Will iPhone break the convergence rule?

Revolutionary design aside, Apple's iPhone faces an uphill battle: historically, consumers have not embraced multifunction devices...with the huge exception of the personal computer.

I haven't seen this much pre-launch interest in a consumer technology product since Windows 95 emerged one Chinese calendar cycle ago.

People are camping out in line for it. Newspapers are devoting entire sections to it. There's even a backlash against the hype...and an emerging backlashagainst the backlash. And unlike the case with Windows 95, everybody's blogging it.

So what do I think? Success or failure? Or something in between?

Looking at the Apple demonstration video, there's no doubt that the iPhone demos well. If it works as advertised--no strange glitches with the screen or slow data transfer times--it will be fun to use. It's also going to be expensive, according to this excellent TCO analysis by Engadget, although not out of line with similar data plans.

But design and UI and cost and general coolness...these aren't the real questions. The real question: can the iPhone break the convergence rule? That rule, proven time and time again, is that consumers (not necessarily businesses) prefer products with one primary function over products with multiple equally weighted functions. It's OK to add a secondary function that doesn't get in the way--adding an inexpensive camera to a cell phone, for instance. But as soon as you try to combine two previously separate devices, consumers react with indifference at best.

Recent history's littered with examples. TVs with built-in VCRs. Combination VCR-DVD players. Integrated stereo systems. WebTV and its interactive relatives. (Surf the Web from my TV...no thanks, I'm watching TV.) The Media Center PC. (Why do I need a PC to record my TV programs?) Most recently, look at game consoles: Sony and Microsoft packed their latest consoles with multimedia functionality, and the cheaper, strictly-gaming Wii is outselling both.

I'm not aware of any in-depth market research about this issue, but I have plenty of opinions about why this is the case. Single function devices are simpler to use. (Although the iPhone's touchscreen addresses the UI clumsiness of many multifunction phones--tiny alphanumeric keyboards, for instance.) When they break, you lose less and they're easier to repair. There's a perception--not always correct--that a device that tries to do too many things won't do any of them well.

More specifically with the iPhone, I'm not sure the features it's combining gain any particular benefit by being combined. If you're a music fan, you probably already have an iPod (or a competitor...no, scratch that, you probably have an iPod), and if you don't, you can get 10 times the capacity of the $599 8GB iPhone for a little more than half its price. And you can't even use the iPhone to download music over the air (yet...I think this is an eventual no-brainer, given that competitors are already doing it). If you're interested in mobile Web access and e-mail, there are plenty of laptops for less than $700, and they do more and are easier to type on. And as for a cell phone...aren't they already too complicated?

Of course, there's one huge glaring exception to the convergence rule: the personal computer, with more than 200 million sold every year. (Note that I wrote "personal computer," which includes all brands of boxen and OSs, not "PC.") But the personal computer truly is an all-in-one device--used by consumers and businesses, for entertainment and productivity and communciations and arts and science, with a billion add-ons available to extend its functionality. A personal computer offers so many functions at such a low price--less than a standard-sized refrigerator--that it almost seems foolish not to own one. Not so with the iPhone. The iPhone is a stripped-down laptop computer, combined with a cell phone, with a fairly low-capacity music player added in. And an amazingly cool design and unique user interface on top.

Will Apple sell 10 million iPhones this year? Probably, barring some disastrous bug or defect. Will it keep Apple's growth curve going? Yes, for a while. But I don't see it having the same cultural impact or market penetration as the iPod, or the original Macs. Or, for that matter, as Windows 95.

 

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