It is tempting to leave this site as possibly the only technology-oriented site on the web not to post anything about the Apple iPhone, but I just can’t quite resist the temptation to throw in my 2-cents worth. As tomorrow’s official release approaches and the press coverage grows more breathlessly excited, I can’t help but feel that this is one of the strangest and most puzzling major product releases I’ve ever seen.
Apple fans understandably bristle at the suggestion that their devotion seems to be directed to the brand more than the irproducts’ capabilities and value. As I see reports of people lining up for hours or even days on end to be the first to get their hands on an iPhone, though, it is hard to escape this perception of an almost cult-like devotion. If Nokia, Motorola, Palm, or pretty much any other company released a phone with this feature set and pricing, I truly doubt much attention would be paid to it, other than to note the clear disparity between the price and feature set. Since the iPhone is Apple, though, we have the mainstream press essentially going nuts over the product and members of the general public lining up for it as if they were buying tickets to a major one-night-only concert. It really makes very little sense.
From the early reviews, the iPhone looks like a pretty decent first-generation product. The user-interface looks inventive and the feature set sounds decent, although not spectacular. I strongly suspect that the iPhone would easily be one of the very best $100 phones on the market and would at least be competitive in the $200-$250 range. That overall range would put it in the company of other consumer-focused, media-centric phones, particularly those designed for slower, pre-3G data networks. The iPhone isn’t coming out in that price range, though. It is going to cost $500 for the lower-end model and $600 for the version with more storage. In addition, the phone is going to be locked to only work on AT&T’s cellular network and customers are going to be required to commit to a 2-year contract, starting at a minimum of $60/months. Requirements like this are pretty standard for heavily-discounted phones with their cost partly subsidized by the carrier, but that seems highly unlikely to be the case at the prices being charged.
Apple’s attempts to justify the high price have been laughable, and it is disheartening to see some fans echoing them. One frequently repeated official explanation has been that the price makes sense because it is roughly the same amount you would pay to purchase both an iPod and a smartphone. The big problem is that pretty much every Palm, Windows Mobile, and Symbian smartphone released over the last few years already has media playback capabilities that rival any iPod and even many low-end cell phones (in the less than $100 price range) today have music-playback.. For audio, my Palm OS Treo can play MP3, WMA (including “Plays-for-sure” DRM tracks), AAC (unprotected), OGG-Vorbis, WAV, and Audible. The only thing the iPhone will really add (besides Apple’s user-interface design) is DRM-encoded files from iTunes, but that’s at the cost of losing support for WMA and OGG-Vorbis (and possibly Audible as well). Video capability is also widely available in many current devices, although I do give the iPhone a slight potential advantage for having a screen that is above average in size and resolution. Other phones on faster 3G networks will certainly be better suited for streaming audio and video than the iPhone is likely to be.
Another excuse given for the price has been to point out that iPods were also much higher priced when they came out than they are today. The iPhone launch really isn’t comparable to the iPod launch. While neither is the first device of its kind, the iPod was entering a very immature market and was not priced substantially higher than similar devices available at the time. It certainly wasn’t priced $200 or more higher than many devices with substantially more features, as is the case with the iPhone.
Much of the coverage for the iPhone is depicting it as being completely revolutionary. Even my initial impressions from the same day coverage of Steve Jobs’ presentation introducing the phone were that most features really should only seem revolutionary to those that do not have much familiarity with current smartphones and, especially, UMPCs. This may actually be the real story here. The iPhone appears so revolutionary to many people simply because Apple is much better at getting the word out about their product than the current players in the mobile technology space. Apple has long been very successful at cultivating attention from the mainstream press and at using their loyal fanbase to spread the word.
In the long run, skillful marketing and promotion may be the one true revolution that the iPhone is going to bring to the industry. Eventually, the major shortcomings of the iPhone are going to fade into the past as prices come down and later generations add missing features and refine those that fall short. The whole industry is going to have to become better at telling the world about what their products are capable of if they truly hope to compete. Hopefully that will happen and Apple will eventually be pushed to bring the pricing and feature set of their product into a more realistic territory.