The iPhone Wannabes

What Apple’s competitors get wrong about the next generation of cell phones.

Steve Jobs with Apple’s iPhone

Whatever you think about Steve Jobs, you must admit the guy knows how to steal a show. Of the hundreds of gadgets on display at last week’s CTIA Wireless trade show—the year’s big cell-phone confab—the only one with real buzz was Apple’s iPhone, a product that won’t be available for months. The iPhone appeared only briefly at CTIA, but it incited a near tug of war between an AT&T exec and the chairman of the FCC. Other phone makers spent the show trying to explain away Apple’s unstoppable momentum. “There’s nothing like having someone come out and validate your vision,” one Nokia representative gushed unconvincingly.

The truth is that Nokia’s vision—and everyone else’s—has been surpassed. None of the combo cell-phone/media/Internet devices at CTIA came close to what Apple has built: a pocket personal computer that runs a bona fide operating system. Rather than stretching a cell phone to accommodate a video player and browser, Apple squished a Mac into a smaller box with a touch screen, rather than a keyboard. All computer geeks need to know is that it runs Unix. For the less nerdy, iPhone runs Safari, a full-featured browser that’s a whole lot less buggy than some “mobile” browser that can’t parse most of the Web.

I don’t expect anyone but the most overpaid of my Mac fanboy buddies to rush out and buy an iPhone. It’ll cost $500, and owners must sign up with Cingular for service. But what the CTIA show proved is that even if you don’t buy an iPhone this summer, it’s a safe bet you’ll buy something that wants desperately to be the iPhone.

To be fair to the other phone makers, there was some impressive stuff at CTIA. Samsung’s Upstage combines a music player and a high-speed EV-DO data network in a shockingly slim package. The $150 price tag is even more shockingly slim. Nokia’s N76 adds an FM radio and plays just about any music file format you might have on your computer, all in a phone the size of a Motorola RAZR.

What Samsung, Nokia, and Apple’s other competitors fail to understand, however, is that in a do-everything age, there’s a downside to trumpeting new features. By announcing that your phone does two or three cool new things, you’re also implicitly admitting that there’s a universe of things that this particular gadget can’t do. And that’s why the iPhone is such a breakthrough. When Jobs touts the iPhone as three devices in one, he’s selling it short: It’s a computer, not some limited, specialized gizmo. That means that rather than a fixed set of applications—music, video, Web browsing, chat—it can, in theory, run any program that works on a Mac. The iPhone’s killer feature, then, is probably something that doesn’t even exist yet. It has the potential to spawn a mobile application as mind-blowing as the Web browser or Napster.

There’s just one big roadblock standing in the way of iPhone domination. Apple agreed to lock the phone so that third-party software applications can’t be installed and run over Cingular’s network. It’s a reasonable safeguard against Cingular being knocked out technically or legally by a phone Napster. But most of the coolest applications for desktop computers—most obviously, the browser—weren’t envisioned by the companies that sold the gear. Limit the iPhone to apps Apple approves of, and the thing will never take off like the Mac did.

iPhone fans worry that phone companies will fight change as obstinately as record companies. But look at what happened this week: One of the biggest music distributors reversed its policy and will now sell unprotected music downloads for your iPod. If EMI can change its collective mind on copyright protection, it seems probable that Cingular and other phone companies will eventually loosen up a bit to allow more iPhone apps. Just give it a few months to shake out. Once the third-party application restrictions start to loosen, the iPhone won’t be just a phone. It’ll be a platform.

The best analogy I can conjure is that the iPhone is what the Treo 600 was four years ago—a product that changes the definition of a phone. Think about how many people you knew who carried a cell phone and a Palm Pilot five years ago. Now think about how rarely you see a PDA now. The Treo made PDAs obsolete by packing their functionality into a phone with a miraculously small keyboard. The iPhone goes a step further. It’s a phone whose interface looks and works more like the computer you use all day, blurring the distinction between the two. There’s nothing else like it in the pipeline. Microsoft’s Ultra Mobile PC platform comes the closest. It combines Web, e-mail, text messaging, games, and video on a portable touch-screen tablet. But watch the promo video that shows a day in the life of a UMPC-equipped household. No one makes or takes a phone call. Betcha next year’s crop will be centered around phone capabilities.

Still, for all its potential, I don’t think the iPhone will crush other phones. (At least not unless there’s a $49-with-plan model in the works.) Instead, it will open the gates for more products that go beyond the last few years’ parade of not-all-that-smartphones. Once they stop slapping two or three features together and calling it a superphone, cell-phone makers will be the ones to take our computers and networks to their next evolutionary stage. In the very near future, you won’t think in terms of desktop versus laptop versus phone. You’ll do whatever you want from wherever you are, by reaching into your pocket.