Monday, 15 January 2007

The iPhone is not a phone

Concluding thought on the iPhone (for a while):

Usually I take a few days to think about a mobile announcement before I write it up. That gives me time to read other comments and get my own thoughts settled. But there was so much attention on the iPhone that I posted ideas as I went along. I hope you didn't mind the stream of consciousness approach.

So now it's a week later, and I've come full circle to where I was when I first heard the announcement: I think it's not a phone. It's an entertainment-focused mobile computer.

If you judge the iPhone first as a phone, it's very hard to justify. I think this has driven some of the skepticism that we've seen in online commentary about the iPhone in recent days. The lack of a keypad makes it harder than a regular phone to dial, and SMS will be awkward to use. That's a substantial barrier in the US, and an even greater drawback for a phone in Europe and Asia. (Hey, mobile phones have failed in Europe just for having the keys poorly arranged.) The battery life also looks like it may be disturbingly short.

The price of the iPhone is uncomfortably high for a phone, and Apple's forecast of 10 million units shipped by the end of 2008 is very hard to justify when you look at the total number of mobile phones sold at that price point. Richard Windsor of Nomura, a telecom analyst I respect deeply, predicts that Apple will sell only two million iPhones this year, and at most five million more in 2008. If that happened, Apple could be stuck with more than half a billion dollars in unsold hardware. Windsor writes: "Apple has arrived in the smartphone market but how long it stays remains to be seen."

But if you look at the iPhone first as a mobile computer for entertainment, with phone features added in where convenient, things look very different. The lack of a keypad then becomes a reasonable compromise to get a large screen (great for video and browsing) in a tiny device. The price is still high, but Apple has continuously offered iPod products in the $400-$500 range. The iPhone is close to the price of a high-end iPod, and has a host of additional features. iPod sales have been running at about eight million units a quarter, so ten million iPhones in 18 months is not a ridiculous number. If Apple can get a reasonable percentage of loyal iPod owners to step up to the iPhone, it won't have to attract all that many new users to make its 10 million number.

Remember, Apple owns its own retail channel. So it has a very good idea of what its customers like and dislike.

Far from revolutionizing the phone, what Apple's doing is launching the most ambitious mobile entertainment device in many years. Here's hoping they succeed -- if they do, some other companies might feel encouraged to try bold mobile computing experiments of their own.

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