With the iPhone, it all comes down to software

The public and industry obsession over the iPhone has spawned—and will likely continue to spawn—a fair number of imitators and wannabes. But none of these is likely to have the staying power of the iPhone, thanks to Apple's creation of an ecosystem filled with third- party developers.

If you check the Web sites of cell phone carriers other than AT&T in the United States, you'll find several products that superficially resemble the iPhone, have touch-sensitive displays or have some similar features. LG Electronics rolled out an iPhone imitator last year, Nokia is said to be working on its response to the iPhone, and Samsung and Sprint Nextel took the wraps off their lookalike, the Instinct, at last week's CITA wireless trade show in Las Vegas. (Speaking of the Instinct, our colleagues at PC World have a video about the iPhone-like cell phone that we've included below.)

Whatever the merits of these iPhone-inspired devices, however, I don't think any of them stands a ghost of a chance once the App Store debuts in June.

Obviously, the iPhone isn't the first mobile device that's spawned a thriving development culture. There are folks out there making products for BlackBerry devices from RIM, Palm's Treo, Windows Mobile, Symbian OS (which runs Nokia phones), and BREW, an application development platform popular on some phone models. But the mobile industry hasn't seen anything like the land rush that Apple engendered when it released the first beta of the iPhone Software Development Kit (SDK).

In June, Apple will release its iPhone 2.0 software, an update that will at last give the system a leg up in enterprise network environments by supporting Microsoft's ActiveSync technology, making it possible to synchronize with Exchange servers and other products that support ActiveSync. That's unlikely to replace RIM's BlackBerry any time soon as the dominant player in the mobile enterprise space, but I think it will hit them in the bottom line, and it may very well have the same effect on companies that build phones based on Windows Mobile.

That's not to say there's not room for improvement with the iPhone. Anyone who's used one for more than five or 10 minutes likely has a long laundry list of features or capabilities they'd like to see. I certainly do, along with everyone I know—and that includes many developers.

That's one reason why we're going to see a flood of products hit the market in late June when this software update finally arrives, because it comes with the App Store, which will allow iPhone users to buy and download third-party software for their device. Games, utility software, enterprise tools, productivity software and other products are all in development.

Sure, companies will be able to produce devices that may have some similar characteristics to the iPhone, but are they going to be able to replicate a thriving third-party development environment?

Interestingly, companies that have created their own developer-friendly devices haven't really generated anything that can compare to the iPhone, and I suspect it'll take a lot of reworking for them to do so. They've already made their proverbial beds with their operating systems and user interfaces, and now they're being forced to lie in them, for better or worse. And many of them are coming up wanting in terms of ease of use.

Even if you're an LG or a Nokia, you're going to have a tough time generating as much interest and as integrated a user experience as the iPhone produces. And that, right there, is going to be the difference that defines the iPhone from its competitors.

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