Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Thoughts on the 3G iPhone announcement

Apple's 3G iPhone announcement today was probably the minimum necessary to please the community. The real news was the things that weren't announced:

--No tablet device (again).
--No major changes to the form factor of the iPhone.
--No other major product announcements.

Apple has made its Macworld and WWDC keynotes into a specialized form of performance art, complete with cleverly-dropped pre-announcement hints, and often some sort of surprise at the end of the speech. Apple's own past successes have now raised the anticipation for the keynotes so high that it's a disappointment if some sort of major surprise doesn't happen.

Check out Engadget's live blog of the speech if you want to see the result (link). It's littered with whining like this:

"We love what you've done here, but we're yawning."
"Man, these demos are crazy boring."
"Man, please let this string of demos end!"
"Another developer demo. Ugh."
"Wow, we heard Apple's stock is down almost $5 since this keynote started. Maybe they should just demo their top three and keep going."
"Someone, wake us when Steve's back."

I didn't actually attend the talk, so I don't know how boring all those demos were. But I think it's fair to remind people that the WWDC is a developer conference. It is traditional to do a fairly large number of app demos at a developer conference, because that's a low-cost way of rewarding your developers.

Apple discussed some other interesting things in the keynote. Here's what stood out to me, with some comments:

The "lower" pricing. This was completely necessary. AT&T claimed in an interview with the New York Times that $199 is a magic price point for smartphones (link). They're right, it is. But as the Times pointed out in another article, the price cut isn't actually as meaningful as it sounds -- AT&T is making up for it by raising the price of the iPhone data plan by $10 a month, with a two year contract requirement that will apparently be rigorously enforced. So to get that $200 discount on the purchase price of the iPhone, you pay an extra $240 over two years.

You're actually losing money in the long run, but now the iPhone is priced in the same way as every other phone on the market, making it more comfortable to buy. That figures to help iPhone sales -- especially in Europe, where the unusual price structure for iPhone caused a lot of complaints.

If they really do enforce the contract, that will probably put an end to the widespread practice of buying iPhones in the US, unlocking them, and shipping them to places like China. But the iPhone is getting much stronger international distribution, with up to 70 countries in the works according to Apple. We have no way of knowing how well the contracts will be enforced around the world. Chances are there will be gray market leakage from somewhere.

Notification vs. background processing. One of the critiques of the iPhone is that it doesn't allow third party applications to run in the background, without being visible to the user. Apple said this is to prevent background applications from hurting performance, the way they do on Windows Mobile. But that's a very disingenuous explanation -- Windows Mobile manages memory very strangely, often leaving things in memory whether they run in the background or not. You could create a very efficient architecture that still allows background processing.

Apple says it has solved the background problem by setting up a notification server that can wake up applications on your iPhone and pass incoming messages to them. I don't know how that looks on screen -- since Apple won't run apps in the background, does that mean they'll suddenly launch on screen and start operating on their own? Creepy. And although notification does some of the things you'd want from the background, it doesn't do them all. For example, some developers want to write background applications that would perform tasks automatically, whether they are pinged by an outside server or not.

All in all, it's interesting that Apple's establishing a messaging server for iPhones. Combine that with Apple's new MobileMe service, and Apple is gradually creating a lot of back end infrastructure for the iPhone. In the long run, Apple could build many innovative new services around that infrastructure.

I wonder if they'll charge developers a fee for passing messages through the Apple infrastructure.

When do the developer limits come off? Apple bragged in the keynote that there were 25,000 applicants to the iPhone developer program, but the company admitted only 4,000. In other words, they seriously pissed off 21,000 developers. Not the sort of thing I would brag about, but this is Apple and they can sometimes operate on a different set of rules.

The question is, when (if ever) do the other 21,000 developers get into the program? As far as I know, Apple was silent on that issue. If they were about to open up the program, you'd think they would have announced that.

The application demos skew toward consumers. Four of the applications demonstrated during the keynote were games, one was a consumer news applications, one was a social network product (Loopt), one was consumer shopping (eBay), one was consumer blogging (TypePad), one was sports information, and two were vertical medical. Although Apple talked about enterprise at the start of the keynote, the apps they chose to demo tell you everything you need to know about who Apple sees as the iPhone's buyers.

What happens next? The iPhone is only a year old, and it generally takes 18 months to design a major new device. So the 3G iPhone we saw today was probably already in early development when the original iPhone was launched. We could see more radical hardware change this fall, but I think it's more likely that would wait for Macworld 2009.

What happens to iPod pricing? I was surprised that the price of the iPod Touch didn't change today. It now looks more expensive than the iPhone, and it lacks GPS. I would not be shocked if the Touch ends up getting a price action this fall.

As for when we'll see the long-rumored larger-screen iPod/iPhone, your guess is as good as mine. Fall is the best time for introducing new products, because it's right before the holiday/new year buying season. If the product exists, that would be the time to announce it.

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