30
May
09

Don’t Expect Much From the “New iPhone” – Apple has to ‘Play it Safe’

Capture Now that I’m less than a week away from, excluding any unforeseen product shortages, adopting a Palm Pre as my primary mobile device, my peers keep prodding me with questions.  Many of my tech friends haven’t really been following the Pre and WebOS that closely.  Actually, it’s surprising how many haven’t been following it.  Even Leo Laporte (whom I consider to be kinda close to the cutting edge when talking about tech) is only now starting to pay attention to the Pre.  And he seems to be doing it in a very apologetic way.  (‘You know what, I think I’m gonna check out the Palm Pre…’).  The truth is that he’s probably following the Pre because he has to – as a tech correspondent, he has to stay on top of what the current focus is, and right now that’s the Pre.

Having read message boards and talked to other tech fans, what is most surprising to me are the number of people who are anxiously anticipating the announcement of the next iteration of the iPhone.  Okay, so it’s not that surprising – any Apple announcement these days (and particularly one where Steve Jobs might take the stage – and it’s about a 75% lock that it will happen in my book) will get tech journalists pens moving.  But this time around, I’m much more interested in the other stuff that Apple might talk about.  For people who know their tech, there should be almost no excitement for the iPhone this go round.  And there are a few reasons for it.

About two plus months ago, I was buzzing around my office at work.  Apple had announced that they would be previewing some of the features of the forthcoming iPhone OS 3.0.  While I thought the Pre was intriguing, innovative and sorta tempting, I have a tremendous amount of confidence in the folks at the Apple Campus at Cupertino.  I knew (or, at least, I thought I knew) that whatever they announced would make me forget about the multi-tasking, cloud synching, synergetic phone that Palm revealed two months earlier.  Upon reflection, had I been able to take a trip up to the ‘wisdom mountain’ and really clear my head, I would have seen the obvious. 

Success has it’s price, and for Apple, that price is innovation.  When you sell a billon applications and redefine the way that mobile applications are sold, you make a lot of money for yourself and for those that develop for your platform.  If you’re business-smart and care about about maintaining your momentum (they went from a non-player to the number two smartphone in sales this past quarter), you also paint yourself into a corner.  Had I really thought things through, I would have adjusted my expectations that Apple would have announced something earth shattering for the iPhone because the truth is quite simple — they can’t.  Any huge departures from the current design of the hardware and particularly the OS would run the risk of possibly breaking thousands of revenue earning applications.  If they decided to change the interface, the risk is also great that they will alienate existing users.  So they had to play it safe.  (Effectively, and ironically, they had inherited Microsoft’s problems with releasing OS updates – they can only innovate so far because ‘the old stuff has to work’.)

And so when March 17 came, we saw the keynote and the cavalry of mediocre updates that resolved a few glaring oversights, but no knockout punches.  MMS support.  Cut, copy and paste.  GPS navigation (without an application, might I add.  They’re going to let Garmin/TomTom, Mio and Navigon fight over that.)  Search…(implemented in a way that’s so tacked on that it’s kind of embarrassing for an Apple aficionado.)  Most of the announcements were targeted at the folks who, quite honestly, have more skin in the game than us users: the developers who are raking in 70% of 99 cents a few thousand times over.  The ones that are quitting their day jobs to focus on this new growth market.  And so Apple spent half of the keynote talking to these aspiring millionaires.  And for their patience, they gained the ability to write a bit ‘closer to the metal’.  They’ll gain the ability to implement shake and to let users communicate over Bluetooth and a few other niceties. 

Right now Palm and Sprint have a counter running on just about every web page that strikes zero at 12AM on Saturday June 6.  And at that time, many tech junkies will enter a Best Buy, Sprint Store or Radio Shack and exit with an oddly shaped white box, the potential of which they might not even understand yet.  But strangely enough there will be every bit as large a gathering of folks refreshing Engadget and Twitter on that following Tuesday to see what Apple will be announcing at the World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC).  WWDC is typically the site for discussing OS X giving developers a look at any new features before finalizing the operating system.  But it is also the perfect place to discuss a completely new device months or a year before launching.  Giving developers a chance to look at a new device is an excellent time to get their buy in and their support in developing for the platform.  Whatever Apple announces, trust me, it probably won’t excite iPhone hopefuls.

Don’t get me wrong: We will undoubtedly see a new iteration of the iPhone.  That is all but certain.  The iPhone is certainly due for a refresh, if for no other reason than to increase the storage.  8GB for a device that holds music and movies (and with the new iPhone being able to record video) is starting to look anemic.  I expect to see a 16GB version and a 32GB version.  There’s even the remote chance of keeping the 8GB version and removing a few features (my guess would be the camera and GPS radio) and selling it (subsidized) for $99.  (The economies of scale combined with the revenue gained from applications should make this possible.  And if Apple hopes to give a less-than-$99 Blackberry Curve a run for it’s money, they have to drive down the price.)

Whatever we end up seeing at the WWDC keynote address will be talked about for weeks.  But when iPhone users peer over at their Pre-using comrades, I think the envy will begin to build.  People call me a call me a fanboy, and perhaps they’re right.  I do tend to back companies who feed my tech addiction with great products and services.  I guess there’s a certain loyalty there.  And my appreciation for Apple isn’t dead because I think the Pre is a better device than the iPhone.  I’ll be eagerly watching Engadget on that WWDC Tuesday with my credit card in hand just like I always do.  I just don’t think that it’s the iPhone that I’ll be lusting after.  I’ll simply look down at my Pre and swipe the Engadget post off of my Pre.

As much as I think Apple had to play it safe, part of me wonders if there wasn’t just a bit of arrogance floating in the air in the halls in Cupertino.  Actually, given the opposition, I would have been arrogant too.  Nobody was even close to matching their OS and having tossed aside the supposed threats of the Instinct and the Storm, they had almost no reason to worry.  The Android OS was promising, but a bit lacking in the fit-and-finish that it’s peers at RIM, Nokia and Apple have.  Nobody saw this coming.  Considering the fact that Steve Jobs needed to take some time off and with the economy slowing down, this was probably the perfect time to just dig in and ride this out.

It’s quite a predicament that Apple finds themselves in now.  I have no doubt that they will find a way to keep iPhone fans engaged over the years, but I don’t think even they saw the Pre coming.  (I can hear many people telling me right now that I’m getting ahead of myself.)  But let’s look at the matchup.  The only area where I don’t see the Pre as strong as the iPhone is with their app catalog.  But in every other category, it’s a superior device.  And with Verizon and now AT&T declaring their willingness to throw their support behind the Pre, this is certainly going to be an interesting ride.

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