iPhone Commentary

Competitive Positioning:

“The coolest upscale smartphone you can get; applies minimalist design with a vengeance.”

As it happened, when I purchased my iPhone the first week they were on the market back in June, at the same time I bought and then dropped two other cell phones with very different positioning:

– AT&T (HTC) 8525 phone running Windows and supporting UMTS high-speed data connections on the cellular network, as well as wifi. Curiously, Windows was a constant “in your face” nightmare on this phone. In contrast, I set my wife up on HTC’s Windows-based 3125 (on Cingular -> now AT&T) last year and, after an hour or so of configuration to get rid of things she was not going to use, it has been great. I really wanted to like HTC’s phone because of the speed and because HTC makes a wide-array of very slick cell phones, but they’re all sold with Windows.

– Motorola A1200 “Ming,” which is the third generation of Chinese-designed Motorola cell phones running Montavista Linux. Curiously, there is only a slower GPRS data connection on the A1200. Its predecessor, the A780, my main cell phone for the past year, had the faster EDGE data connection. I really wanted to like the A1200 and find it useful, but Motorola’s failure to open up its open-source based platform and dropping of an intermediate speed for an even slower speed data connection just killed the deal.

– iPhone — well, it’s the one of these three phones that I decided to stick with, but if it weren’t for wifi support, I would have taken it back, too, in favor of sticking with my Linux Motorola A780 (bought it on eBay; came out in China in 2004), on which reading web pages over AT&T EDGE data connections is no better and no worse. But the network connection for voice is better on the iPhone and the A780 was becoming unreliable, shutting itself off or freezing for no reason. Side note: Apple should have a marketing group whose only charter is to open up wifi access in public places, especially the coffee chains and airports, without sign up, registration, monthly fees, or whatever. Just show them the NY Times story from 9/18/2007 about The Times giving up on charging to read the paper’s columnists online and instead going to an advertising-supported (aka Google) model. The 4-5 top reviewers that Apple lined up for initial product reviews basically all said “nice phone; AT&T EDGE is terrible.”

Evaluation of features (aka “What do you demo?”):

Panorama from Portland's West Hills - iPhone photos turned into panorama on Linux using hugin + autopano-sift + gimp+ Camera (see panorama from a series of photos above), photo browsing, finger-based operation, wifi web browsing and email, great display, generally keeps going two days on battery charge with moderate use; one day with high use.
– Need to type? Forget it, you are going to read not write email on this. Youtube? Not really, the iPhone has a very limited subset on old technology. Music? I had classical CDs and Chinese and Japanese language recordings on my A780, but haven’t tried getting that on the iPhone, yet. The biggest minus is the AT&T EDGE data network: was barely adequate 5 years ago; now it’s a national embarrassment; we’re about 20th internationally on cellular data speeds, as well as digital cable bandwith, but that’s all another whole topic. Furthermore, back on the Apple-controlled part of what doesn’t demo so well, the information model is old-school in the sense that you’re looking at information that you’re going to try to sync between applications on the phone and applications on the desktop. “Web cloud” apps, like gmail, Google Calendar, Flickr, Google Maps, Google Docs make more sense, but that’s not where this phone concept is.

Also, unfortunately, only a subset of AJAX (“Web 2.0”) capabilities are supported in the iPhone’s web browser. So Google Docs don’t work. Google Maps don’t work. Gmail sort of works.

Channels and Strategy:

Finally, even though the phone’s software is based on 50+ open-source projects, the phone is not set up to facilitate open-source software, but instead to lock up the software environment.

That is missing a big opportunity, I think. Meanwhile, the open source community is busy working to “liberate” the iPhone on the one hand, and Chinese / Taiwanese electronics manufacturers (the iPhone is manufactured in Shenzhen) are bringing out clones.

The New York Times just published a thought-provoking commentary by Randall Stross (9/16/2007, “A Window of Opportunity for Macs, Soon to Close”) asking why Apple is thought of as doing well when they only have 3 percent of the computer market now vs. 14% more than 20 years ago. In comparison, Apple’s iPod product line has been much more dominant. What will be the case with the iPhone? In each of these three areas, Apple basically has had a strategy of trying to redefine the category up a notch (DOS PC -> graphic Mac; generic MP3 player -> “iPod” as the category; smartphones -> “the” iPhone) and to control very tightly the evolution of marketing messages in (or by also controlling, like 185 Apple stores in the U.S. vs. HP computers for sale in 23,000 U.S. retail locations) the sales channel.

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