The iPod of phones

It doesn’t have every feature in the world, but most of those it has work very well. It’s fun to use, its design and interface are stunning, and it integrates seamlessly with content on your computer. And though people may not realize it yet, it’s going to completely change its market.

If you’d read that statement a couple of years ago, chances are you’d have guessed it was describing the original iPod. And you’d have been correct: The first iPod, introduced back in October 2001, fit that description to a T. But the description also fits a more recent piece of Apple hardware: the iPhone.

Or, if you will, the iPod of phones.

Déjà vu

If you’ve read the reviews or talked to people who’ve used an iPhone, you know I’m not the only one who feels that way. The general public is wowed by the iPhone’s attractive design and ease of use. Mac fans drool over the things it does right (real mobile Web browsing!), while bemoaning the things it lacks (iChat). Cell phone aficionados have noted several features it doesn’t have, and everyone is grousing about the price.

All of this should sound familiar: The original iPod was praised for its interface, ease of use, and groundbreaking features, yet criticized for being too expensive and for lacking features that other portable players had.

It’s no coincidence that the first iPod and the first iPhone have had analogous receptions. Apple clearly had similar goals in mind when designing the two devices: get the main features right and make them easy to use; integrate those features in a way people haven’t experienced before; use a computer for things that are more easily done on a computer, and then sync the device and computer seamlessly; and make the entire package look and function in a way that will make people really want to use it.

At the same time, just like the first iPod, the first iPhone isn’t perfect. In addition to the features it’s missing, some of the features it does have don’t feel quite finished. And plenty of phones out there do more. On top of that, the iPhone doesn’t come cheap (at least not in the eyes of U.S. consumers, who are used to having their carriers subsidize their phones). All of these things together would appear to support the argument that, Apple’s PR spin aside, the iPhone is far from revolutionary.

Changing the game

But here’s the truth that Apple-haters don’t want to hear: The iPhone is every bit as revolutionary as the iPod was. Not in terms of the features it offers, but in how it offers them—its ease of use, innovative user interface, slick integration with iTunes, and way of making features that go unused on other phones useful.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that we can’t quibble over which major and minor features should have been included in version 1.0. (Although I suspect that many of those omissions will be addressed via software updates; perhaps some will have already been fixed by the time you read this.)

But such complaints—and I have quite a few myself (see “I Want Buttons,” Mac Beat, page 26, for the specifics)—miss the larger point, which is that the iPhone has in one fell swoop transformed the mobile-phone market, just as the iPod did the portable-media-player market six years ago. Thanks to the iPhone, expectations and standards for mobile phones—for everything from external design to software interface to the activation process—just got a lot higher. As a result, just as non-Apple portable media players have improved tremendously since the iPod made its debut, other phone vendors might finally take the overall user experience more seriously.

At the same time, just as Apple stayed ahead of the iPod’s competition by regularly introducing new models with new features and at different price points, the company seems set to follow a similar process here. As the iPhone platform matures, I fully expect Apple to add new features (without going overboard) and improve existing ones, as well as release less-expensive models, all the while keeping the product easy to use.

In other words, calling the iPhone “the iPod of phones” isn’t just a quip; it really is the best way to think of Apple’s latest handheld gadget. Whether the iPhone achieves anything approaching the iPod’s success remains to be seen. But after using the iPhone for a while, I can tell you that it is similar to the first iPod in one other way: Whatever yo ur initial impression, the more you use it, the more you appreciate it—and the more you wonder how you ever got along without it.

[ Dan Frakes is a senior editor for Macworld and the senior reviews editor for Playlistmag.com. ]

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