And the Phone Played On

Let’s get this straight first: I am not an iPhone apologist, or worshipper, or acolyte. I have held one in my hand, yes, and it was an enjoyable experience. I am very optimistic about the iPhone’s potential to be a successful product and to change the cellular phone market. But at the same time, the devil’s in the details — and it seems that we won’t have very many details until the iPhone arrives. That arrival is four months away.

In the interim, everyone who’s interested in the iPhone has nothing more to go on. But something has to fill that news vacuum. Fortunately, the Associated Press is here to provide us with some iPhone analysis, courtesy of many of the iPhone’s potential competitors.

I was fascinated by this particular article largely because it shows when there’s a potentially major change in your line of work or your way of thinking, you’ve got to decide whether to live in denial or begrudgingly acknowledge that things have changed.

“Apple’s an also-ran”

Leading off the denial hit parade is Samsung Senior Vice President Peter Skarzynski, who writes the iPhone off as a me-too product: “They’re just jumping into the party where everyone else is.”

Reinforcing his point is Motorola CTO Padmasree Warrior, who wrote a blog entry that gave Apple some credit: “As always, Apple raises the bar with a compelling concept.” But Warrior goes on to claim that “there is nothing revolutionary or disruptive about any of the technologies” in the iPhone.

I find these sort of statements fascinating, because whether or not the iPhone is a hit, I think most reasonable people agree that Apple is shooting for the stars with this product. It is not going to be like other phones that are out there. Yet Samsung and Motorola executives apparently think it’s all snake oil, and that their products do everything that the iPhone does.

Suggesting that the iPhone isn’t any different than other phones because it’s got Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a camera and a touch-screen interface misses the entire point. Unlike so many of the mediocre phones out there (including models sold by Samsung and Motorola, no doubt), the iPhone isn’t disruptive because it’s got a half-dozen features that are de rigueur on a spec sheet.

No, the iPhone is disruptive because it’s an extension of Apple’s design philosophies. That means it’s a tightly integrated package of hardware and software. Apple’s consumer-electronics products are meant to be easy to use, to be a pleasure to use — so much so that regular people actually enjoy using them and feel an affinity for them. The cell phone market is littered with phones that are serviceable , or good enough , or frustrating but useful . That’s not the kind of experience that Apple wants users to have with any of its products.

It’s not about the Bluetooth, or the Wi-Fi. And it’s especially not about the touch-screen. To liken the iPhone’s multi-touch screen and the interface underneath it to any old touch-screen out there is like saying that people and frogs are the same because we’ve both got legs.

“The iPhone doesn’t have plastic buttons”

Also on the denial train is Marlene Somsak of Palm, the maker of my current phone, the Treo. “The iPhone appears to be aimed at consumers,” she told the AP. “Palm targets prosumers and business customers who require a rich e-mail experience.”

Several points off for using the word prosumers . Does anyone realistically think that these $500 and $600 iPhone models, with their push e-mail client and rich Internet connectivity, aren’t going to win over a lot of people who aren’t soccer moms? Somsak’s point seems to be that businesspeople aren’t going to want to use a phone that doesn’t have plastic buttons on the front.

There undoubtedly will be some hard-core Blackberry addicts who will bridle at the idea of using a buttonless touchscreen interface. Of course, many people bridled at using a tiny chiclet keyboard on a phone, too. We simply don’t know how usable the iPhone is going to be for people who write huge volumes of text on teensy-weensy phone keyboards. (Most of the people I know use their Blackberrys for reading messages and sending back short replies. The iPhone will probably do that just fine.)

But if I’m going to mock the three above people, I need to give credit where it’s due. In the same article, executives from Nokia and Samsung showed the right spirit.

“The iPhone will do something, but what?”

Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo said that the iPhone “will stimulate this market, it’s very clear. I think it will be good for the industry.” Of course, he also said that Nokia wouldn’t change what they were doing because of the iPhone.

So for perhaps the best reaction of all, I turn to Dong Jin Oh, president and CEO of the American unit of Samsung: “It’ll definitely impact us, but how much, it’ll depend.” Now that’s the right answer.

The fact is, it’s hard to be a representative of a corporation when you’re doing interviews like that. When was the last time you heard a marketing VP tell a reporter, “Wow, you’re right — our products just aren’t good enough to compete with that. I’d better polish up my resumé.”

“Okay, the truth is, we’re terrified”

Leave it to an analyst, of all people, to put it all in perspective. As ThinkEquity Partners analyst Jonathan Hoopes told the Associated Press: “They better be nervous. But they are all trying to feign complacency.”

In other words, it’s all an act. The big players in the cell phone industry may be playing it cool, but on the inside they’re even more anxious for June to come than we are. Because they know that Apple’s presence in the market is going to force them to make better products, or they’ll be left in a heap by the side of the road.

I’m not saying Apple’s going to win this war — not at all. Like I said, I’m not an apologist or acolyte or worshipper. What I am saying is, the iPhone is a sign that Apple’s entering this market with the full force of its strength and skill at making electronic devices. And as a phone company, you ignore and dismiss them at your peril.

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