Monday, October 22, 2007

Let My Platform Go

Walt Mossberg, "Free my Phone"

I have been watching the progress of Apple's iPhone for some time. A good friend of mine has one, and aside from my difficulty with typing on its touchscreen keyboard (which would vanish with practice, no doubt), it's one of the sweetest pieces of hardware I've encountered. My buddy has said that the iPhone is one of the first devices actually to look like it's come from the 21st century. I agree.

The progression:

  • the incredibly hyped "JesusPhone" release
  • the far-too-soon-for-comfort $200 price cut to maximize the Christmas numbers
  • the $100-in-store-credit "apology" to early adopters for the precipitous price cut
  • the explosion of software unlocks that both freed phones from AT&T's network hegemony and allowed third-party applications to be loaded
  • the 1.1.1 firmware update that "bricked" many unlocked iPhones and blew away said apps
  • the re-unlocking of the phone by not-to-be-denied hackers
  • the decision by Apple to (finally) release an official software development kit (SDK)

I've also seen and seen reviewed some of the amazing third-party applications that have been cobbled together while the world waited for Apple to come to its senses.

Tipping Point
But it was the last bullet-point there, the SDK, that finally cemented my desire to buy an actual iPhone. Until Apple declared its intentions NOT to destroy the efforts of (or otherwise make life difficult for) anyone trying to develop for the iPhone, they prevented the well financed eBook reader makers, the custom-calendar makers, the e-mail-client makers, the RSS-feed-reader makers--all the myriad developers out there, most of whom have been salivating to port or develop their applications for the pretty little device--from ever taking the risk of adding value to Apple's new flagship product. Stupid, and shortsighted.

Until an SDK was announced, there was no way Apple was getting my money, no matter how sexy the device. And I'm sure I'm not alone: there's too much functionality on which I rely on my current smartphone that Apple either didn't implement, or implemented incompletely. Without third-party developers being allowed to develop fixes for or alternatives to these omissions, I wasn't going to spend good money to lose capabilities to which I'd grown so accustomed.

Why This Matters
I'm going to go with many of the prognosticators and pundits out there and declare the desktop computing world as having reached a plateau. There will always be a market for powerful workstation-class machines, but for the most part it's been saturated. The laptop computer market is still growing well, but in my assessment that's because most desktops are being replaced, and when you can get cheap, very capable lappies from Dell, Toshiba and Gateway for about what you probably paid for your dying desktop PC, why not get the smaller, sexier device?

The real growth is happening in mobile devices, finally. People (me included) have been preaching the gospel of "convergence" for years now, and at long last, hardware is beginning to make possible the holy grail of a phone-GPS-camera-browser-emailer-organizer-photo album-music player-book reader-calculator-otherwise generic miracle widget in the pocket, that will run for a day or several on a charge and talk to almost any wireless LAN or cell network. For a few hundred bucks.

In ten years (possibly five), my prognostication is that sales of thumb drives (small flash-memory devices that have replaced the floppy disk for "sneaker-net" file-carrying purposes) will begin to decline, because everyone will be carrying around several gigabytes of general-purpose, compute-enabled storage in their cell phone.

The iPhone, and especially its next generation with 3G speed and more storage capacity, is the current most complete realization of this dream, because the software doesn't suck. It's no use having all the capability in the hardware, if it takes a bull geek like me to keep the thing running, as my current Cingular 8125 [still] does. The iPhone's interface is so elegant, so "well, of course" obvious for most of the things it does, that people literally play with them in the stores and giggle with delight.

The hardware for these devices was coming all along: it took Apple to make them accessible to the ordinary person. The iPhone, simply, is a platform--the best one--upon which the next generation of mobile applications is already being built. Two minutes of play with Apple's Mobile Safari browser ought to be enough to convince anyone: this is how everything should work, and will work in the not-too-distant future.

(The unit is actually amazingly rugged, too: it's built to take real punishment. There are videos and testimonies out there of people doing horrible things [drops, slides over pavement, runnings-over with cars] to their iPhones that I wouldn't dare try with my 8125, and the iPhones not only working perfectly afterward, but showing barely a scratch.)

Fly in the Ointment
...All of which brings me to the reason I cited Mossberg's article at the top of this one. There are lots of reasons why the United States' cell network is one of the least impressive in the industrialized world, but foremost among them is the fact that cell service providers today get to treat their networks like Ma Bell did its own back before deregulation in the 1970s and '80s. They dictate what capabilities the devices on their networks have; what hardware features are crippled or half-enabled; they impose service contracts of such length as to be almost punitive to prevent customers voting with their feet. Did you know that we wouldn't even have our own answering machines (or their successors, voicemail boxes)--they had to be rented from AT&T itself; sound familiar?--without Ma Bell's rules having been first ignored by consumers, then brought to heel by antitrust legislation?

None of these are measures are illegal, by the way, and I'm not sure they should truly be illegal, in my opinion; but the fact remains that countries like Japan, and most of the nations of Europe, and dozens of others, have prevented situations like these either through regulation or trustbusting, and they have had 3G networks for nearly a decade, while we're barely getting them rolled out now. They've had excellent signal coverage, excellent 3G rollouts, the ability to switch from network to network, from phone to phone, from provider to provider. They've had reliability; cheap unlimited data plans; shoot, the Japanese have had TV on their phones since the late '90s, while Cingular/AT&T's best marketing campaign--since dropped for being less than completely truthful--advertised the fewest dropped calls! (Hey, we suck the least!)

Mossberg makes the point that our wired Internet situation is pretty much exactly as it should be (leaving out questions of broadband speed and availability, where we're also getting our booties kicked worldwide; it's still pretty good for all that): your ISP by and large can't and doesn't dictate what programs you run; what computers you buy; what sites you visit.

Cell carriers can dictate those things, and do.

(It's perfectly legal in the U.S., by the way, to unlock one's phone from its current carrier network. Sadly, it's also perfectly legal for the carrier to penalize you monetarily for doing so, or to implement software or hardware measures to make it extraordinarily difficult to do.)

Arguments can be made about the vast distances over which American cellcos have to extend service; the daunting costs of tending and extending service. To all of which I say pish-posh: if everyone could buy any cell phone and download any amount of data for a low, low price per month, the market for such data services would explode, and money to make the upgrades would be pouring into coffers.

The toll-road, "walled garden" approach of downloading only XYZ company's content on only XYZ devices, and then pay a penalty for using anything of ABC's, or even for using up too much time on XYZ's network, has been proven unintelligent and short-sighted. It didn't work for AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy or any of the others in the wired world; why should it be looked upon as an advantageous business model for the wireless?

The Exception that Proves the Rule
The iPhone is unique among cell phones because Steve Jobs demanded freedom from most of the constraints that cellcos impose on their device manufacturers. Verizon Wireless is said to have turned down the iPhone for precisely that reason. AT&T Wireless was willing to do the deal (possibly setting a business-model-endangering precedent); and so they got the device.

Not without hooks, though; much as AT&T entered into a Faustian deal, so did Apple. Apple has been aggressive in protecting the iPhone's carrier-lock-in to AT&T, both through software updates that relock or break unlocked phones, and through denying warranty service to customers who have run unlocking software. Whether this is catering to AT&T's wishes or Apple's is debatable (Apple's widely known to be receiving a percentage of AT&T iPhone subscription revenues, so both companies profit by keeping the unit carrier-locked), but it's an ugly note in what could have been a beautiful, unspoiled melody.

There's hope, though: all the hubbub around the iPhone's lockdown, in both the hardware and software realms, has attracted the attention of the gadget-buying public. Several class-action suits are pending as regards both the locking of the phone to AT&T's network and the lockout of third-party apps that still applies until Apple's SDK is released in February. It could be the iPhone's sheer awesomeness that heralds the downfall of carrier lock-in for good.

Well, maybe. It could happen.

My Plans
Luckily, I don't particularly care about the lock-in to AT&T: they're the only carrier in the area that has halfway-decent coverage at my house (this only makes AT&T the best of a bad lot, however; see above). As I mentioned, though, I was waiting for the SDK. An iPhone without third-party app support was one I wasn't ever going to spend money on. Yes, ever. But that's fixed, now. An iPhone is in my future.

I'm not getting one immediately, though: I want at least 16 GB of flash RAM and third-generation network speed, which will mean I can truly replace both my current Windows Mobile smartphone and my iPod. That will make the iPhone pretty well my ultimate device, but it'll also mean that I'll be waiting until sometime next year. Next summer, possibly, which will also mean that the third-party, well, party will have started in earnest, and that apps should be available by the dozens.

Can't wait.


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