Thursday, 5 July 2007

iPhone = iFlop?

Within days of the iPhone's launch, some clown published an article claiming "Apple's iPhone missed a 1 million unit sales target and rivals are rejoicing". I haven't seen this "target" anywhere else and judging from the fact that most AT&T stores and a high fraction of Apple's retail outlets are reporting stock shortages, it is extremely unlikely that Apple missed an internal target.

Then there are the articles that iPhone will not be adopted by business, mainly because it does not fit the "standard" of Microsoft Exchange.

Wake up, people.

Microsoft is not a standards organization, it's a monopoly.

Any organization which ties its infrastructure to a monopoly when there are open standards available (which are technically superior in most respects) has to be run by morons.

Until they lost their dominance, it used to be said that "No one was ever fired for buying IBM". This wasn't always because they had the best technology (they didn't) but because they had a strong commitment to looking after their customers. If you are a huge customer, you may get that from Microsoft. Good luck otherwise.

Another "biggie" is the absence of a "real" (what they mean here is "toy") keyboard. I can't see myself that typing on a tiny keyboard with real keys is going to be a whole lot faster than Apple's touch screen if it works as advertised. As some have pointed out, learning to type reasonably fast on these small keyboards takes time; already some have claimed to be reasonably quick on the touch keyboard. This looks to me like jumping to a conclusion before the facts are in.

I can just imagine these analysts poised over their keyboards for the first reports of functionality to dribble out, so they could finish their headline "iPhone will not be adopted by business because ...".

In any case, why is this such a big deal? What we have is a simplified portable computer with cell phone functionality, WiFi, calendar, web access (with a few features left out), photo viewing and music. The last two clearly indicate a focus on personal use. The market for personal cell phones is huge, as is the market for music players. Putting these two together alone would be pretty big – as several have tried before. The only real question is whether Apple has a compelling enough product to sell. The initial sales are promising – but the real test will be in how sustainable they are.

So, hype and counter-hype aside – it's still early days, and any prediction of how hot iPhone will be long-term is premature. My feeling is that it will be pretty big but there are too many unknowns to be sure: that's what you get with a breakthrough product.

That leads me to the other common thread: is it a breakthrough product?

Just as with the iPod, there are plenty of other options out there that on paper have the same feature list – even add some missing details. (Like toy slide-out keyboards.) Just as with the iPod, the real difference will be how it all hangs together. Apple can fix some of the obvious annoyances (I was really surprised that there is no copy and paste); the competition can't make a solution cobbled together out of mismatched parts suddenly become cleanly integrated. The difference reminds me of a question I ask about cars: how is it that European car makers can build cars that are made all of a piece, whereas US cars are made all of pieces?

A real big difference I haven't seen much positive comment on is the way pricing splits the handset from the phone plan. This is supposedly a negative. At first sight, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense that (aside from non-obvious workarounds) you have to sign up for 2 years of Cingular, yet the handset is sold separately. My guess is that this arrangement is an artifact of Apple's 2-year US exclusivity deal with AT&T, and they would rather maintain this separation for when the deal runs out. To me, this is a positive: it puts real pressure on Cingular to up their act, to keep future iPhone buyers. If they become the major source of complaint, Apple will have no reason to stick with them after 2 years: if iPhone is a huge success, other networks will have little cause to resist adding in the extras Apple needs from them.

So, in summary, talk of iPhone as being a flop is typical FUD from ignorant business columnists. There's no way the initial roll-out can be anything but a huge success. As to the longer term, we don't have the data. My bet is that it will do well, and exceed Apple's 10-million target in the first year easily.