The IPhone Seven-Month Itch

by , Apr 29, 2008, 12:15 PM
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This is a tawdry tale my fiancée just loves to tell.

"It's his second iPhone. He WASHED the first one." This is her sly way of undercutting any coolness associated with my taking out the iPhone in public, which she hates. "Put it away," is her constant lament. She volunteers to pretty much any passerby, "He WASHED the last one. Do you believe it?"

My daughter, who now works with her future stepmother in a deadly tag team that makes the rest of my life pass before my eyes, takes that as her opportunity to snatch it away. "Here, I'll use it."

In fact, while LG, Samsung, and Nokia are all working the lab rats overtime in developing their own "iPhone killer," I had no trouble murdering mine -- in one wash cycle. I did, in fact, wash my first iPhone. I didn't realize it until the jeans went into the dryer with an unlikely thunk. My heart sank. Not only had it been washed, but rinsed (twice) and spun dry. It even smelled like fabric softener.

I learned that Apple salespeople not only sell and service very well, but they also show more empathy than the average mobile store clerk. When I brought my dead phone in (more for proper burial than for actual servicing) the entire bar of Geniuses winced at the story.

So for a fleeting moment, I had the opportunity to opt out of the iPhone cult. To be sure, I have to admit I have been getting curious about the competition. Maybe I am just getting flirtatious almost a year into the marriage, but other devices are catching my eye.

There is a lot of feature pile-on going into this competition, but I am not so sure that is where consumers want it to go. On the horizon, we have enticements like the Samsung Instinct, which will add tactile virtual keyboard feedback and GPS to the mix. Sony Ericsson has an XPERIA X1 that puts a touch screen and QWERTY keyboard in a curved design.

I think it is a mistake for the market to think this is all about the coolest gadget. These phones may turn out to be all that. I don't know. But the need to dazzle rather than simplify seems misdirected.

Nokia, which sells more phones before lunch than Steve Jobs could fantasize about, has more money than God to throw at the market. The company's N95 is hard to put down. I just got hold of one and am exploring the evolving content eco-system, but the device is remarkably versatile. The two cameras, video recording features and wealth of applications makes me long for the next iPhone iteration. The mobile browser is quite good, with zoom levels and a zoomed-out site overview. I am not convinced yet that a full Web browsing experience is really what mobile users want, and I appreciate the sheer speed of the Nokia mobile browser. On my iPhone, I much prefer the sites designed for the interface to the full versions. I don't think Apple itself understands this. The Web apps store for the iPhone still uses a full Web format, when an iPhone-specific design would be more sensible and usable.

I think the OEMs and the carriers must catch on to the fact that the lesson of the iPhone is not coolness or features, and it may not even be about applications. It has to be all about data use for them. The M:Metrics data on iPhone media and Web use compared to other phones, even smart phones, is off the charts. While only 7% of overall phone users listened to music on a handset, and 28% of smartphone users, 74% of iPhone users played tunes. That piece is not just about music playback. It is about distribution, the seamless integration with iTunes and your full music library. As much as I hate iTunes on so many levels as a piece of software, that is still the Apple ace in the hole.

But even Web search (59% of iPhoners) and mobile video (31%) gets juiced by a better device. As M:Metrics analyst Evan Neufeld tells me, the data clearly is showing that "improved user interfaces and design dramatically increases the usage of non-voice services on mobile devices." The real battleground for carriers and OEMs is over data usage, using hardware to ease the pain of using data over mobile and then letting marketers underwrite the costs, not consumers.

Ultimately, I did not stray, of course. I went for the iPhone, again. The seamlessness and sheer simplicity of the phone continues to be unmatched in an industry that can't help itself from piling on features most of us don't need. And as I will outline in an upcoming column, the recent iPhone Web apps for this thing are superb and bode well for the future development of third-party programs under the SDK. Even the best of the next-gen phones I have seen do not encourage data drilling and content browsing as effectively as this interface.

Actually I am on my third unit, since the battery in the second one failed after a month.

"His SECOND iPhone DIED. This is his THIRD!" my betrothed shouts bitterly to the guy behind us in the grocery store line. And although the outburst puzzles him, the stranger with the canned peas in his hand actually looks a bit interested and poised to ask the inevitable, "So how do you like that iPhone?"

When you are 50, working on the second marriage, and have a teen daughter reminding you of your dweebiness at every turn, there is not a lot in this world to make you feel remotely hip. Thanks, Apple. I'm sticking.

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