Apple's New Calling: The iPhone

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Apple chief executive Steve Jobs unveils a new mobile phone that can also be used as a digital music player and a camera, a long-anticipated device dubbed an "iPhone."

The iPhone developed the way a lot of cool things do: with a notion. A few years ago Jobs noticed how many development dollars were being spent—particularly in the greater Seattle metropolitan area—on what are called tablet PCs: flat, portable computers that work with a touchscreen instead of a mouse and keyboard. Jobs, being Jobs, figured he could do better, so he had Apple engineers noodle around with a better touchscreen. When they showed him the screen they came up with, he got excited. So excited that he thought he had the beginnings of a new product.

Jobs had just led Apple on a triumphant rampage through a new market sector, portable music players, and he was looking around for more technology to conquer. He found the ideal target tech sitting on his hip. Consumers bought nearly a billion of cell phones last year, which is 10 times the number of iPods in circulation. Break off just 1% of that and you can buy yourself a lot of black turtlenecks. Apple's new iPhone could do to the cell phone market what the iPod did to the portable music player market: crush it pitilessly beneath the weight of its own superiority. This is unfortunate for anybody else who makes cell phones, but it's good news for those of us who use them.

Cell phones do all kinds of stuff—calling, text messaging, Web browsing, contact management, music playback, photos and video—but they do it very badly, by forcing you to press lots of tiny buttons, navigate diverse heterogeneous interfaces and squint at a tiny screen. "Everybody hates their phone," Jobs says, "and that's not a good thing. And there's an opportunity there." To Jobs's perfectionist eyes, phones are broken. Jobs likes things that are broken. It means he can make something that isn't and sell it to you for a premium price.

That was why, two and a half years ago, Jobs sicced his wrecking crew of designers and engineers on the cell phone as we know and hate it. They began by melting the face off a video iPod. No clickwheel, no keypad. They sheared off the entire front and replaced it with a huge, bright, vivid screen—that touchscreen Jobs got so excited about a few paragraphs ago. When you need to dial, it shows you a keypad; when you need other buttons, the screen serves them up. When you want to watch a video, the buttons disappear. Suddenly, the interface isn't fixed and rigid, it's fluid and molten. Software replaces hardware.

Into that iPod they stuffed a working version of Apple's operating system, OS X, so the phone could handle real, non-toy applications like Web browsers and e-mail clients. They put in a cell antenna, plus two more antennas for WiFi and Bluetooth; plus a bunch of sensors, so the phone knows how bright its screen should be, and whether it should display vertically or horizontally, and when it should turn off the touchscreen so you don't accidentally operate it with your ear.

Then Jonathan Ive, Apple's head of design, the man who shaped the iMac and the iPod, squashed the case to less than half an inch thick, and widened it to what looks like a bar of expensive chocolate wrapped in aluminum and stainless steel. The iPhone is a typical piece of Ive design: an austere, abstract, platonic-looking form that somehow also manages to feel warm and organic and ergonomic. Unlike my phone. He picks it up and points out four little nubbins on the back. "Your phone's got feet on," he says, not unkindly. "Why would anybody put feet on a phone?" Ive has the answer, of course: "It raises the speaker on the back off the table. But the right solution is to put the speaker in the right place in the first place. That's why our speaker isn't on the bottom, so you can have it on the table, and you don't need feet." Sure enough, no feet toe the iPhone's smooth lines.

All right, so it's pretty. Now pick it up and make a call. A big friendly icon appears on that huge screen. Say a second call comes in while you're talking. Another icon appears. Tap that second icon and you switch to the second call. Tap the big "merge calls" icon and you've got a three-way conference call. Pleasantly simple.

Another example: voicemail. Until now you've had to grope through your v-mail by ear, blindly, like an eyeless cave-creature. On the iPhone you see all your messages laid out visually, onscreen, labeled by caller. If you want to hear one, you touch it. Done. Now try a text message: Instead of jumbling them all together in your in-box, iPhone arranges your texts by recipient, as threaded conversations made of little jewel-like bubbles. And instead of "typing" on a four-by-four number keypad, you get a full, usable QWERTY keyboard. You will never again have to hit the 7 key four times to type a letter S.

Now forget about phone calls. Look at the video, which is impressively crisp and plays on a screen larger than the video iPod's. This is the first time the hype about "rich media" on a phone has actually looked plausible. Look at the e-mail client, which handles attachments, in-line images, HTML e-mails as adroitly as a desktop client. Look at the Web browser, a modified version of Safari that displays actual Web pages, not a teensy crunched-down version of the Web. There's a Google map application that's almost worth the price of admission on its own.

Weaknesses? Absolutely. You can't download songs directly onto it from the iTunes store, you have to export them from a computer. And even though it's got WiFi and Bluetooth on it, you can't sync iPhone with a computer wirelessly. And there should be games on it. And you're required to use it as a phone—you can't use it without signing up for cellular service. Boo.

The iPhone breaks two basic axioms of consumer technology. One, when you take an application and put it on a phone, that application must be reduced to a crippled and annoying version of itself. Two, when you take two devices—such as an iPod and a phone—and squish them into one, both devices must necessarily become lamer versions of themselves. The iPhone is a phone, an iPod, and a mini-Internet computer all at once, and contrary to Newton—who knew a thing or two about apples—they all occupy the same space at the same time, but without taking a hit in performance. In a way iPhone is the wrong name for it. It's a handheld computing platform that just happens to contain a phone.

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