Sunday, 23 September 2007

Apple’s iPhone comes with the ring of overconfidence

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The world of technology is driven by hyperbole. In a crowded marketplace, a new product doesn’t stand a chance unless it’s heralded as the Next Big Thing. And nobody understands this better than Steve Jobs, boss of Apple, whose artfully choreographed product launches guarantee media coverage.
But finding a truly revolutionary product these days is difficult. Now that the transition from analogue to digital technologies is all but complete, most new gadgets are evolutions rather than revolutions.

So when, in January, Jobs claimed Apple had “reinvented the phone” with a fanfare that was grandiose even by Apple’s own standards, I set about trying to find the truth behind the hype. Was the iPhone really “five years ahead of the competition”, as Jobs claimed?

Days after the US launch in June, I took a trip to California to buy a £200 iPhone with a plan to test it in advance of the planned UK launch (the iPhone is due to go on sale here in early November). Apple was one step ahead of me; its American phones are locked to a US network and won’t work with a British Sim card.

Luckily, there are geeks out there who can unlock anything and after trawling the web I found the advice I was looking for to link my new iPhone to the Vodafone network. It’s a tricky procedure and not one I’d recommend to nongeeks, but it gave me the head start I needed to assess the iPhone’s capabilities – and deficiencies.
First, the trifling matters: yes, the iPhone’s screen gets smudged but it’s easy to wipe clean and the glass front is remarkably scratch resistant. Yes, the virtual keyboard takes some getting used to, but it’s fine once you learn to trust the built-in error correction. And, yes, the headphone socket is annoyingly recessed – but a £5 adapter will allow you to use the headphones of your choice, rather than the flimsy ones provided by Apple.

More disturbing are the low-res camera and slow data connection. They may have seemed cutting edge when Apple began work on an iPod phone in 2004. But by the time the iPhone finally launched, many rival handsets had cameras with twice the resolution, and a 3.5G connection capable of browsing the web at 10 times the speed of the iPhone.

As a phone, the device works well (even if you are uncertain at first where to hold it to your face) and call quality is on a par with most good handsets. Reception, though, can be patchy.

Fortunately for Apple, you won’t immediately notice these technological shortcomings when you first pick up the iPhone. Instead, you’ll be captivated by mouthwatering, candy-coloured icons, which cry out to be pressed. Not poked with a stylus, but squashed with your finger.

And once you press, the response will take your breath away: unlike every other smartphone on the market, the iPhone does what you ask without pausing to think – and does it beautifully. Click on the “photo” icon and your photo album zooms at you from the centre of the brilliant 3.5in display, pushing all the homepage icons off the side of the screen.

Choose a picture to look at and it nudges the album screen out of view. Stroke your finger across the screen and the photo makes way for another, travelling at the exact speed of your finger. Switch the iPhone to landscape mode and the picture that you’re looking at smoothly rotates with you.

This glorious user interface is the iPhone’s most powerful weapon, and the one thing that truly is years ahead of the competition. It won’t just wow the gadget addicts – it’ll have techno-sceptics drooling, too.

But satisfying that technolust won’t be cheap. The basic iPhone handset will cost £269 but UK buyers will then have to sign up to an 18-month contract with O2, Apple’s service provider, for £35-£55 per month, which puts the true cost at £899-£1,259.

Jobs has blamed Vat and the fact that “it is a little bit more expensive to do business over here” for the price of the handset in the UK. He also claims: “Sometimes you get what you pay for.” But after the initial glow wears off, will British iPhone users agree?

Undoubtedly the biggest frustration for iPhone users will be the lack of a high-speed 3G connection to a mobile network. It has been sacrificed for the sake of battery life, according to Apple. (In my experience the battery required charging only every other day, even with heavy usage.)

So, despite the fact that O2 paid billions for its 3G network, the iPhone can’t use it. Instead, O2 is having to upgrade its old 2G network to enable an iPhone-friendly system called Edge. But even Edge runs at speeds that rarely reach 100kbps (a quarter of the speed of a 3G connection).

Not only that, but O2 will have only 30% coverage at launch so most iPhone users will have to put up with the tediously slow GPRS connection – similar to the bad old days of dial-up home connections – unless they’re in a wi-fi hotspot. This is a shame because the iPhone’s web browser is better than anything on the mobile market, thanks to the touchscreen software and the clever way it displays websites.

Fortunately, the iPhone is good at sniffing out free hotspots and will choose wi-fi over a phone connection where possible. And in the UK, O2 has built a subscription to 7,500 wi-fi hotpots operated by the Cloud company into its monthly iPhone charge. There are more plans afoot, too; a deal with Starbucks will allow American iPhone users to access the iTunes music store free when they’re near a wi-fi enabled Starbucks – and even buy the music playing in the shop.

It’s not hard to see Apple striking deals with other high-street chains to offer deals to iPhone users who happen to be passing. And if critical mass is achieved, the iPhone’s wi-fi connections could allow music swapping and social networking – just as Microsoft tried (and failed) with its Zune.

But will the iPhone reach critical mass? Apple has sold 1m handsets in just over two months in America, but only after an unexpected – some might say desperate – $200 (£100) price cut. With a target of 10m iPhones worldwide by the end of 2008, Apple is chasing a significant chunk of the smartphone market.

There are, however, distinct differences between the UK and US markets. The UK has more developed 3G networks and there is a wider choice of appealing handsets here than American consumers can buy.

Jobs points to the success of the company’s previous revolutionary products – the Macintosh, which popularised the mouse, and the iPod, which is reshaping the music industry. But personal computing was in its infancy when the Mac was launched in 1984, and few people knew what an MP3 was when the iPod appeared in 2001. By wrapping new technologies in appealing, easy-to-use packages, Apple scored two easy wins. Can it do the same in the mature – and intensely competitive – mobile phone market?

Nine months after first playing with the iPhone, I’m still entirely smitten. I’m willing to forgive its failings and I’m not alone – Apple claims the iPhone customer satisfaction rating is higher than with any previous product.

But there is a serious threat, and it doesn’t come from Nokia, Samsung or Sony Ericsson – it’s from Apple itself. By launching the iPod Touch MP3 player with wi-fi, which although not a mobile does feature the same magical user interface and web browsing functions as the iPhone and does not require you to switch to a hefty phone contract, Apple may have unwittingly cannibalised its own market.

Apple iPhone Storage 8GB fl ash drive Display 3.5in 480x320 pixels Data connections Wi-fi , Edge/GPRS, Bluetooth 2.0 Camera 2 megapixels Price £269, with contract

NO VIDEO STAR Videos look glorious but the iPhone cannot capture video, despite its built-in camera. This modest 2MP camera lacks a fl ash and the iPhone cannot send picture messages

IN SYNCH If you keep a list of contacts on a home computer in a program such as Outlook, or if your photos are stored in Adobe Photoshop Elements, you can transfer them to your iPhone because it is compatible with some popular nonApple software

SOFTWARE LOCK-DOWN Unless you enter the murky world of hacking your iPhone, you must stick with O2’s pricey tariffs and rely on Apple’s slick but limited software. The iPhone has several neat preinstalled tools including Google Maps. You can use web-based tools (to make, say, cheap internet-based phone calls) but the Google Docs online word processor only lets you view your fi les

TOOTHLESS BLUETOOTH Although the iPhone runs the latest version of Bluetooth and so should in theory be able to share photos with a nearby Bluetooth-enabled handset (or synchronise wirelessly with a computer), its only current Bluetooth feature is the option of using a hands-free headset – only a mono one at that

E-MAIL LIMITATIONS The iPhone works well with web-based e-mail services and most non-web-based ones. But it’s hard to connect to corporate e-mail systems and the fi ddly touchscreen is only good for short notes. It’s no BlackBerry

THE SIMPLE LIFE Ease of use is Apple’s raison d’être and despite its multiple features, the iPhone has few controls to confuse. The only physical button on the front takes you to the home screen, while on the side you have a wake/sleep switch, a volume control and a switch to turn on silent mode. All other features involve on-screen icons

MUSIC MAESTRO The iPhone is also an iPod in the sense that it can store and play music or video. It’s easy to operate whether fl icking through album covers or wirelessly downloading songs from iTunes. But the badly designed headphone socket needs an adaptor unless you use the mediocre phones supplied. The 8GB capacity holds about 2,000 tracks of modest quality

WEB MASTER The iPhone does a good job of putting web pages on a small screen. It also makes navigation easy, if you are in a speedy wi

The rivals

Samsung F700, £tbc This touchscreen mobile, due out by Christmas exclusive to Vodafone, has everything the iPhone is missing: a 3MP camera, 3.5G connection and slide-out qwerty keypad. But it just doesn’t have the sex appeal. Think of it as the iPhone’s powerfully built but charmless brother

Nokia N95 8GB, £390 handset only The newly beefed up N95 is a brilliant smartphone, with a 5MP camera, sat nav, speedy 3.5G connection and an excellent web browser. But without a touchscreen or keyboard, it’s difficult to get the most out of it – and the iPhone’s software makes the N95’s look horribly outdated

Sony Ericsson P1i, £375 handset only E-mail features like a BlackBerry and a qwerty keypad might make this smartphone seem a mere work tool, but it’s fun too. Check out its fine 3MP camera (with flash) and decent media capabilities, including Bluetooth stereo wireless music streaming. It’s not a Walkman phone, though

BlackBerry 8820, £20 with contract This 3G and wi-fi enabled BlackBerry, exclusive to Orange, is top dog for messaging addicts, thanks to a very useable keyboard and excellent e-mail software that constantly monitors your inbox. It has sat nav and limited media playback features. But the web browser is primitive

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