Not waiting on the world to change

What a shocking, stunning, surprising Macworld Expo keynote address Steve Jobs gave today. It was strange and different in so many ways, from the complete lack of new Mac announcements (at Mac world Expo!) to the surprising removal of “Computer” from the company’s name after thirty years.

While Apple’s promotional machine tends to act like every product the company produces is a groundbreaking, earth-shattering new development, the introduction of the iPhone was not like most previous Apple product announcements. Clearly everyone at the company, from Steve Jobs on down, feels that the iPhone is going to be a transformative product, one that doesn’t just thrust Apple into a new and highly competitive market, but makes them a leader and a serious player overnight.

At its core, Apple has always been about using technology to change the world — specifically, the lives of everyday people. (Unlike John Mayer, Steve Jobs does not seem content to wait on the world to change.) With the evolution of computer technology into tiny, portable devices, Apple has finally found the perfect place to express its values of high technology and absolute simplicity. The iPod started it off, but with the iPhone there’s no doubt anymore: Apple really is much more than just a computer company. It’s a technology company whose goal is to use great hardware and software to make devices that people will use in just about every part of their lives.

The iPhone is the big example from today, but the announcement of Apple TV fits in too. Apple is pushing their technology, their relentless integration of hardware and software, into all sorts of new places. Yes, fans of Apple’s computers may be concerned about the company’s new name, but you really shouldn’t be. This isn’t some new Apple you’ll need to get to know — this is, in fact, the company that made the Mac great applying those same product philosophies to a whole slew of new areas. Just as the personal computer market needed a Mac in 1984, the complex and fractured world of cell phones could really use a kick in the pants. And the iPhone’s providing that kick.

Will Apple become the dominant cell phone maker in the world? I kind of doubt it. But I think it’ll be a serious player, and I think its presence in the market will force everyone else who develops cell phones to drop a lot of their assumptions and accept that some of their phones’ features simply aren’t good enough for consumers.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about today’s keynote, however, was the depth and complexity of the iPhone. Steve Jobs was on stage for about two hours, and almost all of it — barring a brief Mac update and a short venture into the Apple TV — was devoted to the iPhone. This wasn’t the sort of lengthy, demonstrated and then re- demonstrated keynote that gives the audience the sense that something fell through at the last minute and Jobs is just up there filling time. No, this was a presentation full of content, perhaps the most exhaustingly detailed product roll-out I can remember from Apple.

And yet for every piece of information we got about the iPhone, I found myself adding a half-dozen questions to that list of questions I keep rolled up inside my head. According to Apple, the iPhone runs Mac OS X. Will Mac developers be able to develop programs that will run on the iPhone? What about the iPhone’s “widgets” — are those essentially Dashboard widgets, or something else? Why does the iPhone’s SMS messaging program look like iChat, but not let you use the phone’s networking features to connect to the real AIM network?

The list goes on, and I’ll be sitting down with Apple tomorrow to ask as many of them as I can. But I think it says something about this product that, as simple as it’s meant to be, it has a level of depth that we simply didn’t see in the iPod. The iPhone is, indeed, something more akin to the Mac than to the iPod. It’s a whole complex device, something that we’d probably call a handheld computer if we weren’t calling it a phone instead.

Another question, too, is about the positioning of this product versus the iPod. A widescreen iPod for watching videos would seem to be a great product, but this new widescreen iPhone has an iPod nano-sized storage capacity. Is there another, hard-drive-based iPod waiting in the wings? One that looks a lot like an iPhone, but with more storage space and without phone features? Clearly there’s a whole lot more to say about how the iPod and iPhone product lines come together and split apart, and it’ll take a few months for it all to make sense.

Before I go, a comment about the name. I admit it: I was completely convinced that iPhone was not this product’s name. Shows you what I know about the inner workings of Apple. But I’m still not that big a fan of the name. I’m kind of over the whole “iProduct” thing. But I don’t get a vote, and Steve Jobs does, so there you go.

In any event, I’ve already ordered my Apple TV, and I fully expect that I’ll be moving on to an iPhone in the very near future. As John Mayer pointed out as the keynote event ended, Five months is long time to wait for a new Apple gadget. At least I’ll have an Apple TV to keep me company in the meantime.

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