Is Apple's iPhone a Technical Coup?

While Apple's new iPhone packs an impressive set of features in a thin case, analysts are saying the iPhone is not without its drawbacks. For example, the iPhone has integrated Wi-Fi but no 3G broadband. Instead, it offers access to Cingular's EDGE network, with speeds closer to dial-up than DSL.

Toronto. Paris. Bangkok. Chicago. Houston. And Rediff (which, if you're not familiar with it, is in India). What do they have in common? They're just some of the cities where awestruck, star-struck, and sometimes skeptical reporters have weighed in on the iPhone.
By now -- merely a week after its release -- the iPhone has achieved a new level of hype. For Steve Jobs, Apple's celebrity CEO, it's a publicity coup par excellence. But is it a technical one, too?

If nothing else, the iPhone is, by most accounts, gorgeous -- equipped with a lush, sleek interface and dazzling screen. "The user interface on the iPhone is innovative, visually stunning, and incredibly responsive," wrote Avi Greengart, research lead for mobile devices at Current Analysis, in a published report.

Greengart was doubtful that anyone -- including that breed of consumers known as Mac addicts -- would shell out $500 or $600 on a cell phone until, as he later told us in an exclusive interview, he held the device in hand.

In the Details

The iPhone is tricked out with an accelerometer that recognizes when you turn it, rotating the device from portrait (vertical) to landscape (horizontal). It rotates whatever application you're using in tandem, to show you a photo, a movie, or a Web site in all its glory.

There's also a proximity sensor that knows when you're holding the phone to your face. Why? So it can turn off the touch screen and save you from cutting off a call by accident.

There's even a light sensor that makes the screen brighter or darker, depending on where you are. The touch screen responds to human skin but not to nails or a stylus, as other touch screens do.

All this, of course, comes in addition to the iPhone's 4- or 8-GB hard drive, on-board media player, visual voicemail, and what's likely to be excellent call quality, although no tests have been done yet.

Pros and Cons

But analysts say the iPhone is not without its drawbacks -- much like any first-gen tech product. The device has no hardware keyboard. Instead, it relies on a soft keyboard and an advanced touch screen that, by most accounts, is easy to use. But Greengart noted that some users will simply prefer the touch-and-feel approach of real keys.

What's more, the iPhone has integrated Wi-Fi but no 3G broadband. Instead, it offers access to Cingular's EDGE network, with speeds closer to dial-up than DSL. That won't irk the average user who sees a cell phone as a nuts-and-bolts convenience and not a lust-inducing gadget. But the iPhone's user base will be far from average, and lovers of high-end gadgets are likely to want true high-speed access.

It's worth noting that Jobs, in his keynote speech at last week's Macworld Expo, emphasized the iPhone's capacity to display full-screen Web sites rather than deform them to fit on a cell phone's tiny screen, as most smartphones do. So the iPhone will render Web sites true to form, but will make you wait for them.

Another drawback might be that the iPhone's version of OS X does not let users add their own software , as Microsoft -, Palm-, and RIM-powered handsets do. Moreover, iTunes software is not built in, although the iPhone will behave much like any iPod, letting users synchronize media content with Macs and PCs.

In addition, consumers who want the iPhone will have to switch to Cingular if they already use Sprint, Verizon , T-Mobile, or others, because none of those networks will carry it.

Smartphone Killer?

Some analysts and pundits have positioned the iPhone as the product that brings enterprise smartphones to their knees. Not so, said Greengart, who said he believes the iPhone is a consumer device first and foremost.

"The key is how you frame this product, and what it's competing against," he said. Business smartphones have little to fear, he added, because few CIOs, I.T. managers, or data-center directors will purchase a cell phone whose main claim to fame is the eye candy of a well-designed interface.

But, Greengart went on to say, Apple might just pull a new wave of consumers into the smartphone fold, and increase its own fortunes in the process.

"Apple is trying -- and it's not the first company to try -- to create a new market of consumer smartphone buyers," said Greengart. "And I suspect they'll succeed. At least enough to get to round two."

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