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The iPhone: Everything in Your Pocket (Except a Mac)
Apples iPhone announcements last week shifted the technology landscape in a similar way to how a movement in plate tectonics shifts the earths geography. For now, much of the change is beneath the surface of the publics awareness. Over the long haul, however, the visible changes will be substantial and dramatic. Of course, in the world of technology, "long hauls" are measured in months rather than in the millions of years of geological time.
The net result of all the announced iPhone changes is that the iPhone will be in an even better position (than it already is) to dominate the markets for handheld devices. And I mean "handheld devices," not just phones. The iPhone is on its way to becoming "everything in your pocket."
Its already off to a running start. For my money, the iPhone is already the best mobile phone out there, including (by far) the best such device for accessing voicemail or working with text messages. Thanks to its large touchscreen interface, the iPhone is the best iPod you can buy (together with its iPod touch cousin). The iPhone is also the best handheld Web browser on the market.
When iPhone 2.0 software is released in June, the iPhone should add several more "bests" to its resumé.
With its forthcoming "push" enhancements (for email, calendar and contacts), as well as its ability to mass delete messages, the iPhone could easily become the best handheld device for dealing with email and calendar appointments.
With the iPhone SDK promoting the release of third-party software, I expect the iPhone to wind up as the best handheld device for instant messaging (via the AIM application now in development). It will most assuredly become the best mobile phone for playing games. Indeed, as suggested in this San Francisco Chronicle article, the iPhone/iPod touch may soon be the best portable game platform of any sort, effectively competing with devices such as the PlayStation Portable (PSP).
But lets not stop with software. While there has been no official confirmation from Apple as yet, it is all but certain that Apple will release a 3G-capable iPhone this year. Lets call this iPhone 2.0 hardware. With a little luck, the upgrade may be released as early as June, along with the 2.0 software. What is less certain is what other hardware improvements, beyond the 3G network support, may be included in this new iPhone. Allow me to make a few suggestions.
Lets start with an upgraded camera. I would like to see at least 2 megapixels, but would welcome a boost to 4 megapixels. Give the camera some zoom capability as well. Finally, allow the camera to record video (the ShowTime application from Polar Bear Farm already shows that this can be done). With these upgrades, the iPhone would be a viable alternative to a stand-alone point-and-shoot camera for many users.
Next, give the Map application true GPS functionality. This would allow the iPhone to compete with stand-alone GPS devices, such as those from Garmin.
Although I dont expect to see this in 2008, I can even imagine the iPhone as a text scanner, along the lines of the IRISPen. Surpassing other "pocket" scanners, the iPhone wouldnt have to be connected to a Mac or PC to see the results of the scan.
But heres the knock-out punch: The iPhone doesnt need to be the best in each of these categories in order to succeed; it merely has to be very good. Thats because the iPhone provides the added advantage of being not just one of these things, but all of these things. It can replace what might otherwise require a half-dozen separate devices. Its the iPhone as "everything in your pocket." And this doesnt even begin to address all the iPhone will be able to do after the tsunami of third-party software hits land this summer.
The iPhone is poised to join the original Macintosh as a true "game-changer"—a new platform that rewrites the rules of how we think about and use computers.
Except for one thing...
The iPhone isnt shaping up to be a Mac. Given that it runs on a mobile version of Mac OS X, thats a bit surprising and more than a little disappointing. Yes, with Safari and Mail, the iPhone can do many of the tasks that people expect of a Mac. But thats not what I am talking about here.
For starters, there needs to be an option to connect the iPhone to an external display, keyboard and mouse/trackpad. In doing so, the iPhone could become the Mac micro that I envisioned in a previous column. Or perhaps we could think of this iPhone (and iPod touch) as a MacBook Air Lite, entirely replacing the need for a laptop computer in many cases. So far, there is no indication from Apple that this is about to happen.
Beyond that, before the iPhone can truly be a MacBook Air Lite or Mac micro, it needs to add some fairly basic computer functions. For example, you should be able to:
- Mount the iPhone as an external drive. You cant mount an iPhone as an external drive to a Mac or PC. This is something you could do almost from Day 1 with an iPod. But not with an iPhone. This makes it awkward at a minimum—and almost impossible in some cases—to pass files back-and-forth between an iPhone and another computer, other than what is permitted via a sync.
- Access the iPhone drive from the iPhone. Unless you jailbreak your iPhone and add third-party software, you cannot directly access the contents of the iPhone drive from the iPhone itself. In other words, there is no Apple-supported Finder (or Terminal) utility for the iPhone. This means you cant move, edit, add, or delete files directly from the iPhone, other than via the limited options within certain applications (such as deleting an email message within Mail).
- Freely share documents between your Mac and your iPhone. There is no iPhone version of TextEdit, Microsoft Word or any similar document-creating application. This means, for example, you cant create a text or graphic document on your iPhone and transfer it to your Mac for further editing, even via syncing.
- Share software outside of the App Store. There is no Apple-supported way to move software to the iPhone other than via the App Store. The App Store looks absolutely great, as far as it goes, but suppose I write a small utility and want to share it just with my friends. I dont want to have to spend $99 to get it into the App Store and I certainly dont want it available to the general public. I may not even want Apple to scrutinize the program. Too bad for me. To be fair, I have read hints that Apple is aware of this issue and hopes to have a solution that would, at a minimum, allow enterprise users to distribute "in house" software. But I doubt this will resolve the broader issue.
- Sell shareware. Even for developers that want to work within the App Store, there are some thorny issues to be resolved. For starters, what about shareware? As covered in in a Macworld article, there is no specified method for distribution of try-then-buy software. That is, you cant list software as free in the App Store, and then require payment later to unlock some of its features.
- Run software in the background. Third-party applications will not be able to run in the background. This means, as noted in another Macworld article, if you are in the middle of an AIM chat and shift to Safari, your chat wont remain open in the background. You wont be able to switch back to AIM and pick up the conversation where you left off. Some related issues were raised by Jonathan Zdziarski, as cited on iPhone Atlas. While there are some good reasons to have this sort of restriction (see this Roughly Drafted article for details), I believe there can be a better compromise than now seems to be the case.
- Allow third-party software to work with hardware peripherals. As I mentioned in my blog, the App Store will not accept software that interacts with hardware connected via the Dock connector. This severely limits the type of peripherals that could otherwise work with an iPhone.
Some of these capabilities may yet be available in iPhone 2.0, via Apple or third-party software. But, based on what I have read thus far, it does not seem not likely. Some people will argue that these restrictions are essential in order to maintain a needed level of security. Perhaps. But it is not entirely clear to me why the iPhone needs a level of security that goes way beyond what is enforced for my laptop Mac. At least give me the choice as to whether or not to take the risks. As has been shown by the many people who have jailbroken their iPhones successfully and happily, you can go down this road without horrible consequences.
A compromise solution may be for jailbreaking to remain as an alternative to the App Store. However, this is not a compromise of any interest to Apple.
Of course, the iPhone doesnt need to be a handheld computer in order to be a great device. Many users wont care about these omissions. Some may even prefer that the iPhone not go in this direction, claiming "Its a phone, not a computer!" In the end, the iPhone will do just fine as "almost everything in your pocket." But I believe the iPhone would be even better if it was more of a Mac. Much better. If this doesnt happen in iPhone 2.0—theres always hope for iPhone 3.0.
[See todays entry in my blog for more thoughts on this topic.]
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