Thursday, September 06, 2007

iPhone/iPod touch

I wasn't entirely surprised by Apple's move yesterday to revamp their iPod line. What is surprising is how the Apple faithful has responded.

It used to be that, among the Apple faithful, Steve Jobs was a saint if not a deity unto himself. Infallible, all knowing, and just plain cool. He made stuff and people just automatically insisted they needed to have that feature, or device. After yesterday's announcement, that reputation may be tarnished.

So what happened?

At the end of June Apple and AT&T released the iPhone. This wasn't Apple's first foray into the cell phone market, they did so a year or so earlier with Motorola's Rokr phone, which had an iTunes client built in the phone. The iPhone, however, was different. The iPhone was radically different from the other smart phones on the market. It included the same operating system as Apple's notebooks and desktops (MacOS X). It included a full blown web browser as opposed to the scaled down browsers that ship with other handheld devices. It could work with Wi-Fi networks as well as AT&T's wireless network. It did phone calls. Finally, it was also a video iPod. The Apple faithful bought these items in droves despite the less than stellar coverage and performance of AT&T's networks.

Yesterday, Apple radically altered its entire iPod product line. A number of options have been done away with (including the cheaper iPhone version with 4GB of storage), and the whole line has received a new look. A new iPod was introduced and the iPhone line shifted down in price. Needless to say, when you cut $200 from a product people purchased 10 weeks ago, people get a little miffed. Add to that the new iPod which looks distinctly like the iPhone but with no phone capabilities, and it becomes apparent that the cool gadget of the summer was supplanted just after Labor Day.

Now, I've made no illusions about being an Apple fan. I'm a die hard iPod/iTunes user. I replaced my 2nd gen iPod with an iPod video earlier this summer and I really enjoy it. I'm also a Mac user, preferring MacOS X to Windows Vista. That being said, I'm very much underwhelmed by both the iPhone, and the iPod Touch.

Don't get me wrong, both devices have very big cool factors going for them. Like all Apple devices, look and feel have been given as much consideration as features and functionality. They look really cool and function as promised. That being said, I don't have an ounce of buyer's remorse for buying a 5th gen iPod Video this summer.

While the price has come down significantly for the iPhone, there are several issues with it for me. First, if I'm going to buy something to replace my iPod, make the device at least as good as my existing device. I'm not one of those people who will accept degradation of features/performance for the convenience of convergence. The iPhone is a substandard iPod. Its capacity is entirely too low for anything but the casual music listener. Such users are more likely to opt for the iPod Nano to put in their pocket. The widescreen video features are slick, but with the low capacity, can I really afford to put a half dozen movies on my iPhone as well as my whole music collection? The beauty of the high end iPod is that you have all your music and videos in one device. The iPhone's original price point put it in a position to compete with the high end iPods.

Another issue for me with the iPhone is the network. AT&T has lousy data coverage for anything outside major metropolitan areas. If I am going to spend the kind of money for the device and service plan for the iPhone, I want to be able to travel and be able to get my email at the beach, or campground. My office is downtown where the device works well, but I have my desktop and my notebook at my office so I don't need my phone to receive email. Add to that, the fact that AT&T's data network hasn't kept up with the data networks of Verizon, Alltel, and Sprint in terms of coverage and speed and I'm wondering why I should get an iPhone and have to put up with a slower network.

Finally, and this is a bit of a pet peeve rather than a major issue, if I am going to watch videos on a handheld device like the iPhone, I don't want to have to look through the haze of a day's worth of fingerprints, or a week's worth of smudged fingerprints as I try to keep the screen clear.

I see some of the same issues with the iPod Touch. The fingerprint issue is minor, but still there. The Wi-Fi connectivity has been sorely needed in the iPod line so I can sync my iPod with my Mac without needing to use the dock or a connection cable. However, its still only 16 GB for the high end iPod Touch. That's about half of what my iPod has. This device seems to be created more for the movie fan so I would have thought a much larger capacity might be in order.

This is not to say the iPod Touch is a bust. Sure the early adopters of the iPhone are upset, and justifiably so. Their cool gadget they spent a truck load of money on now has a twin that is just as cool, but without the pricey service plan and phone features. I like the fact that iTunes Music Store will be available on the Touch and that music synchronization will happen both ways with the user's computer. I know Apple is big on the whole Cover Flow browsing technique, but I guess I don't use it effectively enough to view it as little more than eye candy. The click wheel menu system is still easy to use and highly functional. The iPod Touch does have some features my iPod doesn't and were I still in the market for an iPod, I might consider one. However for $50 less, I can get an iPod Classic with 5 times the storage space.

What all this means for Steve Jobs and Apple is that they angered a significant segment of their market: their core faithful. These are the people for whom Apple could do no wrong. This is not a segment that Apple can afford to alienate. Apple needs their core faithful to be waiting in lines to buy this seaon's must have gadget. Companies like Microsoft can afford to have a large portion of their customer base be a "wait and see" group. A company like Apple that prides itself for being trendy and fashionable cannot.

This is by no means a boon to Microsoft for their Zune or Palm for their Treo. Apple is just entering the highly competitive cell phone world and they're bound to make a mistake here and there. The iPod product line is still the product line to compete with for digital media players. This incident isn't going to drive existing iPod users to switch and since the iPhone early adopters are all locked into 2 year contracts, they're not going anywhere. Apple will refund the difference for iPhone purchases made within the last two weeks. However, this whole debacle, while embarrassing for Apple, isn't going to really drive the Apple faithful away. Steve Jobs is a survivor. He was fired from Apple once and came back to drive the current renaissance of Apple innovation. After the profound success of MacOS X, the conversion to Intel processors, the iPod, iTunes, and the iTunes Music Store, I believe the board at Apple will forgive Steve this one little faux pas. If Apple and Steve Jobs can learn from this misstep, they'll be even harder for Microsoft and others to beat.

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