iPhone, the elephant in your pocket

April 16, 2007

The web was in an absolute tizzy last week over Apple's announcement that Leopard, the forthcoming version of its Mac OS X operating system, would be delayed by four months. The reaction ranged, from chicken little yelling that the sky/stock was falling, to "who cares?" I think Brent Simmons, one of the best-known independent Mac developers, put it well:

Developers doing a Leopard-only release—I can understand their being upset, because it means they can’t ship until October. But other folks? Tears? Really? 10.4 is such a burden to use, we can barely stand it?"

Seriously people, Tiger is the best OS in the world — I'm sure you can muster up enough strength and courage to use it for another few months. Curiously though, the fact that Leopard was delayed was not the real news; the real news is why it was delayed, at least ostensibly. In the very same press release, Apple claimed that the reason for the hang-up was that they've had to "borrow some key software engineering and QA resources from [their] Mac OS X team" to ensure that the iPhone shipped on time.

The iPhone? What in the world does the iPhone have to do with Apple's core operating system? Answer: OS X. Without getting into too much detail here (see Gruber's OS X), the iPhone runs a specific version of OS X, much like Macs run a specific version (Mac OS X) and the Apple TV too.

Now, I'm not sure I buy the whole we-don't-have-enough-people-for-both line (regardless, my immediate reaction paralleled Daniel Jalkut's), but at the end of the day does the reason really matter? Sure, in the short-term they'll suffer some lost sales on both the hardware and software front and ruffle a few feathers along the way to a release, but come on, I don't think I know a single person who is dying to get their hands on a final build of Leopard (save the demographic mentioned by Brent Simmons in the quote above).

Will I upgrade? Of course, everybody upgrades, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over the fact that I'm made to wait a few more months. It's not like this is a Mac OS 9 -> Mac OS X transition — it's an incremental, systematic upgrade to the OS — it'll be slightly faster, some new programs will be introduced (e.g., Time Machine), and the Finder will still suck.

The point is, in the grand scheme of things, the announcement that Leopard is going to ship late wasn't news at all, but for the fact that the iPhone was blamed for the delay. That said, and as Peter Cohen, editor of Macworld, put it, "the iPhone isn't a distraction, it's the point."

The iPod's second act

OK, first things first, I realize that the iPhone hasn't even shipped yet and so the excited, though informed, picture I paint below may seem a bit ambitious, but please indulge me.

In my rushed, though still long-winded iPhone piece, I said the following (I apologize for getting a little meta here):

From Obviously the iPod is dead, which I penned almost 2.5 years ago: "oh, just imagine an OS X-based mobile phone." The fact that the device runs OS X (notice that they didn't say Mac OS X, which is a bit telling for at least a few reasons) is probably the biggest deal for me, and surely others as they come to realize (as Apple starts to push) what a mobile computing device is truly capable of given the resources. While this is obviously a stripped-down, optimized version of the OS, one can conclude that the end goal is to have these devices run Mac OS X proper at some point.

As most of you know, I come from a heavy Linux background and never really thought about getting a Mac until Mac OS X matured and the constant championing of the OS started to pique my interest. Before making the switch a few years ago, I felt much the same way as Paul Venezia, who said the following in a recent piece of his:

You wouldn't have gotten me near a Mac before OS X. I didn't like the UI, I didn't like the hardware, and I certainly didn't like the IP stack. It was great in the 80's and early nineties, but by the time OS 9 was released, it was a joke. Way too many features had been bolted on the side, duct-taped to the rear, and glued on everywhere else. Apple had to rebuild their entire OS.

The fact is, after Mac OS X stabilized, Macs offered me the best of both worlds: UNIX underpinnings and the best GUI in the world, Aqua. The elephant in the room is that Apple is on the cusp of doing the very same thing for the mobile space, which is going to be, if it isn't already, the space that rules them all.

One of the questions I hear so often within our somewhat insulated Mac circle is what effect the iPhone will have on iPod sales, to which I silently scream (1) who cares? They'll buy one or the other — consumers aren't going to suddenly jump from the Apple ship because they've come out with another device; and (2) isn't it obvious the iPod will die a slow death as it morphs into the iPhone?

Yes, the two devices are going to ‘compete' for some time, but eventually the more capable of the two is going to win out. Consumers will demand it. They're just starting to come around to this music-on-your phone thing and will eventually catch up to everything else — things they didn't even know were possible or desired — ultimately, their life in their pocket. Think of the iPhone as a general-purpose computer, rather than as a phone capable of myriad functions.

I think there's an unstated point of contention around the fact that it's called "iPhone," implying a mobile phone first and everything else second. Again, referring to my initial iPhone post:

The [iPhone name] immediately conjures up “iTunes” in my mind and how dated that name now sounds (truthfully, I always thought it was a bit limiting) in light of everything else the iTunes client/store now manages/sells (e.g., music videos, movies, podcasts, audiobooks, etc.).

I hate to break it to Cingular (and Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, all of whom will eventually carry it, even if unofficially), but the "phone" aspect of the device is the least interesting part, and in a lot of respects, irrelevant. It's a given that the device we have on our person at all times has to be able to make/receive phone calls, be that through a GSM/CDMA network or the Internet.

However, as every provider is being made more aware each day, the money is ultimately going to be in the services provided, not the pipe used to enable them — as WiMax, its brethren, and free metro-area networks become more and more common, carrier networks will become increasingly marginalized (i.e., people will simply make phone calls over the Internet).1

I think the point I'm trying to make, and struggling to put into words, is that the "phone" element will eventually be an afterthought — something you can "add" to the device if you need/want it — the iPod will equal the iPhone will equal a full-fledged pocket computer.

Devices want to converge

I've been saying it for years, but I'll be the first to admit that it hasn't exactly played out that way. Sure, there have been some mass-market strides in that direction lately (think of all the mobile phones now that tout, as their big feature, the ability to play music or watch videos, and digital camera integration before that, and PDA functionality before that, etc.), but no one has been able to pull it all together and really push the envelope (indeed, I had all of these features on devices five years ago, yet they're still being peddled as the "new hotness" today).

I hate to say it, but iPhone v1.0 won't do it either. Save the interface, it's not really bringing anything wholly novel to the mobile game. However, it is causing consumers to think differently about what they should expect from the computer in their pocket. You kind of have to think long-term here, years down the road when your "mobile phone" is your wallet, the keys to your car and house, the… you get the idea. Apple is going to get its foot in the door (and its hands gripped on consumers' heartstrings) with all of the fluffy, shiny chrome in iPhone v1.0, but this is just the hook into the untapped cash cow that will be mobile computing.

I'm no floating pre-cog, but…

I think time will morph the iPhone into a more UMPC-like device, a concept that is, admittedly, still being experimented with and fleshed out. That said, do you know anyone who has a UMPC? Didn't think so. And when was the last time you actually saw someone using a Sony Vaio Micro PC? Right, never. This space is practically begging for someone to sweep in and convince consumers it's a space worth filling (you know, kind of like how the iPod convinced people they needed 60GB of music on their person at all times). Some will argue that there isn't yet a market for this sort of device, and I'd probably concede that to some extent, but I'd ask in return the concession that the right device simply hasn't been built yet.

Speaking of UMPC devices, have a look at this video on GigaOM illustrating Intel's perception of a UMPC-driven future. This is just the sort of thing I'm talking about, the direction I think Apple can and should take the iPhone — always connected, always synced, and always useful.

It's my hope that Apple comes out with a sub-notebook2 this year (more on that in a future post) as I think this will give us the best idea of where the iPhone is ultimatey headed; that is to say that I think the sub-notebook (concept) and the iPhone are going to eventually meet somewhere in the middle of awesome to give us ultimate freedom. This brings me back to a partial quote of mine I used earlier in this post: "…one can only imagine that the end goal is to have the [iPhone] run Mac OS X proper at some point." In light of that, and without getting too far into the future, imagine for a second your Mac Pro tower condensed to the size of a pocketable device. Hard to think of now, I know, but it's coming — as time presses on, the differences between your "home" computer and the computer you carry in your pocket all day are going to approach zero.

There's a reason Wall Street is still bullish on Apple even after the Leopard news; they know that the future is mobile and that Apple is not just preparing to ride the wave, but could actually have a large hand in controlling/creating it.3

The iPhone isn't just another networked device, it's part of the first evolutionary stage of an impending mobile revolution.


  1. Yes, I realize Apple is likely going to keep the iPhone locked down in the short-term (i.e., no VOIP clients), but it will not stay closed forever. It's possible that any initial lock-down is a concession to Cingular (i.e., they don't want their subscribers running "nefarious" programs that, *gasp*, let them do something without Cingular getting paid in the process), a compromise to make the iPhone-Cingular deal happen in the first place. However, if there is such an agreement in place, I doubt it will last beyond the exclusivity period. That said, Apple may have its own reasons for locking the device down, but again, they won't shut-out third-party applications forever. As I've stated before, "PalmOS, Windows Mobile, Symbian, etc., all allow this sort of thing; in time, Apple will too."    

  2. When I say "sub-notebook," I'm not referring to an updated version of the 12" PowerBook; I'm thinking more along the lines of the OQO model 02 or the Vulcan FlipStart.   

  3. Of course the reasons for Wall Street's positive outlook on Apple are legion and not limited to the iPhone. Obviously the continuing success of the iTunes store and the iPod, the upcoming Leopard release, Apple TV and the looming IPTV juggernaut, etc. all play major roles in the overall analysis.    

You should follow me on Twitter here