Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Impact of the Apple iPhone

It's too early to tell if the Apple iPhone will be a sales success; we'll have to see how the product actually works. But I think Apple's announcement is very promising, and whether or not the product is a best-seller, it resets a lot of the agenda for the mobile industry.

This post is in three parts:

--Information on the iPhone. What we know for sure about its specs and functionality, and other information that appears to be true but is not yet confirmed.

--Prospects for the product. Speculation on the iPhone's potential sales success. Who might want it and why.

--Impact on the industry. Who suffers, what the opportunities are, what to watch for next, and what to do if you're working at a mobile company.

Information on the iPhone

Before I even get into details about the iPhone, I want to acknowledge for the record that Steve Jobs does great announcements. The Apple faithful were appropriately awed. But the most impressive moment to me was his handling of Google and Yahoo. Both companies are posturing as the future dominators of mobile data, but Jobs managed to have each of them on stage, in order, catering to him. A wonderful power play, and a nice inversion of that first Macworld after Steve's return when he kowtowed to Microsoft. This is a long, multiyear exercise in personal and corporate redemption.

About the device. It's a small mobile device with a touchscreen-centric interface. It has a 160-dpi 320x480 screen, four gigs or eight gigs of memory, a quad-band GSM/Edge cellular radio (not 3G), WiFi (802.11 b and g), Bluetooth 2.0, and a two megapixel camera.

The device senses whether it's being held horizontally or vertically, and rotates the screen image appropriately. There's a proximity sensor to turn off the touchscreen when the phone is held against your face, and an ambient light sensor to dim the screen when you're in low light conditions.

The device weighs 4.8 ounces / 135 grams, and is nicely sized (not as thin as some phones, but acceptable size and weight for most phone users).

Battery life is supposedly five hours of talk and 16 hours of music playback.

There are no buttons on the face of the device -- dialing, typing, and all user interface is controlled through the touchscreen.

The operating system is Mac OS X. Bundled software includes the Safari Web browser, an e-mail, Google Maps and associated location-based services, iPod music and video playback, a suite of phone apps (address book, threaded SMS, calendar, dialer, visual voicemail [pick messages from a printed list on screen]), photo management software, and some widgets provided by Apple.

The visual voicemail feature is nice to see but also frustrating because we were talking about this feature at Palm roughly four years ago. Sigh.

The touchscreen interface includes multi-touch support, so you can use on-screen gestures to navigate the interface. For example, you can pinch two fingers together to shrink an image, and spread two fingers to enlarge it. This will be especially important to applications like the Web browser, which lets you zoom in and out on web pages.

Price is $499 for four gigs and $599 for eight gigs. That price apparently requires purchase of a two-year service plan from Cingular. The phone is exclusive to the Cingular network in the US for "multiple years." Availability is June in the US, late 2007 in Europe, and 2008 in Asia.

What it doesn't do. There are apparently some important restrictions on the functionality of the device.

No direct connection to iTunes. Time Magazine reports that you can't download songs and videos directly from iTunes; instead, you have to go through a PC or Mac and then sync the songs over. That may be a blessing since the phone doesn't have 3G performance, but it ought to work direct at least on WiFi.

No wireless sync. You have to use a cable to sync it to a PC, even though it has high-speed wireless. Again, why restrict this?

No third party apps. This one was a shock to me. Michael Gartenberg of Jupiter Research reports that Apple says the iPhone is a closed device -- only Apple will be able to add applications to it. Michael thinks it won't be an issue to the masses, but I think it's a huge missed opportunity for Apple. They have Mac OS X in there, they have the Widgets infrastructure -- if they turned the developers loose on it they could rapidly amass an incredible array of add-on features and system completers. I don't know if the restriction on third party apps is a temporary thing, or an intentional and permanent part of Apple's plan.

No Office enclosure support. Michael also reports that Microsoft Office files enclosed by e-mails can't be read by the iPhone. I lived through this sort of restriction at Palm, and it is a stopper for serious e-mail users. This is exactly the sort of thing that third party developers could fix if Apple opened the platform.

What we don't know:
--What's the processor and its speed? (Just curious about this; it doesn't make much difference to the user.)
--How powerful is the battery, and can it be replaced by the user? (This is important because I suspect that doing heavy media and maintaining a wireless connection will drain the battery fairly fast. I remember back when Palm thought the Treo didn't need a replaceable battery. Wrong.)
--Will the GSM SIM card be removable? (This might let you use the device on another network, although you'd still have to buy it with a service plan.)
--What's the price of the required Cingular service plan?

Prospects for the iPhone: Great, for a segment

As I've said a few times, I think the market for mobile data devices is split into at least four big segments: people who won't pay more for anything other than voice (65% of the population), people who will pay extra for communication features, people who will pay extra for information management features, and people who will pay extra for entertainment features (each of those three groups are about 12% of the population). The iPhone looks like an ideal offering for the entertainment-centric users. Steve says he wants one percent of the mobile phone market (for now). I think that the iPhone and its lower cost offspring could eventually get about 12%.

Is that a big number or a small one? Well, it's a hundred million phones, and would be enough to make Apple a top five phone vendor. So it's a big hairy number.

Of course, that's assuming the phone actually works. I think it will -- the demos today were very impressive -- but we can't really tell yet. Here are some thoughts on drawbacks and preliminary conclusions:

It's a segment, not the whole smartphone market. Jobs compared the iPhone aggressively to other smartphones, but that's confusing. There is no unified smartphone market. You can anticipate a lot of confusing articles and web posts in the next few months with people arguing over whether the iPhone is the ultimate mobile thing, all based on their own personal preferences. Here's the answer -- there is no single ultimate mobile device, let's talk about which segments will like it and which won't.

How good will the battery life be really? I'm very suspicions of the power requirements of a wireless + media device that's as thin as the iPhone. It's going to be bought first by enthusiasts who'll use it a lot. If the batteries go flat in a single day's heavy use, that's going to be a major issue. It's one thing when your iPod runs out of power; it's a very different thing when it takes your mobile phone down with it.

Apple can sidestep the problem partially if the battery can be replaced by the user. If not, watch battery life really carefully.

A lot depends on the multi-touch interface. Since there are no buttons, there's no familiar interface to fall back on if people can't figure out the interface. Multi-touch looks really cool when demonstrated by someone who knows it well, but will the average user be able to figure it out? Will the system be able to distinguish well between a tap and the beginnings of a gesture? For example, what if I'm trying to expand an image in the browser, and the system thinks I tapped on a button in the web page? This could create the sort of mess that makes people throw devices against the wall.

Would you like a side order of grease with your phone screen? In the mobile industry, the general belief is that it's bad to have the phone's screen pressed directly against your face -- it'll pick up oil and/or makeup from your face, and get smudged very quickly. Apple's going to test whether that's a real problem or just a superstition in the industry. (David Pogue says Apple came up with a screen coating that minimizes the grease problem.)

This design may not go over as well in Europe and Asia as it will in the US. In the US it's easy for Steve to give a speech saying how stupid it is to type using a phone keypad. In Europe and parts of Asia, a lot of phone users are very used to doing it for SMS, and no matter how stupid Steve tells them they are, they kind of like doing it. I think they may not be happy trading in their physical keypad for a screen where they can't feel the keys. That forces them to look at the screen when they type.

For these people, Apple's product is like trying to get touch typists to use a keyboard that's just a flat glass surface without moving keys. With the single exception of the sets on Star Trek, this has never been accepted by anyone because the ergonomics are bad.

I think Apple is at risk when it tries to change the established habits of users.

This is a poor device for communication-centric users. RIM's stock was hammered today, but I think that's a mistake. Yes in the long term there's a risk to RIM from any new competitor, but stock market valuations are not generally driven by multi-year trends. The iPhone as currently designed is a lousy device for RIM's communication-centric users because it doesn't have a keyboard and because it can't handle Outlook attachments. It has a lot of features those communication-focused users don't care about and won't pay extra for.

Trashing RIM stock because of the iPhone is like trashing the stock of Caterpillar Tractor because someone brought out a new sports car.

Impact on the industry

The immediate impact of the iPhone is that it changes the terms of the debate for everybody. Every new mobile data device will be evaluated against the iPhone's specs, which is going to become very irritating for a lot of vendors because the iPhone isn't shipping yet. It's like boxing a ghost. I suspect that may have been Apple's intention. Supposedly it had to announce now because the device would have leaked when it entered FCC testing, but an interesting side benefit will be that Apple can stall sales of all its competition. I think this is likely to be a very unpleasant time for Microsoft Zune, a moderately unpleasant time for Palm, and an intense annoyance for everyone else.

Curious side thought -- will this also stall sales of traditional iPods? I think there's a chance it will.

Microsoft looks foolish. Robbie Bach, the president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, made a big mistake at CES. He got roped into critiquing the iPhone the day before it was announced. Some of his very off-base comments include:

"The latest rumor we hear is that it is going to be a MVNO phone and there hasn't been a lot of successes in that MVNO space for a lot of different reasons."

Speculating that Apple won't sell through a carrier: "Historically, working with partners hasn't been a strong point for Apple, so maybe it will find a way to work around those relationships."

"You have to find out what it's great at. Is it great as a phone or is it great as music player?....If it's great as a music player, then it's just another iPod trying to be a phone."

He ended up sounding both arrogantly dismissive and out of touch at the same time.

Two suggestions, Robbie:

1. Repeat after me: "We can't comment until we know what they're announcing. It's a big market and there's room for a lot of companies in it. We're just focused on making the Zune product as great as possible, and taking wonderful care of our customers."

2. The best way to respond to Apple is to out-innovate it. There's no reason you guys couldn't make a product as interesting as the iPhone. Do you have the vision to build it, and the marketing skills to make people buy?

Apple is focusing enormous effort behind this one initiative. Jobs devoted virtually the entire Macworld keynote to this product -- so much so that a number of Mac fans are bitching that he ignored the Mac. Can Microsoft put the same focus on Zune and its future siblings, or is Zune just one of fifty other Microsoft initiatives?

The impact on Palm is hard to read, but potentially very serious. The core users of Palm Treos tend to be communication-centric and information-centric users. Without third party apps and without a complete e-mail solution, I think the iPhone is not a great substitute for a Treo today for most users.

If I were at Palm I'd be pounding those issues relentlessly in my marketing for the next six months.

However, the Treo has benefited mightily in the US from its image of being the coolest smartphone. It has been a status symbol in Silicon Valley and beyond. Judging from the reactions of the people I spoke to today, I think that position is profoundly at risk. Check out David Pogue's enthusiastic iPhone comments in the New York Times. Pogue is a longtime Palm fan, and before he started at the Times he was a traditional keynote speaker at Palm's developer conferences.

The Treo is still a practical choice, but it's not necessarily the emotional choice.

I think there's a danger that Treo will turn into a tweener in the mobile market -- not as credible for e-mail as RIM, not as good for entertainment as iPhone, and not optimized properly for information management (screen is too small, not enough storage, no note-taking). Palm needs a stable niche it can dominate, so it will have enough money and time to grow its product line.

I don't know if Palm wanted to make Jeff Hawkins' new product a test of the company's ability to innovate, but like it or not that product is going to be compared intensely to the iPhone, even if they don't attack the same problems or sell to the same people. It's Jeff Hawkins vs. Steve Jobs for the title of mobile visionary.

That should be entertaining.

Nokia must be frustrated. It has been doing all these experiments in tablets and media phones, and Apple waltzes in with its first phone product and resets the dialog in the mobile industry. Nokia wants that sort of leadership role, and I'm sure it'll invest heavily in pursuing it.

SonyEricsson has a problem. I've been impressed by SonyEricsson's media phones, but the iPhone is aimed at exactly that same market. Luckily for SonyEricsson, most of its franchise is in Europe, where I think Apple will find sales a little tougher. It also helps that Apple's shipping in Europe later than it is in the US. But I think SonyEricsson will find it harder than ever to penetrate the US, and it will have to innovate rapidly to hang onto its emerging franchise in Europe.

And now, the opportunity. Apple did an exclusive deal with Cingular. I'm sure it will do other exclusive deals with a small number of other operators around the world. That will create intense demand for an alternative product among the other operators. Verizon, Sprint, and TMobile US must all be desperate for answers to Apple's product. That means phone companies that can produce media phones, and software developers creating apps that can duplicate some of the iPhone's functions, have an important opportunity. Samsung probably spun up a team today to copy the iPhone, and LG probably spun up a team to copy whatever Samsung copies. And so on.

I think the issue isn't getting around Apple's multi-touch patents; you don't have to have a touch screen to make a great entertainment product. The key question is whether anyone else can integrate a wireless entertainment device (services, apps, and hardware) as well as Apple can. It won't be enough to just dump a bunch of apps into a device, and unfortunately that's what most of the mobile phone companies are organized to do.

What comes next? Michael Gartenberg made this point, and I think it's a good one. Apple undoubtedly plans a mobile product line, not just a single product. It's possible that the other products to come will plug some of the gaps, and attack additional targets.

I'm sure there is a lot more to think about in this announcement. Please post your comments and questions; I'm very interested to see what you think.

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