A method to the iPhone madness?

Love it or hate it, the frenzy around Apple's iPhone is forcing consumers to think about what they want from a mobile device.

After a week of iPhone madness, I think I have a pretty good idea of what it's like to cover the Super Bowl.

Every year, the week leading up to the Super Bowl produces some of the silliest news stories of the year, as thousands of journalists exhaust every possible angle. By the time the game rolls around on Sunday, it feels almost anticlimactic, and more people watch the commercials than the real action.

That's what it has felt like, living at the center of iPhone insanity for the last seven days, and it should get even more interesting after the gadget finally goes on sale at 6 p.m. local time. Suddenly, every detail is important, from how many staffers AT&T has hired to prepare for the launch to the cottage industry that has sprung up around waiting in line outside Apple's stores.

You think you're sick of the damn iPhone? Believe me, you have no idea. Just think of all the iPhone-related stuff we rejected covering (such as the shall-be-nameless PR rep who pitched a story about "a candid look at the challenges that companies face in aligning their value chains to successfully introduce products rapidly to an ever-changing consumer market").

You think you're sick of the damn iPhone? Believe me, you have no idea.

Still, a few hundred people fired off flames criticizing what they perceive as a page-view mentality that has us stoking the hype. But the iPhone has provoked thought and debate on our pages like almost no other product launch in the past.

This is online journalism. Unlike print, radio, or television, we can track exactly how many people are reading each story. And you folks are soaking up as much iPhone content as you can get your hands on.

You keep coming back for more. And if you don't find it here, you go somewhere else. There aren't many tech-news organizations that are making a principled stand on iPhone hype this week.

That's because there's an intense interest in anything related to Apple among the technology community. Whether people come to praise it or damn it, Apple evokes a passion rarely found in other sectors of the business world.

And when the company finally confirmed the long-standing rumors that it was developing a mobile phone, the tech industry sat up and took notice. Despite its complete lack of experience in this market, Apple had to be taken seriously because of how the iPod changed the way people listened to music. The company earned that sort of credibility the old-fashioned way ; it wasn't bestowed on them by a fawning press or rabid fanboys (for the most part).

Considering the big picture
But I give most of our readers credit, because I think they understand that this week has been about more than Apple or the iPhone itself: this is about the future direction of personal computing.

This is where the innovation will be over the next 10 years. The past 10 years were all about the PC, as prices plunged, processing power skyrocketed and the Internet showed us how powerful networks can be. But the PC is passe; one of the biggest stories in the PC industry over the past year was how Hewlett-Packard and Dell were finally starting to realize that people cared about the colors and designs on their laptops.

Mobile devices such as smart phones aren't going to displace PCs. You've probably still got an AM/FM radio in your house fairly close to your 42-inch plasma television. But mobile computers are where the growth and excitement will be, as we start to realize what we can do with the Internet anywhere at anytime.

I call my Treo 700p "The Phone of Life." It's not because of anything specific to the phone itself (sorry Palm, although I do like it), but simply because the device makes my life easier.

While crawling back from South Lake Tahoe to San Francisco this past winter in treacherous conditions, I was able to check highway closures, plot alternate routes, search for nearby hotels when the snow grew too thick, call to make reservations, and send e-mails to my bosses letting them know we were stuck in Truckee, Calif. Having those capabilities made what was a harrowing journey that much less stressful, with partial credit assigned to Poison's Greatest Hits and two very calm travel companions.

The iPhone is hardly a perfect device. I'll never understand why Apple worked so hard to make a rich mobile browser that's a hit with reviewers but hamstrung the iPhone with a slow data pipe when outside a Wi-Fi hotspot. Apple has mentioned that it's related to concerns about battery life. But as one person posted on CNET News.com put it, "No point having a Ferrari if you can only drive it at 15 mph."

In a rarity for our coverage about Apple, most of the discussion accompanying iPhone stories was not the usual religious flame wars about security and Microsoft's antitrust sins. It was about what people really want in a mobile device. That's because this is about more than Apple. Even if it's a flop--perhaps even more so if it's a flop--the iPhone will change the way mobile devices are designed, whether that's closer to Apple's vision or further away.

The Super Bowl is just a game--albeit, the most important game of the year, but there will be an equally important one next year.

However, product launches like the iPhone that generate massive amounts of interest from regular folks don't happen all that often. The cellular and PC industries will be watching Apple and the iPhone very closely over the next six months to see if the company has hit on something with the user interface built into the iPhone.

The iPhone really could change the future of computing. It's quite possible that June 29, 2007, will one day be remembered as the day that the average consumer realized what mobile computing was all about. Or it could be marked as the day Apple overestimated its reach and watched its remarkable 10-year renaissance begin to wane.

It's up to you: is the iPhone what you really want?

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