Tuesday, January 09, 2007

iPod iPhone iGetSuedForTrademarkInfringement

They'd better make it splashproof and wipe-clean else there will be some disappointed fanboys in July after their initial surge of excitement when their preorder pops through the door. The case looks fairly sexy (before the fingerprints arrive). The UI looks very sexy.

Apple have created a niche product here with amazing appeal - to the niche. At the risk of upsetting the Silicon Valley types racing round on their Segways between hip coffee houses to brainstorm about how this will change everything (using free metropolitan WiFi and their suddenly not-so-cool Palm Treos to take notes), what the iPhone won't do is change the world. It should easily carve out respectable sales that make Apple a decent profit without touching most people's lives, like the Mac with higher volumes and a much smaller percentage market share. It won't reach iPod sales volumes, and it might not even meet the iPod's profit margin when you look at the R&D cost of two years trying to gatecrash a new and much more complex market, but it will make money and it will make some people very happy.

Bloggers around the world will unite saying "I told you so", ignoring the fact they have been saying that for years, got half the details wrong etc etc. Cynics like me will console ourselves with the fact they we were right a lot more times than we were wrong, and move on to inspect the slick sales pitch we have been allowed to glimpse.

Starting with the hardware - it's sexy but it's not perfect. The processor is probably underpowered for that many pixels (enGadget says 320x480 which tallies with the early revealed dimensions of a 3.5" diagonal and 160ppi) and that level of alpha blending - when a fanboy in the first flushes of love says it looks "not the fastest scrolling" in the middle of a well rehearsed demo, you know we're getting a sneak preview of see where they had to compromise. Just hope it's not Nokia 770 underpowered. The screen isn't 800px wide so can't quite nicely render most contemporary web pages, but because of this compromise the device can fit into a respectable phone sized package (half a CD jewel case, give or take) which won't feel completely ridiculous against your face. "It's really thin, thinner than any smartphone. 11.6mm, thinner than the Q and the BlackJack, all of them" says Jobs - well the Moto Q is 11.5mm thick, and whilst my maths is a little shaky these days that to me looks like an outright lie which, if challenged, he will probably brazen off as "so similar it makes no difference" or something. But it does hint at the kind of word tricks he is pulling throughout this demo, and I doubt many of the faithful will challenge their messiah.

Jobs uses more great psychological tricks when it comes to battery life. He has a congregation of the faithful in the palm of his hand so he throws in a comment like "A lot of these phones have low battery life. We've managed to get 5 hours of battery of talk time" and everyone goes "Wow that's awesome, everyone else sucks, you rule!" (remember, this is California). It probably doesn't give 5hrs talktime / 16hrs music playback, but that's standard in this industry - assuming Apple's lies use similar metrics to the other manufacturer's lies we can still compare, and 5h talktime is comparable to one of the better S60 smartphones (N73 manages 6h talktime, N76 only 2.75h) and pretty close to a lot of popular mid-range phones too. Acceptable, but not stellar - I find in actual use those same S60s tend to die pretty quickly whilst doing less ambitious things, so lets reserve judgement until someone really road tests one.

The final trick, but the one which is hardest to accurately gauge at this point, is that punchline "BOY have we patented it!". I'll discuss what we could see of the UI in a second, but this seems to me to be a bit of a pre-emptive strike at anyone who says "yawn, a touchscreen with a touch keypad, we've seen them before (until they got so smeared with fingerprints we couldn't see anything any more)". I bet they have patented a load of lovely little UI touches with that touchscreen but there is so much prior art and there are so many ways to skin a cat that I can't believe their patents will make much difference in the long run. Just look at Windows before telling me UI patents will prevent competitors using similar or better tricks in future (and any clever hardware tricks can doubtless be done in alternative unpatented ways).

(For another legal sidetrack, the Cisco fight in the US will be fun. If any other company had the brazen cheek to steal another's 10-year-old trademark like that they would be crucified...)

The patent sidetrack should not overshadow what to me is the big triumph of the Apple phone, and again for me the only reason to be excited that Apple were entering the market - they have done a ground-up UI redesign for a phone, and by all accounts it is very good. Nokia, Motorola, Samsung et al simply have no excuse for not having done this already, instead of knocking out new revisions of S60 with rearranged icons (Nokia) or just looking the other way and shifting as many units as they could before the backlash (Moto). I have serious doubts of the day-to-day practicality of a touchscreen phone (try using one over coffee and donuts and get back to me), and I've always hated touchscreen keyboards, but you can't deny that the touchscreen has enabled some very good UI tricks that should give the incumbents a massive kick up the arse to start innovating in an area which has seen woefully little progress. Something like Visual Voicemail sounds so utterly sensible, that if Apple can leverage operators to implement it users will see immense tangible benefits - Nokia leave the room and hang your head in shame, this could have been yours years ago because you have the operator influence, the R&D budget and the sales volumes. Apple have also applied some common sense and integrated a whole host of technologies which have existed for some time (push IMAP, web backup of contacts etc) - on their own nothing spectacular, as a complete well integrated package very nice. So in conclusion, nice UI, nice integration, very Apple and lets hope it adjusts the playing field for everyone.

Incidentally, this is a lot of what the Nokia 770 should have been - it was a very interesting departure for Nokia, but the thinking was still just too in-the-box. But back to Apple.

Using a lightweight OS X as the basis for the phone UI makes a lot of sense. There are Linux kernels available with tried and tested mobile radio stacks, giving Apple a nice head start with an OS they already understand and slick UI code they just have to slim down and optimise. My take on the way it was described though - "a real browser on the phone, we can zoom in, Google maps, Widgets" says to me that this is not binary compatible with a desktop, and you can put that Photoshop CS2 CD back down. They ported a subset of things useful for the mobile and understandably ejected a lot of stuff that isn't required, without hinting at how open the OS is for non-browser/widget development (apologies if that I missed somethign there). But I bet a lot of people will get overexcited about the possibilities of opening up the phone experience to all developers, just like they were wildly speculating before the launch; those same pundits should perhaps leave the US sometimes and see that between the MIDP world and the smartphone platforms, that can be done already and with far higher volumes.

The photo browsing and other interface work on display in the iPhone left me with mixed feelings. They look gorgeous and I'd love to have them, on the right device. 8Gb flash sounds great - I myself am considering "going gay" and getting an 8Gb Nano as I have finally lost patience with my Sony which pays testament to their inability to catch up - but it is not enough for the all-singing all-dancing multimedia device this OS wants to be running on. For me, that is a minimal working set of music plus a few photos I take with the on-board camera and no movies.

We weren't regaled with details about how the camera has amazing optics or a real Xenon flash, so let's assume it's a passable cheap 2Mp CCD with no better performance than the average phone - OK, but very middle of the road, which is a serious letdown for a phone with such polished photo management software. Unless you use it to show photos to friends over your local WiFi (and even that will be pretty painful if your photos were taken with many megapixels) I see this as beautiful software waiting for the hardware to catch-up; on hardware rev 3 or 4, when 32Gb NAND flash is commonplace and 64/128Mb is starting to make inroads, we might actually reap the benefits but probably not before.

One final gripe about the hardware, and this is probably a lot more serious than most pundits have thus stated - it's just GSM/EDGE/WiFi. Why serious? Well, let's see...
  1. EDGE is quite quick where you have it (some of the US, Italy, er...) and definitely preferable to GPRS but it won't cut it for a full blown web browser doing some serious browsing. Those big flash ads and animated GIFs will take forever to download, let alone big heavy AJAX sites. Wap looks basic but there are some serious advantages to accessing streamlined content on a slow connection.
    For most of the world, WiFi just isn't a viable alternative unless you're running on a corporate expense account (£5/$10 to use it last time I was in Gatwick airport if I remember) or you're lucky enough to have a big free metropolitan WiFi zone - great for the Valley kids, not so great for everyone else. I will add a note of caution from my 770 experiences about WiFi browsing on a small device - I really hope it's fast enough and maybe it is, but a slick demo will not give you enough insight to verify that and given the suggestions that the iPhone is underpowered (see above), I have my doubts. Impossible to call without seeing one in action.
  2. The multi-year Cingular deal is very telling. This says that Apple will not be producing a CDMA version of this phone - sensible from a worldwide perspective, but it does restrict the US market heavily. Cingular are the biggest of the US's 180 networks with 56m subscribers and what passes for good coverage there; they'll no doubt see a surge in subscribers among the gay/graphic designer demographic groups, but many will not leave their current provider - they will be locked in to existing contracts, worried about signal strength in their neighbourhood, not happy with priceplans etc. So the potential US market is actually quite restricted. The picture in Europe is better, but Asia is mixed - Japan and South Korea will never get this phone. In the future they have to try to catch up and implement UMTS and HSDPA, particularly if they are serious about data outside the US, but that will be over a year away and is a major omission for the kind of users they are trying to court. Make no mistake, they have now comitted to the arms race which is killing off some seasoned veterans and thereis no guarantee they can win or retain the advantages this iPhone gives them in the long run.
  3. I scanned the enGadget coverage and could find no word on whether it has UMA-style roaming from WiFi to GSM, but I bet every fan that thinks about it is currently assuming it has. The big boys have only just got this working though, and it's rough round the edges, so I seriously doubt a mobile newcomer has beaten them to it. One to watch, currently uncertain, but yet another bit of catchup mobile newbies Apple will have to play to remain serious.
So for impecable technical reasons, Apple has released a phone which would be a natural upgrade path from an iPod, except that it won't be available to probably half the iPod users in the world. The iPhone will be behind the technical curve at launch and will fall further behind before it gets a chance to catch up, which will heavily impact the kind of data users Apple is targetting (outside of the Valley WiFi bubble). But it looks sexy as hell and it will sell quite a few million units to punters who may or may not end up liking what it does, after the first few firmware updates fix the traditional launch flaws. If Apple can do that whilst shaking up the big mobile players to bring innovation to UIs across the mopbile industry, I will be very happy - but anyone who tells you the iPhone is so revolutionary it will change the world means their own personal world, not the big round wet thing we all live on.

7 Comments:

Blogger Nick Richards said...

Just to note that Orange have EDGE coverage pretty much everywhere there's GPRS coverage in the UK and France (and soon to be Spain I think)

11:37 am

 
Anonymous Gustaf Erikson said...

Great post, basically what I would have written if I'd had the energy :)

12:30 pm

 
Blogger raddedas said...

Nick you're absolutely right, and I'll complain strenously to Thelf for the poor information (he handles the network infrastructure side, not my thing at all ;)

Quite why Orange spent several million Euros on a stopgap technology with little handset support when they have 3G I don't know, but they obviously felt they should do... does kind of hint at who the natural European partner might be, and I think for other cultural reasons they might be a better fit than the others as well.

Gustaf: thanks :)

2:24 pm

 
Blogger Thelf said...

I stand corrected, Nick you are dead right - Orange apparently have it in France, Poland, Romania, Slovak Republic, Switzerland and the UK (cue all of brighton switching to Orange when the iPhone ships). A full list of EDGE operators for the interested is available from http://www.gsacom.com/ (required free registration.

Anywho my three word review on the iPhone "it's a webpad" - I'm going to get t-shirts made up.....

2:42 pm

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

About WiFi coverage, check www.fon.com
That's getting quite big here in Europe.

2:13 pm

 
Anonymous iPod Movie Downloads said...

Orange obviously can do more. Thanks for offering such valuable info to your visitors. Your blog falls in the same theme as mine. Do check out my iPod movie downloads blog.

7:11 am

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

good call on this article, iPhone definatley was just a niche product and by no means revolutionary. lol man do you look like an idiot today

5:04 am

 

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