In early 1999, Apple pulled off an extraordinary marketing coup by wrapping its new line of iMac computers in coloured plastic panels and introducing them in a range of five fruity "flavours" -- grape, tangerine, strawberry, blueberry and lime. More than any other feature of the iMac, this one low-tech design element marked a whole new way of thinking about computers -- fun, like candy! -- and it made it possible for people to care about a technological device the way they care about a favourite reading chair or coffee mug. The years since have amounted to a non-stop Apple love-in, starring a parade of iPods and multi-coloured Nanos and Minis. On June 29, though, when the company finally unveiled its iPhone -- known to bloggers as "the Jesus phone" -- to dizzying fanfare in the U.S., you would've thought it had found a cure for unhappiness.
Billed by Steve Jobs, Apple's resident oracle, as a "revolutionary" all-in-one device, the iPhone is an iPod, a smart phone, and Internet on the go -- all done up in a gleaming package. But now that the artifact has revealed itself, critics are already questioning whether the iPhone lives up to the hype, or if it's just more fruity flavouring. I
As expected, initial demand for the iPhone -- priced at US$499 for a four-gigabyte model and US$599 for an eight-gigabyte model -- was overwhelming. Estimates place the number of units sold over the first weekend anywhere from 500,000 to 700,000. Within a week, Apple's stock soared to a record high of over US$130. (It was bumped even higher Tuesday when analysts speculated that a smaller, cheaper Nano version of the iPhone could hit the market later this year.) The launch also proved to be a triumph for AT&T, which has the exclusive rights as the iPhone's carrier in the U.S. Company spokesperson Mark Siegel told reporters, "In its first weekend, we sold more iPhones than in the first month of any other wireless phone AT&T ever offered."
Sadly for us, Apple has yet to strike a deal with a Canadian service provider. But the limited accessibility of the phone -- whether because of production constraints or by design -- only serves to make people covet the device more desperately. "It's typically Apple," says Kevin Restivo, an analyst with Toronto's SeaBoard Group, of the tightly controlled launch. "Steve Jobs is the ultimate circus master."
Early reviews of the device were glowing. Design-wise, the iPhone is in another stratosphere. The touch-screen interface, and the fact that the phone knows whether you're holding it horizontally or vertically, give it that magic-trick quality. David Pogue of the New York Times described the Web browser as "a real dazzler," and Ed Baig of USA Today said this "expensive, glitzy wunderkind is indeed worth lusting after." Though, as one Slate writer pointed out, both of these reviewers have books on the iPhone pending, so it'd better be worth the ink.
But there's an enormous risk involved in pushing expectations so high and availability so low. One wonders, what exactly will this thing do for you? Anything short of improving the quality of the friends you can call or the calibre of music you can download will be a disappointment. Already, iPhone backlash has come fast and furious. People who've grown accustomed to an 80-gigabyte iPod say there's not nearly enough memory. The touch-screen keypad is awkward to use. The batteries don't last long and cost US$89 to replace. And several critics have reported frequent crashes.
But the biggest complaint is the fact that it's only usable on the AT&T network. iPhone users must commit to a two-year AT&T contract at a minimum cost of US$1,400 in order to even activate the phone. According to Slate writer Tim Wu, "AT&T's rather slow EDGE network is a weakness that affects the phone's most exciting capabilities." (Right now, hackers are working night and day to "unlock" the phones, so that they might be used with any service provider.)
Ultimately, while the iPhone remains the hottest accessory on the market, it's currently more useful as a status object than a life-altering device."If you want reliable, secure, always-on email access, then you have to go with the [RIM's] BlackBerry," says Restivo. "You can't rely on the iPhone for that." Jobs has set a goal of taking one per cent of the world's cellular market by the end of 2008. He'll probably get it. But there's a reason RIM's stock shot up by seven per cent the Monday after the iPhone launch. Then again, maybe we're just jealous.