Friday, June 06, 2008

What if the iPhone was just an experiment?

The hype continues to grow in the run up to Apple's World Wide Developers Conference and the expected launch of the 3G iPhone. As an iPhone user for the past year I have been thinking about what might be coming next.

When I look back over the past year of iPhone use I have been happier with this phone than any other previous device. In the past I have used Blackberry's Pearl and Nokia's Communicator and Sony Ericsson's P800 and P910. Of all of those the Sony Ericsson models are the ones that come closest in usability, but even they are a distant second to the iPhone. I currently use a BlackBerry 8830 as well as my iPhone. I find the iPhone far easier to type on because I find it almost impossible to type on the Blackberry keyboard with it's blue backlight at night. Give me the illuminated, prompted iPhone keyboard with it's predictive text driven by proximate key tapping any day. Reading emails and Excel attachments is a far more enjoyable and efficient exercise on the iPhone than the Blackberry.

My biggest gripe with the iPhone has been on two fronts:

1. Search in my contact list.

2. Cut and Paste

Search is available in the 2.0 iPhone software. I hope cut and paste makes it too. oh, and an upgraded camera with video capability would be really nice!

There are a couple of things that have been on my mind. These are what prompted the title of this post: "What if the iPhone was just an experiment?"

What prompts me to ask this question? Well, when Apple launched the iPhone they signed an exclusive 5 year deal with AT&T. Given, AT&T Wireless is the largest carrier in the USA. But why would Steve Jobs cut himself off from 50-60% of the massive US Market?

Now, I understand him needing to partner with the carriers. Just look at the Nokia and Sony Ericsson relationship with the wireless carriers in the USA. Their advanced Smartphones such as the SE P910 and the Nokia Communicator and the N95 and N96 have largely been ignored by the major carriers. As a result market penetration by these advanced devices has been minimal. The iPhone looks cheap in comparison to an unlocked Nokia N95 or SE P910. These can cost in the region of $700 to buy as unlocked phones.

Now Apple has also been working closely with Google, even though Google will be competing with the iPhone when Android hits the marketplace this year. But what was Google doing at the beginning of this year. They were negotiating to open the network for the recently auctioned 700MHz bandwidth.

Apple gets an ongoing revenue stream from AT&T from iPhone subscribers. After all, iphone users with a monthly bill of at least $60 represent some of the most lucrative customers for AT&T. That revenue stream will continue to grow but is it enough to keep Apple from breaking out of their exclusive US arrangement?

Now, let's think back to other Apple products. Let's see Apple produced Front Row to experiment with the home theater interface. Shortly after that they released the AppleTV. They learned from that launch and recently came out with AppleTV Take 2.

Let's take another couple of lines of thought.

  • The iPhone was built on Mac OS X.
  • Mac OS X is increasingly processor agnostic.
  • The iPod Touch has proven that the iPod can be migrated to the iPhone interface.
  • Apple has continued to extend the multi-touch interface back from the iPhone and iPod Touch to their latest MacBook Pro line and patent applications hint at them doing even more with multi-touch.
  • Apple continues to evolve the Back-To-My-Mac feature in Leopard.
  • Apple is rumored to be updating .Mac with a new branding, probably "Mobile Me" and may well offer over the air syncing via whatever .Mac becomes.
  • The MacBook Air has been a great commercial hit that demonstrates the demand for a lightweight computing device that complements, rather than replaces your primary machine.

When I look at all of these threads I keep coming to the conclusion that Steve Jobs has been experimenting with us even if that experiment has proven to be very profitable.

Consider this, maybe, just maybe, Steve Jobs and the Apple team have spotted the potential for a new style of hybrid device. An evolution from the Nokia N800/N810. That would be just like Steve Jobs. Take a product that others have been experimenting with a bring together a solution that goes beyond a single device.

What might this be? I am thinking that there could be a new hybrid device on its way. This hybrid would be larger than a cell phone but uses cell/Wi-Fi and possibly Wi-Max technology. The device can make phone calls but may be a tablet style device that stays constantly synced with "the cloud."

I can see this tablet-style device being configurable to synchronize with a home or office-based Mac via "Back-To-My-Mac." It would come with more storage than an iPhone but probably less than a MacBook Air. It would have no physical keyboard but could use Bluetooth to connect keyboard, headset and mouse but would use the multi-touch interface and virtual keyboard just like the iPhone when you are traveling. Ideally battery life would be 6-8 hours and would have an iPod connector to provide charging and connectivity that leverages the massive iPod ecosystem.

The form factor would need to be bigger than an iPhone to support a larger battery and larger screen. Weight would need to be in the 12oz range and thinner than the 0.76 inches of the MacBook Air.

Since this device wouldn't be an iPhone Apple would be able to sell it through any carrier, letting them escape from the AT&T exclusive contract. Of course they could sell direct to consumers through their own retail network. Remember, iPhones are already automatically provisioned through iTunes so extending that interface to support another "iPod/iPhone hybrid" would be trivial.

This may be a pipe dream but when you pull all these threads together it does make you wonder if Steve Jobs was just experimenting with us by launching the iPhone.

What are your thoughts?

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