By Harry McCracken | Monday, December 28, 2009 at 1:34 am
Remember the very first iPhone–the one that sold for $249, had an iconic click wheel, a cool slide-out keypad, and a unique two-battery design–and which ran on Apple’s very own nationwide wireless network? No, not the iPhone that Steve Jobs unveiled at Macworld Expo San Francisco on January 9th, 2007. It didn’t have any of those features. I’m talking about the one that was an ever-changing figment of the collective imagination of bloggers, reporters, analysts, and others who wrote endlessly about the iPhone in the months before anyone outside of Apple knew much of anything–including whether or not the phone existed at all.
I’ve been thinking about that era of blissful ignorance lately. Coverage of Apple’s supposedly-upcoming tablet device (allegedly to be known–maybe–as iSlate) is building to a similar crescendo. Just as with the iPhone, the tablet is already the subject of gazillions of words’ worth of rumors, reporting, guesswork, wishing, and hoping.
Can we learn anything about Apple tablet pre-coverage from the pre-coverage of the first iPhone? I think so. So I revisited much of the early iPhone scuttlebutt for this article. Herewith, choice bits from a bunch of old stories, with summaries of what they got right and wrong…and then some overall thoughts.
The art sprinkled through this story consists of concept iPhones rendered by fans and other interested bystanders prior to the real iPhone’s debut. I’m entertained by them all–but please note that none look even a little bit like the phone that Steve Jobs brandished at Macworld Expo.
Let’s start with a surprisingly early, remarkably prescient iPhone story, shall we?
John Markoff in The New York Times, August 18th, 2002 (almost four years and five months before the iPhone was announced, and less than ten months after the iPod’s debut):
And now come signs that Mr. Jobs means to take Apple back to the land of the handhelds, but this time with a device that would combine elements of a cellphone and a Palm -like personal digital assistant.
Mr. Jobs and Apple decline to confirm those plans. But industry analysts see evidence that Apple is contemplating what inside the company is being called an “iPhone.”
Certainly, Apple’s push into the market for a hand-held communicator would be an abrupt departure for Mr. Jobs, who continues publicly to disavow talk of such a move. But analysts and people close to the company say that the plan is under way and that the evidence is manifest in the features and elements of the new version of the Macintosh operating system
Now, with the release of the newest version of the Macintosh operating system, Mr. Jobs appears intent on taking Apple itself into the hand-held market. The move would play into Apple’s so-called digital hub strategy, in which the Macintosh desktop computer is the center of a web of peripheral devices.
Mr. Jobs continues to be coy. He insists that he still dislikes the idea of the conventional personal digital assistant, saying that the devices are too hard to use and offer little real utility. But a telephone with personal digital assistant features is another matter.
“We decided that between now and next year, the P.D.A. is going to be subsumed by the telephone,” he said last week in an interview. “We think the P.D.A. is going away.”
And even while protesting that the company had no plans to introduce such a device, he grudgingly acknowledged that combining some of Apple’s industrial design and user-interface innovations would be a good idea in a device that performed both phone and computing functions.
Scorecard: This is eerily on-target for a story published so many years before the iPhone appeared. It gets the name right, correctly talks about the phone being based on OS X, treats it as a pocketable computer rather than an iPod that makes calls, and even has Steve Jobs saying it sounds logical. Markoff was so accurate so early in part because he’s a brilliant reporter, not a rumormonger or an idle speculator. Weirdly, though, he also benefited from thinking about the iPhone so far in advance: In 2002, the iPod was not yet a phenomenon, and it was therefore less tempting to immediately assume that an iPhone would be an iPod variant.
Paul Sloan in Business 2.0, April 2005 issue:
Apple fans–and a fair number of nonfans–lust for some sort of Apple phone. The infuriating design and general clunkiness of most mobile phones today cry out for the Apple touch. Jobs has teamed up with Motorola to make a phone that will let users play a handful of songs downloaded from iTunes. But this could be just a prelude to Apple’s entrance into the phone market. With Motorola, Apple has already helped build a prototype of a combination phone/iPod that resembles the iPod in look and feel, according to someone familiar with it.
An Apple phone’s functions could be accessed hassle-free with the iPod’s scroll wheel, and the numbers could work with a slide-out keyboard or a simple touchpad system on the screen. It seems certain that Apple could vastly improve on current phones’ finger-snarling methods of retrieving contacts, calendars, and music.
As appealing as the idea is, there’s a big barrier to Apple’s making a cell phone or phone/iPod combination without a partner. Jobs would need to collaborate with the wireless carriers. Carriers often place demands on phone makers, even insisting on certain functions, and Jobs, ever the control freak, would never put up with that. Yet as beefier phones hit the market–Samsung is set this year to roll out the first cell phone with an internal hard drive, making it far better than current phones for storing music–Apple could feel pressure to strike back.
Scorecard: Correctly argues that Apple could create a superior phone experience; mentions the red-herring scroll wheel and slide-out keyboard ideas, but also says Apple might use “a simple touchpad system on the screen.” Rightly says that Jobs wouldn’t accept the normal manufacturer-carrier relationship but isn’t bold enough to guess he could cut a deal with a major carrier to give Apple an unprecedented degree of control. Overall, not bad!
Harry McCracken (hey, that’s me!) at PC World, March 22nd, 2006:
Australian site Smarthouse is reporting that insiders at [a] Taiwanese manufacturing powerhouse are saying that Apple is definitely working on its own phone. I’ll believe it when Steve Jobs pulls it from his jeans pocket at a keynote and pronounces it incredible, but it does seem like a logical move: I’m not sure if there’s a single phone in the world that’s at good at doing what it does as the iPod is at doing what it does. A terrific music phone could be the kind of game-changing product that’s Apple’s core competency.
Playing devil’s advocate, though, designing wireless phones is no cakewalk–there’s a reason why there aren’t all that many companies in the world that do it. Even with help, it would be a huge step for Apple.
And the swiss-army knife philosophy of today’s phones seems anything but Jobsian. Would the iPhone play music, capture still photos and video, do e-mail and browsing, and be a mobile gaming platform (oh, and let you make phone calls)? Or could Apple get away with introducing an elegant device that did voice, music, and possibly video extremely well–and didn’t even try to do anything else?
Scorecard: I’m smart enough in this PC World post to declare I’m playing devil’s advocate and to toss out questions rather than make definitive statements–a squishy approach that’s hard to fact-check. I do, however, say I think it’s unlike Steve Jobs to make a phone that could play music, capture images, retrieve e-mail, surf the Web, play games, and make phone calls. Wrong!
Mike Hughlett in the Chicago Tribune, May 8th, 2006:
Mark Stahlman, a stock analyst at Caris, said a phone venture would be a “distraction” for Apple. “It’s so different from what they’ve done to date.”
He noted, too, that the wireless industry is known as a particularly competitive business.
The same couldn’t be said for the MP3 business before the iPod took off, he said. Ditto for the computer business when Apple released its first model in the late 1970s.
Once the industry became fiercely competitive, Apple’s market share dropped and today is in the low single digits.
“Apple has done extremely well when it has had no competition,” Stahlman said.
Scorecard: Judge for yourself, but FYI, analyst Stahlman also thought it was unlikely Apple would offer movies for the video-enabled iPod and said that Apple’s Boot Camp would probably lead to a decrease in Mac sales.
Michelle Meyers at Cnet, June 6th, 2006:
Although they agree that the idea of the AppleBerry–a combination iPod/BlackBerry–is enough to send gadget addicts directly into rehab–bloggers just aren’t biting on the iPhone rumor mill’s latest flavor-of-the-month. The concept of the hybrid fruit began to propagate around the Web after analyst Peter Misek of Canaccord Capital suggested Apple Computer and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion might be working on a product together based on the advice of their common partner, Intel. The pairing combines Apple’s design expertise with RIM’s relationships with carriers and handset makers, Misek said.
Scorecard: AppleBerry? AppleBerry?
Jeremy Horwitz at iLounge, September 7th, 2006:
Of course, the new patents sound suspiciously like what YourMacLife suggested was about to be released as the iPod phone. The concept can be summed up simply as a touchscreen-based phone with the ability to switch interfaces – one could be a phone screen, another could be an iPod screen, and yet more could be for any sort of other function imaginable – video playback, game playing, GPS, and so on. All on a single-screened phone. Will any or all of these features be included in an iPod phone? Does Apple envision this as being the next-generation iPod, or a separate device? And will third-party developers be able to create applications for the platform?
Scorecard: It took two generations for the iPhone to get GPS and third-party apps, but otherwise: bingo!