“Cool, no hard hard keys!” versus “Are you kidding? No keyboard?”

First, I’m not deluded enough to think the iPhone is the holy grail of devices. They have a lot in their favor in the US, but they don’t have a smooth ride like they did with the iPod.

If you read the US blogs and tech papers, the iPhone is best thing since the personal modem. Glowing headlines like Apple Waves its Wand at the Phone, where David Pogue equates Apple to a fairy godmother, to “It’s Expected, but it’s Stunning” from the SF Chronicle.

But if you read what the Europeans and Asians are saying, this is cool, but not worth all the hype. Russell Buckley even says it’s just a music phone. Then there’s the LA Times story: “In Japan, Barely a Ripple”, which is saying that all these features (plus mobile payments) have been available in Japan for 2+ years already. (But come on, they haven’t thrown out cumbersome soft keys in exchange for full-face, multi-touch screens, have they?)

So, what is it? Is it just a music phone?

Apple’s foray into mobile reminds me of Apple’s iPod launch. In 2001 they were not the first music player on the scene by any means. But when they released it they blew away the competition — the click wheel, the price point for massive 4GB storage compared to the 48MB competitors reset the pricing across the category and they nailed PC syncing.

Fast forward a bit to 2006. After 17 quarters of consecutive growth iPod sales declined the last 2 quarters. US papers merely list other digital music players and the lack of replacemnt batteries as the reason. But, Tomi Ahonen, in an article in The UK Guardian says the decline is due to mobile phones that double as music players. That may be true outside the US for iPod sales, but I have to doubt how much it holds true here. (And I’d love it if someone knows of US studies to that effect.)

Considering that so-called “music phones” are the next wave in the US — in part, I’d say the iPhone is the next natural bump in an iPod line that would otherwise just continue to shrink (where else can you go without integrating mobile/voice/etc.?)

However, unlike 2001’s intro of the iPod, or 1984’s introduction of the Macintosh, Apple is not competing against a fledgling mobile market — neither in it’s domestic or international markets. They’re competing on an international stage of existing players, some of whom have poured a lot of years and research into mobile UI and user behavior. Apple has got to compete on their own merits through innovation, and will have to prove their mobile offering abroad.

The problems with the current crop of music phones
If you bought a $100+ phone in 2005 or later, it surely came with MP3 capability, and probably bluetooth. But these are lousy replacements for a dedicated music player, iPod or not. Chances are you have an MP3 capable phone but still cling to an iPod for your tunes. The proprietary headphones are merely passable and the fact that you can’t use your favorite headphones is annoying, but what’s worse is the inability to create or manage a playlist. You cannot scan ahead through a long podcast or audiobook, not that your 32MB media card even dreams of audiobooks. There’s no advanced interaction; you can pause it or start it over. And here’s the kiss of death and why I don’t even launch my music player anymore: on my Cingular handset, I can’t delete or move the pre-installed carrier ringtone, which means in the middle of my tracks I hear the Cingular ringtone. Then look at the Verizon LG Chocolate, if you buy a Fergie track for $2.99 from the ringtone store you can’t put it in your music playlist. To do that you’d have to buy it again from the music downloads for another $2.99.

That said, I have a hard time believing that in the US, the iPod sales decline is due to MP3 capable phones. I’m chalking it up to the fact that the competitors are getting better and that the high iPod pricing is now more balanced with slightly lower priced competitors.

Phew, I said all that so I could say this: if it is merely a music phone — as Russel Buckley suggests — they’ve completely leaped beyond anything in the market on the music player front. (Even non-phone players like Zune included.)

But, is it a smartphone?
Some people are saying this is not a smartphone, and maybe it isn’t, by some strict definition. But in a very real prosumer sense, it stacks up very nicely against the best smartphones like Palm Treo or a the Motorola Q. When you have a mobile web implementation that makes WAP look like DARPAnet, plus push email, threaded SMS texting, calendaring, contact integration, etc. you have a smartphone.

At least that’s what David Pogue is calling it, along with calling Apple a fairy godmother. It seems that only spreadsheets (Datavis) are the obvious feature that’s not yet there. Some are arguing that the absense of a hard qwerty keypad makes a smartphone designation a stretch since thumbing text is the current accepted model.

Finally, to be fair, if Apple truly has closed the platform to third-parties then it’s very hard to call it a smartphone/PDA in the Palm/Treo/Windows Mobile tradition.

So what is it then?
Adding it all up puts it somewhere in the fuzzy, next generation hybrid media phone slash prosumer smartphone. It seems especially ripe for those who are ready to quick hauling 2 devices around and who want to adopt mobile email, mobile web browsing (and who don’t already have their thumbs tuned to a tiny qwerty keyboard). If any other product categories are an indicator, prosumer devices should do just fine as long as the right consumer-level entry aspects are there.

Bottom line for me? I have 6 months to save and let my contract expire. For me, it was either hope for the iPhone announcement or give in to the Moto Q or the next SonyEricsson. =)

12 Responses to “The Apple iPhone: Music phone or smartphone? Part III”

  1. Joe Michielson 12 Jan 2007 at 9:32 am

    While the keyboard/smartphone debate is frequently discussed , the absence of hardkeys is a much larger issue. While many times I have time to sit, focus, and dual-handedly wield my trusty Blackberry, I just as frequently fumble through my pockets, have my hands full of other doodads, or (*shhhh*) dial the phone while driving. I can’t imagine a one-handed-speed-dial-my-girlfriend-while-running-to-catch-BART on a touchscreen. I also can’t imagine scroll-wheeling my contact list while carrying a 20lb guitar case.

    So the iphone seems like a grand experience for the calm, attentive, and coordinated, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that mobile phone users are also mobile themselves, so the more tactile affordances (read: actual buttons) the better. And that exponentially is true for anyone who’s visually impaired.

  2. search of mp3 blogon 12 Feb 2007 at 12:49 pm

    [...] The Apple iPhone: Music phone or smartphone? Part III Apple’s foray into mobile reminds me of Apple’s iPod launch. In 2001 they were not the first music player on the scene by any means. But when they released it they blew away the competition — the click wheel, the price point for massive 4GB storage compared to the 48MB competitors reset the pricing across the category and they nailed PC syncing. [...]

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  11. ryanon 04 Dec 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Now that you have your new IPHONE, what about all those songs you need to fill it with? Yes IPHONE downloading.We all love music, games ,movies,tv shows and more.

  12. Davidweisson 10 Sep 2009 at 1:21 pm

    CBS Mobile is LOOKING for Mobile UI Designers! We need to create amazing graphical mobile designs for Iphone, Pre, Android, and more. If YOU know of anyone who would be interested in a position at CBS, please contact me! I run the department.

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