Why the iPhone isn't really revolutionary.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
June 29 2007 11:54 AM

iPhony

Why Apple's new cell phone isn't really revolutionary.

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The iPhone's Achilles' heel is its Internet access when it's not near a Wi-Fi hot spot. The fact that the iPhone can use only AT&T's rather slow EDGE network is a weakness that affects the phone's most exciting capabilities (such as application development, below). As the New York Times' David Pogue writes, "You almost ache for a dial-up modem." Oddly enough, you can't even download music directly from iTunes. In a different world, you'd be able to use your iPhone to roam on Verizon's much better 3G network, download media at will, and also use your iPhone as a modem for your PC. But don't hold your breath.

The iPhone is also a closed platform. Unlike your Macintosh computer, which can run whatever software developers write for it, the iPhone will, in native mode, run only whatever Apple (and AT&T) approve of. While there are some technical and security reasons to do things this way, there's an ideological point here, too. The closed iPhone stands in contrast to the open-platform design that has been the bedrock of both the personal computer and Internet revolutions. By design, the iPhone embodies the opposite of what made the Apple II so successful.

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Sensitive to this point, Steve Jobs claims to have left someroom for developing iPhone applications. The iPhone, as we said already, is a miniature Mac, and comes with Apple's Safari browser. Developers will be able to write Web-based applications that will work on the iPhone via the browser.

Whether this will mean much is hard to say. Doubtless, many will take a shot at trying to write a killer app for the iPhone, and some may be pretty good. But the problem is that you have to be online to use a Web application. Unless you're in an open Wi-Fi zone, that means running right into the limits of AT&T's slower-than-a-dialup-modem EDGE network. In addition, the phone won't support Java or Flash, which are both important components of many powerful Web apps. Without access to the full power of the phone, the limits on developers will be severe.

We're left to wonder, then, why the iPhone plays by the rules. Isn't this Apple, the company of "Think Different"? You could argue that the iPhone proves that Apple is no longer a company interested in transforming industries. Once Big Brother's foe, it's now more like Little Brother, happy to sell cute little devices that are easy to use, make money, and spread false consciousness.

If you're an optimist, the more intriguing possibility is that Apple's iPhone is a Trojan Horse. The iPhone is fatally attractive to AT&T, since it gives the firm a chance to steal tens of thousands of new customers from rivals like Verizon. But Apple may be betting that, once it has its customers, they'll be more loyal to Apple than AT&T. With its foothold in the wireless world, Apple may be planning to slowly but inexorably demand more room. If iPhone 2.0 is a 3G phone that works with any carrier and supports third-party apps, then industry power will begin to move away from the carrier oligopoly and toward Apple and other Silicon Valley firms. Now, that would be a revolution.