The once and future iPhone

In the run-up to the iPhone, a lot has been made about some of the device’s sparklier attributes that distinguish it from other mobile phones—big ol’ touch-screen, virtual keyboard, swoopy interface, Cover Flow navigation of media, and on and on. I’d like to address a more mundane but potentially more important advantage: I may not feel compelled to buy another one until long after my service agreement runs out.

Oh sure, I may be tempted by a new-model iPhone that offers greater storage capacity, true-blue GPS, and better power management, but, if Apple does the right thing, I won't feel like I’m stuck with a hunk of out-of-date technology.

Take a look at the phone clipped to your hip. When was the last time you upgraded its software or firmware? Ever? And, if so, what cool new tricks was your phone capable of after the update?

For the sake of our viewers at home, the correct answers are:

  • Never
  • No
  • None

Right. Up to this point, mobile phones offer all the upgradability of a hunk of cheese. Other than the expensive ring tones and Hello Kitty wallpaper you add to it, a mobile phone’s feature set will change not one smidge from the day you put it into service until an errant puddle puts an end to its usefulness. If the device’s iPod heritage holds any sway, this will not be the case with the iPhone.

We understand that you move media content to the iPhone via iTunes, using the same kind of tethered USB-to-computer connection enjoyed by Apple’s portable digital media player. If you own an iPod you know that, every so often, iTunes will pop up a message informing you that a new version of the iPod software exists. Click to download and install and your iPod is provided with new capabilities. For example, thanks to just such an update, the original fifth-generation iPod adopted a search feature that wasn’t there previously.

Granted, most of these upgrades have been anything but startling. Apple has held back some of the cooler upgrades with the idea that if you really want them, you’ll abandon your old iPod and get a new one. I’m hopeful that Apple, with the cooperation of AT&T, plays the iPhone differently.

Steve Jobs tells us that iPhone web applications are jake as far as he’s concerned. Just as jake should be Apple-brewed applications as they become available. Just jack the iPhone data cable into the port below, iTunes automatically launches, offers an update (and some details on what that update provides), and you’ve got an iPhone that’s largely feature-comparable to Apple’s latest mobile phone.

And why might Apple take this route rather than holding the best stuff for the latest models? The competitive edge and the service plan.

Again, name a phone that follows a computer/iPod upgrade model. Being able to offer a mobile phone that never grows old shines an even more glowing light on the iPhone.

And while you may be able to get away with pushing customers to this year’s iPod by dangling glossy new features before them, the iPhone and iPod differ in that purchasing a new iPod doesn’t also require you to sign your life away for an additional two years. Bad enough that, unlike the original, iPhone v.2 can bake cakes and repel mosquitoes. Worse is being required to extend a service contract into the next decade simply to enjoy dessert more often while also avoiding a nagging case of West Nile.

I like new gear as much as the next guy, but I dread the notion of upgrading my phone every year. The iPod-update model should be our guide. Let’s hope Apple and AT&T agree.

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