Legacy of the iPhone

So the world knows that yesterday Apple and AT&T officially began selling that hybrid iPod-mobile phone device called the iPhone. And we’ve had such high expectations of it that even Web luminaries like Om Malik have written that we’ll have to talk about eras Before-iPhone and After-iPhone. I think he’s right, but not for the reasons he lists.

When Apple launched the iPod in October 2001, it clearly changed the digital music business. However, it wasn’t obvious at the time to all technology commentators. For example, CmdrTaco, editor of the popular tech site Slashdot, reviewed it thus: “No wireless. Less space than a [Creative] nomad. Lame.” For to an embittered tech journo, the iPod initially seemed more hype than revolution.

A year earlier, in September 2000, Creative launched a similar music player called the NOMAD Jukebox (or DAP Jukebox in the UK). It was the first widely available MP3 player to use a hard-disk to store its music, and so could store a massive 6GB of music files. A major problem with previous MP3 players was that unlike the portable CD/MD/Cassette players that they competed with, only a limited amount of music could be carried around. Hard-disks had reduced in size, and including a 2.5″ drive in the NOMAD Jukebox was a genuine revolution.

However Apple bettered Creative’s device in three key areas. Firstly, while the NOMAD Jukebox connected to computers using USB 1.1, the iPod used Firewire, which was an order of magnitude faster, and enabled people to upload their music collections to the iPod painlessly. Secondly, the iPod had a 5GB 1.8″ drive, which allowed it to be smaller, lighter, and have a longer battery life (for example, the NOMAD Jukebox advertised battery life was 4 hours, compared with the iPod’s 10 hours). Finally, the iPod possessed many novel design elements, with the scrollwheel (initially mechanical rather than touch-based) and the white earphones being worthy of note, and clearly identified iPod owners from others.

On the other hand, the iPod was initially very expensive, e.g. US$399 compared to US$237 for a typical MP3 player at the time (e.g. Creative Nomad 2 with 64MB in January 2001), was not supported on PCs (it would not be officially supported until July 2002 according to this iPod history), and did not integrate with an online music store (iTunes Music Store would not be launched until April 2003). So you can see why an expensive product, with “only” incremental improvements at best, and targeted at a niche market could be dismissed at the time.

However, even though it was too expensive for most people shopping for a digital music player at the time, it became the aspirational product in its category because its meagre innovations allowed the promise of digital music to be realised: listen to all of my music when on the go. Despite Apple’s previous lack of presence in the market, the desire for both the function and form of Apple’s product forced all other digital music players to follow suit.

So, now we have a similar event: Apple is entering the phone market, which it has never been in before, with one of the most expensive products, which appears to have incremental improvements over innovations already in the market, but there is an incredible desire amongst the public for ownership of it. It allows the promise of mobile data to be realised: access all of my data when on the go. It will become the aspirational mobile phone, and mobile phones to come will need to respond to its function and form.

That’s if it can pull it off. It’s a much bigger task than getting a digital music player right, because it also has to be an effective phone and Internet device. When the user reviews come in over the next couple of weeks, we’ll see how well they’ve done it.

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