The Iconic Smartphone Whose Days May Be Numbered
Love it or hate it, Apple's iPhone is one of the five most recognizable pieces of consumer technology of the past five years, and has shaken up the telcom industry like no other product in recent memory. iPhone's rise isn't just about the hardware - not by a long shot. Touchscreen phones existed before iPhone, as did pay-per-download smartphone software and phones that play multimedia files. But no single device changed the way consumers, wireless carriers, and software developers approach hardware design, selling "apps," and consuming media like iPhone has.
And yet, the argument that iPhone is far from the most advanced smartphone on the market holds a lot of water even as Apple's mobile computer approaches the mid-cycle mark of its third generation (well, its third revision, anyway). The laundry list of anti-iPhone complaints is almost as long as it is familiar: No multitasking, problems with dropped calls, a closed-box operating system and App Store approval process, limited push email capabilities, an arcane events notification system, an overly simplistic user interface built on grids of buttons … and neither a user removable battery nor memory card.
Even with all of that being true, and even with iPhone users suffering at the hands of America's least satisfactory cellular network in AT&T (according to Consumer Reports), Apple could likely change nothing about iPhone and move enough of the suckers to keep outpacing global giant Nokia in total profits generated from mobile phone sales.
But that shouldn't - and I'm all but certain, won't - happen. Expect a major update to iPhone OS, and perhaps some new iPhone hardware, in 2010. And I'm not just talking about a very possible move away from AT&T exclusivity in the U.S., either. iPhone could really use a new carrier, but it definitely needs a hardware/software makeover this year, too.
They'll Do Something ... But What?
Predicting Apple's moves with any degree of specificity more than a few days in advance is all but impossible - they run one of the tightest ships in the world when it comes to plugging information leaks. So I'll try to speak more to "what they should do," and less to "what they might, maybe will do," with the iPhone platform in the coming 12 months:
- Drop iPhone 3G from the lineup, move iPhone 3GS into the low-end slot, and launch a new "iPhone HD. This new flagship phone should have at least slightly redesigned hardware, a catchy new name (iPhone HD? iPhone Pro?) and, possibly, advanced multimedia specs including a larger, higher-resolution display. We might also see advanced integration with other Apple products for use at home, a la a more functional version of the current iPhone "Remote" app that controls Apple TV and iTunes servers.
- Release iPhone OS 4.0 as a major overhaul, not just an update. Features should include:
- Multitasking. Android and WebOS are getting consumers used to the idea of uploading a photo in the background while they check EMail or send an SMS. iPhone needs to support this sort of behavior without losing its dead-simple UI experience.
- Scalable OS and Apps API to accommodate larger displays of an iPhone HD and/or Apple Tablet
- Revamped system notifications a la WebOS & Android
- Dead simple integration of cloud services & social networking that people actually use (not just MobileMe). An isolated Facebook app is no longer enough - smartphone users want to see Facebook photos and updates in their Contacts app like they can on certain Android, WinMo and Maemo devices.
- Serious AT&T performance improvements and/or an end to AT&T exclusivity in the US.
- Launch magazine/newspaper subscriptions and/or book sales via iTunes store
- Launch some kind of "streaming iTunes," even if it's just a minor tweak of the current iTunes system that's more about marketing than really offering a new feature like Pandora-esque streaming radio. I know that sounds cynical of me, but certain consumers will eat it up.
- Launch the "Apple Tablet" running on iPhone OS 4.0 at an HD screen resolution (720 vertical lines or greater)
- Start a new class of apps that will only run on iPhone OS 4.0 or above. These apps will be optimized for HD resolution but also scale down to iPhone 3GS size.
- Jump to 32/64GB of internal memory
One More Thing ...
Then, of course, there's the Apple X-Factor. Apple's made a living - and an unthinkably large pile of cash - by innovating and marketing those innovations, even when those innovations are really little more than cleverly packaged retreads of other companies' pre-existing innovations. I expect Apple to come up with things that I literally didn't think of. I expect that out of the iPhone platform this year.
The original iPhone shook up the cell phone and mobile tech industries by offering a user experience and mobile Internet experience unlike anything else that had to date been adopted on a mass consumer level. Three years later the other guys have all but caught up, and in many ways they've surpassed iPhone in terms of tech and user experience, if not actual sales figures. It's time for iPhone to raise the bar once more, and Apple knows that. I, for one, can't wait to see how they address that challenge in 2010.