Mike Elgan asks some very good questions about the iPhone in his opinion piece for Computerworld (one of our IDG sister publications). I can’t answer them all, but the day after Steve Jobs’ iPhone demo my colleague Eric Dahl and I got a chance to play with a prototype and pose some of the same questions Elgan had to Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of worldwide iPod marketing. Here’s the scoop, as I see it:
1. The iPhone looks as striking up close as it did from afar during Jobs’ demo. The quality of the display is terrific, the lines are clean and simple, and the skinny profile impressive. The phone was a little warm when I touched it, but not alarmingly so.
2. The touchscreen technology worked, but not as perfectly as it did in the demo, at least in my brief experiment with the prototype. In particular, I had real problems with the software keyboard: My thumb-typing was consistently hitting keys adjacent to the ones I targeted. The iPhone has auto-correcting text entry technology that’s supposed to figure out what word you were trying to enter, but there’s a limit to its second-guessing skills after you’ve entered three or four incorrect characters in a row. Joswiak kept telling me to stop trying to backtrack and correct the typos (“Have faith,” he said repeatedly), but it just wasn’t working for me.
In fairness, however, I was impressed by the finger-swipe scrolling. And the pinching technology, which zooms in on an area of a Web page or other graphic that you identify by literally pinching the display, is truly amazing.
3. You probably won’t be able to get an iPhone anytime soon without committing to a two-year Cingular contract: Joswiak didn’t say how long Cingular will have exclusivity, but if you want this phone close to launch you will have to pay $584 (for the model with 4GB of storage) and $700 (for 8GB) and commit to both voice and data services that right now cost a minimum of $93 a month. If you recently locked yourself in to another carrier, you’ll have to resign yourself to paying an early termination fee.
Joswiak said that by announcing the iPhone six months before it ships, Apple at least had given people early warning so they can plan their phone purchases accordingly. I might, for example, hang on to my Cingular Treo 650 longer than I’d planned to wait for the iPhone — my contract ends next month.
4. Elgan wonders about what it means to say the iPhone runs OS X, and I do too. What it doesn’t mean, apparently, is that developers are free to create iPhone apps the same way they can create Palm OS or Windows Mobile apps. The iPhone is not an open platform, Joswiak says: Apple will maintain control over what you can run on the device. And we didn’t hear anything about productivity apps for the iPhone, which suggests this isn’t a business device. (No big surprise here since a lot of what make the iPhone so appealing is its capabilities as an entertainment gadget.)
5. In a related software issue, Joswiak said Apple does not plan to offer an iPhone VoIP client (for Skype or any other service). This doesn’t bother me too much since Cingular’s voice plans (like those of most carriers) support nationwide calling. However if you were hoping to use the iPhone’s Wi-Fi support to make lots of VoIP calls overseas, you’ll probably be disappointed.
6. Elgan wonders how sturdy the iPhone is. I asked Joswiak whether I’d be able to toss it in my purse the way I now throw in my Treo 650 without damaging the touchscreen. He said I probably could as long as I didn’t have broken glass or the like in my purse. I don’t carry broken glass around–but I do sometimes put earrings or other jewelry in the bag. On the other hand, I have put my iPod Nano in my bag, usually in a side cloth-lined compartment, without problems. I imagine a cottage industry of iPhone covers will quickly sprout, similar to the thriving one for iPods.
7. Jobs views the iPhone as a breakthrough on the order that the Mac was in 1984 and the iPod was in 2001. I’m not so sure about that. The Mac and the iPod created completely new product categories and industries; the iPhone, while clearly a tour de force in design, basically marries two existing product categories. As innovations go, it’s more reminiscent to me of the way Handspring’s first Treos combined a Palm PDA with a cell phone (although the iPhone executes with more flair). Achievement, yes. Paradigm shift? We’ll see.