June 29, 2007 at 8:00 AM ET
This is the day we'll see one of the most successful product launches in history. It will be studied in classrooms for years -- by public relations students.
The launch of the iPhone is a phenomenon. Not a technology phenomenon -- a marketing phenomenon. For weeks, we've been pounded with incremental stories about this new little phone -- it will play YouTube videos! Its battery is new and improved (already?)! In 13 years of covering technology, I can't recall another product launch with more hype that the Apple's iPhone, unless you reach all the way back to the Rolling Stones and Windows 95. Well, maybe Dean Kamen's roller/scooter, going-to-change-commuting-forever thingy. What was that called, anyway?
Sorry, Apple faithful: It's not worth the hype.
Before you all start bickering with me, I've invited other MSNBC.com technology writers and editors, as well as NBC News correspondent George Lewis, to bicker with me. In the spirit of this overhyped day, we're calling this new feature Red Tape Wrestlemania! After my colleagues call me stupid, you can do the same below.
Let me qualify what I'm about to say this way: Apple has a built-in following which will make the iPhone qualified success, no matter what it is and what it does.
But there are so many factors that will limit iPhone's success, I don't know where to begin. Given all the whiz and all the bang, will it really last all day and play your iTunes on you evening commute? If it doesn't, you'll still need an iPod. Then what good is it?
More on point, what if Cingular's signal at your condo sucks? No matter how slick the thing looks, if the phone drops calls, you've got a $600 paperweight on your hands. Remember, Cingular/AT&T is the customer service complaint champ over at the Federal Communications Commission, and at Consumer Reports. Tying the Apple name to Cingular/AT&T service is certainly a risk.
What if Cingular's EDGE broadband network lives up to its reputation as inferior to Verizon's EV-DO network, or T-Mobile's 3G network? It's cool to receive e-mail attachments on your phone, not cool when your friend's $299 phone gets them faster. Web browsing on EDGE will likely be painfully slow. Again, if you get an iPhone and you need to find a Wi-Fi hotspot to use it, you have a very expensive, old-fashioned cell phone in your pocket there.
And what happens when you scratch that $600 screen with the keys in your pocket? Or when the battery dies after 300-400 charges? Or if your company won't fiddle with its servers and allow you to access corporate e-mail with it?
Apple hopes to sell 10 million of these things in the first year, and it probably will. But Cingular/AT&T only has 60 million total customers. Getting many more than 10 million of them to buy this top-of-the-line phone will be quite a trick. Will the iPhone raid other services' customers? Not so easy -- 50 percent of Americans say they can't switch because of early termination fees.
Then there's the gadget itself. Being Apple, I'm sure the interface will be a knockout. If anyone can make something out of touch-screen technology, which to date has really only worked on ATMs, it would be Apple. When I watch those TV ads, however, I imagine all but the most digitally dexterous will clumsily fat-finger through their e-mail day after day. Oops, didn't mean to open that. Oops, didn't mean to close that. I use my fingers now on my smart phone. It ain't pretty.
Launch of the iPhone has been repeatedly -- and erroneously -- compared to launch of the iPod. How quickly we forget. When the iPod arrived, the music download business -- business? -- was in utter chaos. Most files were stolen. Regular people didn't know what tunes played on what gadgets. MP3 players, such as they were, behaved like small, hard-to-use computers. Into this vacuum came Apple, with a beautiful device that had only two buttons. The gadget brought harmony to chaos, and it literally created the legitimate music download business.
There is no parallel to today's cell phone market. Adults already know how to use their phones; kids have no trouble texting each other. A new gadget with incremental improvements -- slightly better cell phone pictures, but nothing you'd really send home to grandma -- is certainly welcome. Here's hoping Apple pushes other smartphone makers to greater things. (Can we please talk on the phone and receive an e-mail at the same time? Anyone?)
But once Steve Jobs finishes downloading money from Apple faithful in the next few weeks, expect quite a slog (and soon, much lower prices) for the iPhone.
Michael Wann – Technology editor
OK, here's my two cents. $598.98 more and you can buy an iPhone.
The iPhone will be a huge success. In order to understand that, you have to look at it this way: It's not a new phone that plays music; it's a major upgrade to the already wildly successful iPod. And betting against a new iPod is a dicey proposition at best.
We’ve known for years that there was a real market for cell phones that play music, but the reason it never blossomed is that Apple, whose market position in media players far outstrips any other, had not yet made one. Apple’s iPod has more than 80 percent of the market for music players and iTunes, its online music store, is now the third-largest U.S. music retailer, according to the NPD Group. Apple has no real challengers in this space and likely won’t for the foreseeable future.
The high price point won't be a significant barrier, either. If you think about how much a good cell phone with a camera costs, then add to that the cost of an iPod Nano, you actually come up with a savings. At least that's how I would justify it to myself if I were to buy one.
The iPhone also won't fail because it's perceived to be inferior to smartphones or the Blackberry. Apple doesn't need to compete in that market. Anyone who wants business-grade e-mail service will still get a Blackberry.
But the market for business communications devices is minuscule compared to the market of regular people who like to send e-mail and text messages. Even with a keyboard on the screen, which could prove to be obnoxious, texting and e-mail will still be far superior on an iPhone than on a regular handset.
It could come to pass that talking on the iPhone and listening to music makes for short battery life, but terrible batteries in the early days of cell phones didn't keep people from using them. Also, the glass screen could prove easy to scratch or crack and be perpetually smudgy, which would be annoying. But neither of those would be deal-stoppers.
If the iPhone's interface isn't glitchy and if it truly moves as quickly as the demonstrations indicate it does, the transformation of the iPod from a media player to a powerful communications device will be a game changer.
George Lewis – NBC Nightly News Burbank correspondent
Bob, You make some good points. That unswappable battery may not be an issue for your average IPod user, but when it's your phone, that's another story. "I'll call you back in a couple of weeks when my IPhone comes back from the factory."
As for the wonderful AT&T EDGE service, we've got it on our NBC BlackBerries here in Burbank. I can drive halfway to LAX as I wait for my flight itinerary to load from the GE Travel website.
Then, there's the joy of writing on a glass keyboard. (Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt) Mossberg tells me that after the first week, he got used to it and loves it, but there's just something about pressing keys that my senses demand.
And then, does it pass the klutz test? I've bounced Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung cellphones off the pavement, not to mention that BlackBerry. Wonder what would happen to the IPhone? Mossberg says he hasn't tried that test. Maybe that's why Apple wouldn't give me a demo unit ahead of Friday.
Allison Linn – Business writer
You hear a lot of discussion about the particulars of the iPhone: Will you be able to use that touch screen? Will the battery life hold up? Is it worth the price?
What about, What is the risk that Apple faces?
As my colleague Bob Sullivan pointed out, so far the most interesting thing about the iPhone has been what a brilliant marketing phenomenon it has become. Read the latest iPod story, and it’s not hard to visualize everyone else in the consumer technology business stuffing pins in their Steve Jobs doll, or throwing darts at their iPhone dart board. Why? Because no matter how many highly paid PR people they employ and how many sources they develop in the media or the blogosphere, they will never get the free publicity that Apple has garnered just by showing up.
Now, that's great news for Apple -- if the iPhone lives up to the hype. But what if the battery does prove shoddy? What if there's an embarrassing security breach? What if AT&T can't live up to its end of the bargain and provide the basic service -- a good connection -- that underpins the entire operation?
With expectations so high, some people are bound to be disappointed. Apple won't have a problem if there are a limited number of naysayers. But if there's a real flaw? With so much scrutiny, the iPhone has the potential to go from hot to flop faster than you can say, "Anyone remember the Newton?"
If I were an executive at Apple, that would be keeping me up at night.
Kristin Kalning – Games writer
I'm a Cingular customer, and I will not be buying an iPhone. At least not this go-round.
I have an iPod, but I wasn't one of the early adopters. The first ones were huge and expensive – and I just didn't need one. My plate-sized portable CD player worked fine, so I waited until it expired before grudgingly plunking down the dough for an iPod mini. I was giddy for a couple of weeks – how sleek! how easy! But then, six months into its short life, my iPod just stopped working.
I got another one – gratis – after spending a torturous hour with an Apple “Genius.” A year later, the same thing happened. I would have chucked the thing into the Puget Sound long ago had I not invested hundreds in iTunes media. I’m no longer in love with my iPod. We have a marriage of convenience.
So if past is prologue with Apple gadgets, I'll just hang onto my boring old Motorola whatever-I-have and wait for the iPhone to come down to Earth a little. I'll live without it. I have a phone. I have an iPod. They may not be the newest and the coolest, but I don't care. I don't need the newest and the coolest, and I'll bet that many of my fellow Cingular subscribers feel the same way.
Of course, when my husband saw the iPhone commercial, the one with the dog on a skateboard, he said: "Cool! I want YouTube videos for $600!"
O.K. But I'm not waiting in line.
Jasmin Persch – Technology intern
I am so over the iPhone. All the hype has cheapened it for me. While the touch-screen multimedia-playing, Internet-surfing mobile phone sounds impressive, the skeptic in me fears it's a good-on-paper gadget. Call it first-version jitters, if you want.
Then there’s the issue of the lofty price tag. As a budget-conscious intern, the iPhone isn’t financially within reach. And even if it was, I probably wouldn’t bite. I’d rather wait for others to test this new technology before I charge more than half a grand to my credit card.
Of course, if somebody bought it for me as a gift, I wouldn't turn it down. I have manners. But I'd hang on to my iPod and cell phone until the "I-can-do-it-all" iPhone proves itself worthy as my only wireless device.
Joe Hutsko – Technology writer
What I'm most wowed about are the calling plans, which include unlimited data access. I'm already an AT&T customer, and months ago I managed to find the $20 unlimited data add-on feature to my 1,500 anytime minutes plan (I joined AT&T when it was AT&T GSM, then it turned into Cingular, now it's AT&T again), and according to the new info, I'll be able to keep my plan as-is. That $20 plan I've enjoyed has enabled me to travel to the city for day or weekend trips and leave my notebook behind.
At one point I switched to a Treo phone, which was perfect for checking e-mail, using AvantGo and Vindigo for staying up on news when in the subway or finding restaurants or movie times, and staying in total sync with my contacts, calendar, and -- very important to me -- notes. When I heard the iPhone won't have AvantGo or Vindigo I thought no way will this thing work for me. Then I had an ah-ha moment: Wait, this thing has a real web browser and the promise of more widget-like apps. Who needs those two mini-programs when I can just find the real thing online?
Lucky for me most of my friends are also on AT&T, so mobile to mobile minutes are free. I may even switch to the less costlier plan and trust that my rollover minutes will accumulate over upcoming months. Will I get along with the keyboard? We'll see. But early reviews are saying it's totally workable. Will I miss the fact that there's no video or copy and paste feature? Probably, but those aren't deal breakers for me, and I suspect future software updates will make both missing elements, and more, possible.
The only thing I have not heard much about and want to know more on is the notes feature. Are they stand-alone "sticky" notes or will they sync with the Mac somehow, or with notes in Outlook for Windows users? Apple's upcoming OS upgrade, Leopard, shows notes built into the new e-mail client, so perhaps syncing notes between the iPhone and that application's notes feature is just around the corner.
Lastly, I'm one of the few people I know who actually reads eBooks on handheld devices – first on my Treo 680, and more recently on the Nokia 6682, because it has better reception than the Treo. No, there's no full keyboard, but I manage fine. And the application eReader works fine on it, so I'm never without a literary diversion when waiting in line or riding the subway or visiting a friend and crashing on the sofa. I just turn on my phone and resume whatever I was reading (currently a slow, pleasant read through Stephen King's "On Writing"). I'm hopeful the iPhone will have an eReader soon, and also a productivity suite like Desktop to Go for Palm and other devices, so the iPhone can create Word documents and the like. (The demo shows the iPhone opening a Word doc, but not creating it.)
Is the iPhone expensive? Darn-tootin', but when taken as a sum of parts it's not too outrageously priced. High, yes, but not so high that a gadget guy like me won't spring for one when my next couple of checks come in. Count me in.