their phones one-handed, which the iPhone doesn't seem designed for.

And what about text messaging? As bad as it is typing on a number pad, doing it on a soft keyboard on a touch screen with no tactile feedback has to be worse. The phone also looks useless without a headset and insufficiently protected against the abuse most phones go through. I also really wonder how the iPhone will hold up to the stickiness and mess that gets on people's fingers – it's one thing not to have to use a stylus, another not to have the option. CNet's Declan McCullough asked this same question and was told the screen is designed to be easy to clean and relatively resistant to smudges.

But these usability questions are essentially personal quibbles. People talk about the fashion consciousness that has Europeans changing phones every 18 months to get the latest, whizziest models (a market created, incidentally, by the fact that you can move your SIM to any unlocked phone at will). But they forget: underpinning that is the fact that the underlying technology has been changing so fast, in the last ten years going from analog to digital, adding GPRS, 3G, Bluetooth, audio, colour screens, memory, storage, cameras of increasing resolution, and wi-fi. People haven't been buying new phones just because this year's color is chartreuse. If there's a part of the market that's underserved, it's the people who want their phones to be just phones with buttons big enough for their fingers to push. The iPhone is too expensive to use for only 18 months; and yet it reportedly won't allow expansion to respond to new trends such as VoIP (perhaps a consequence of partnering with Cingular).

The bigger issue is the behind-the-scenes stuff that's much harder to demonstrate dramatically. Smartphones live and die by their ability to synchronize data; one of the most appealing factors about the Palm, even now, is that you can hook a blank device to your computer and five minutes later have all the data you had on your previous device. Similarly, the real innovation in the iPod was iTunes, the biggest differentiator between the iPod and the many perfectly adequate MP3 players that preceded it. From the sounds of it, the iPhone only rethinks the gadget, not the infrastructure. It isn't going to change the world. It isn't even, sadly, going to change AT&T-Cingular-AT&T.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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I am happy to live in Europe, the mobile market situation is much better here than in the US :)
Check out this smartphone from FIC: http://openmoko.com/press/index.html It was announced long before iPhone even with its similar interface. The real innovation of this is the Free Software platform it will be running.

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