A heavy load for the iPhone to bear

It's sleek and it's sexy, but still must contend with issues from price to typing speed and wireless realities.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
6 min read
There's little debate about the aesthetic appeal of Apple's iPhone. But sometimes, beauty is just skin deep.

Tuesday's introduction of the iPhone at Macworld was long on glitz, but short on details. Little is known about the technical workings of the iPhone. There are also a lot of questions about Apple's entry into a competitive market full of large companies far more established than the MP3 player firms that got flattened by the iPod.

Apple, in typical fashion, has not responded to requests for further details or briefings from executives about some of these points, and the iPhone is not expected to become available until June. But the details could mean the difference between history viewing the iPhone as a perfect melding of phone and media player--or as a limited, proprietary device that can't be expanded and won't live up to its hype.

Here's a list of issues Apple could face when the iPhone hits store shelves:

OS X: During his keynote speech, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said the iPhone runs "OS X." What he didn't say is how stripped down that version will be.

Apple has a remarkably good development environment in general, but it's unclear how much flexibility it will give to iPhone programmers. How much work would it take to alter a simple game, spreadsheet or text editor for OS X to run on the iPhone? Or will the iPhone be as closed as the iPod? Can existing JavaScript-based widgets for OS X be used without any modification, which some developers believe is likely? A search for "iPhone" on Apple's official developer Web site turns up nothing.

Applications: What types of applications are going to be available for the iPhone? Even if Mac applications can be ported to the iPhone, will they have to be redesigned for the screen size and storage requirements of the phone? It's unclear if Apple will support popular third-party mobile applications beyond the ones from its buddies at Google and Yahoo, such as Skype voice over Internet Protocol calling, which could be a big hit given that the iPhone has built-in Wi-Fi. Macworld scenes

It doesn't appear that Apple is targeting corporate customers with the iPhone, but executives and salespeople have so far been the biggest smart-phone customers, at least in the U.S. Will Apple support push e-mail software from Research In Motion or Motorola's Good Technology? Yahoo mail users will be able to have their e-mail delivered directly to their phones, but that's probably not enough for a traveling CEO not named Steve Jobs.

Battery life: Apple said the iPhone will have a battery life of "up to five hours" when used for phone calls, video playback and Web browsing, and "up to 16 hours" for audio playback. But the company did not answer a key question: What about standby time? And is the battery sealed like the iPod or easily replaceable, like most mobile phones?

Also, five hours of talk time seems a trifle short when compared with the humble Sony Ericsson W810i, another phone that uses Cingular's EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) network and claims "up to nine hours" of talk time and "up to 30 hours of music playing." Do the rich graphics used on the iPhone and the full operating system require more power to operate than a stripped-down operating system would? Which applications processor is Apple using inside the iPhone?

Networking: Apple said the iPhone will use Cingular's EDGE network technology. Cingular said it offers "typical speeds of 75Kbps (kilobits per second) to 135Kbps." That puts it in the same range as a dial-up connection (a little faster, but far from broadband speeds). The odd thing is that Cingular offers a speedier 3G, or third-generation, wireless service--speeds of 400Kbps to 700Kbps with bursts over 1 megabit per second--in dozens of metropolitan areas called BroadbandConnect (also known as HSDPA). ThinkPad laptops announced a year ago use it; so does a Palm Treo 750 announced this week. Why doesn't Apple's iPhone?

The built-in Wi-Fi connection will help consumers get faster access to data in their homes or businesses. But the whole point of mobile broadband is to have fast access to data outside of a hot spot. And EDGE support isn't going to fly outside the U.S., where smart-phone users are accustomed to network speeds almost as fast as DSL and cable modem lines in the U.S.

Touch screen: The touch screen scrolling used on the iPhone is an intuitive way of navigating--flick your index finger toward the top of the screen to scroll up, flick down to scroll down. The lack of buttons--except for the home button--also fits in nicely with Apple's minimalist design ethos and will allow the company to use the same basic hardware footprint for a wide variety of programmable devices.

But it's not really a smart phone if you have to use two hands. A consequence of the Multitouch input system is that two hands are required to navigate through the iPhone, whether that's scrolling through contacts, answering another call, searching the Web or just about anything else that Jobs did during his keynote speech.

News.com Poll

Apple on the line
The iPhone is here at last. What feature stands out for you?

Music and video
Full-fledged Mac OS X
The "multitouch" interface
The proximity sensor
Visual voice mail
The 2-megapixel camera
The style! The style!
All of the above

View results

Smart-phone designers have focused on making their devices one-handed for years, after everyone got sick of using styluses on their PDAs. Will they be willing to go back to two-handed navigation to experience the rich graphics and full Internet experience delivered by the iPhone?

Also, unless you've got a whole OCD hand-washing thing going on, are you prepared to see fingerprint smudges all over your beautiful iPhone? The select few who actually got to play with an iPhone on Tuesday, including David Pogue of the New York Times, raised this concern but said Apple put a lot of effort into selecting a surface that would resist smudges or at least be easy to clean. Pogue did note that typing on the touch screen is not easy, because you can't feel the ridges of a key like you can with a BlackBerry or Treo.

Price: Apple defenders will remember the outcry against the initial price of the iPod back in 2001. And, of course, that came down over time. But let's face it, the iPhone is expensive.

At $499 for 4GB and $599 for 8GB, the iPhone comes in at, or near, the top of the smart-phone market. Jobs defended the price by saying those other smart phones don't have an iPod video inside and that $499 is what it would cost to buy an iPod plus a smart phone from another company. But are people willing to ditch their iPod Nanos and current cell phones for the iPhone? With only a maximum of 8GB of storage at launch, heavy video users or iPod consumers with big music collections may not be motivated to get rid of their 30GB or 40GB iPods.

And don't forget, the iPhone will only be available through Cingular and requires a two-year contract. Cingular is the largest carrier in the U.S., but potential customers who don't use Cingular might have to break contracts with other carriers and face hefty penalties if they want an iPhone. Sprint, for example, would charge $150 for early termination of one of its contracts.

Data service through Cingular--a must to tap into the Internet browsing of the iPhone--costs at least $19.95 a month for unlimited data. You might be able to get away with a metered data plan for $9.99 if you are often within range of a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Plenty of similar concerns accompanied the introduction of the iPod five years ago, and it's clear how that device worked out for Apple. Many analysts believe the iPhone is just the first generation of Apple's push into the mobile phone market and that future versions might well answer some of the questions about the initial device.

Jobs declared he'll consider the iPhone a success if by the end of 2008 the company garners 1 percent of the near-billion cell phones sold every year. Both companies are betting that mobile phone customers are ready for a new type of device and that they'll abandon their other carriers for a chance to use the iPhone.