By Harry McCracken | Monday, June 7, 2010 at 4:17 pm
Apple holds the most carefully-choreographed product launches on the planet–but boy, did the gremlins in charge of messing up tech demos have fun with this one. The fact that much of the reality that Steve Jobs planned to distort was revealed a few weeks ahead of time was only the beginning. The presentation itself was interrupted by the same type of crippling Internet-access glitches I’m accustomed to witnessing at other industry events–such as last month’s Google I|O–but which Apple has seemed immune to until now. (I always assumed it had a top-secret method for pumping a wired T1 connection directly into an iPhone.)
Given the circumstances, today’s WWDC 2010 keynote was…not bad. Nearly all the major news had slipped out via Gizmodo or other sources, but it was still worthwhile to actually see the dang phone–especially its super-high-resolution display–and hear Apple confirm every apparent fact about it. There were some medium-sizes surprises, such as the built-in version of iMovie and the gyroscope. And until today, all we knew about the app known as FaceTime was that the front-facing camera was a sure tipoff that it existed in some form.
As usual, I came out of the event with as many questions as answers, which I’m taking as a sign that today’s unveiling was more than an unavoidable formality. After the break, some of the items that are on my mind.
How big a deal is the new display over the long run? In the demo area I visited after the keynote, it was a knockout–the text was some of the crispest I’ve ever seen on any device that wasn’t made out of ink and paper. My hope is that it’s going to make reading books on the iPhone’s screen a lot easier on the eyeballs. And I’m already wondering how long it’ll be until the iPad catches up with the iPhone 4’s dots-per-inch figure.
Is the iPhone 4 going to feel fast? It packs a version of the A4 CPU that helps make the iPad feel so zippy. But Jobs didn’t tout the phone as a faster handset than the 3GS. He did quote impressively better battery life figures, so presumably the A4 is tweaked for efficiency over maximum theoretical performance. For what it’s worth, in the few minutes I played with an iPhone 4 after the keynote, it felt speedy. But it didn’t feel any speedier than the 3GS, whose performance advantage over the 3G was instantly obvious.
The emphasis on longer battery life over raw horsepower makes for a striking comparison with Google’s Android 2.2, an upgrade in which the big news is major speed gains over Android 2.1. I haven’t tried a Nexus One running 2.2 yet, but am already curious whether it feels quicker than the iPhone 4.
Are FaceTime and iMovie for iPhone as good as they look? Hope so–they look like they have the potential to be two of the best iPhone apps that Apple or anybody else has released to date.
How big a limitation is it that FaceTime only works from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4 (for now), and only over Wi-Fi (for now)? To hear Jobs and Apple design honcho Jony Ive tell it, the idea of video calls hopped directly from Jetsonian science fiction to reality in the form of FaceTime. Um, even if FaceTime is the slickest and easiest video chat to date, the idea has been around on phones for years in one form or another. If FaceTime is a breakout hit, it won’t be because it’s video chat–it’ll be because it’s great video chat. And I’m curious: Can a video call app be transcendent if it’s nowhere near as pervasive as something like Skype, and only works when you’re in the vicinity of Wi-Fi?
Will other companies embrace FaceTime as a standard? Submitting FaceTime as an open standard makes sense from a PR standpoint–Apple is clearly tired of the rap the iPhone has gotten for being a proprietary, standards-avoiding walled garden. (Jobs’ presentation felt more defensive than usual, and he also argued that complaints about the iPhone app approval process are overblown.) But making FaceTime open is also a move that’s in keeping with long-standing Apple tradition: From FireWire to Wi-Fi to WebKit, the company has a pretty impressive track record of getting worthwhile standards rolling. It’s in its own best interest to popularize FaceTime–the more people you can video-call from an iPhone 4G, the more likely you are to buy one.
How will people react to the new industrial design? The original iPhone was a good-looking handset. The iPhone 3G was a step backwards, since it lost its metal backside in favor of more reception-friendly plastic. The iPhone 3GS looked exactly like the 3G. And the iPhone 4 is a major departure from all the iPhones before it. It’s a striking-looking beast, with distinctive curves, angles, and surface sheen–you’ve got to see it before registering an informed opinion. I’m pretty sure that Apple wasn’t going for a design that would be universally adored.
How sturdy is the new design? The glass that Apple makes the fronts of iPhones out of is remarkably sturdy stuff; the plastic backs, however, are susceptible to cracks (at least if you knock your phone around as much as I do). I’m hoping that the 4’s all-glass-and-steel construction will make it uncommonly durable. (I have the sneaking suspicion my pals at PCWorld will attempt to find out.)
Will Netflix on the iPhone breed AT&T pricing-change discontent? The app that was demoed looked nifty–nifty enough that I can imagine Netflix devotees watching it a lot over the course of a month. But new iPhone 4 buyers who aren’t grandfathered into flat-rate data won’t be able to gorge on Netflix when they’re away from Wi-Fi: AT&T’s own example of the activities you can complete on its $25 Data Pro plan include 200 minutes of video. That works out to less than seven minutes a day.
(More and more, my take on AT&T’s pricing shift is: “The new plans are almost certainly sufficient for how you use a smartphone today, but in the long run, it’s how you’ll use a smartphone tomorrow that matters.”
What’s next for the iPod Touch? When the iPhone 4 hits the streets, it’ll be so strikingly different and better than the Touch will feel a lot less like “an iPhone without the phone.” I hope/guess that it might catch up at the iPod-centric event which Apple is likely to hold in September or thereabouts.
What’s the deal with Bing? Adding a major search engine to Mobile Safari’s options makes sense simply from the standpoint of making as many people as possible happy. But is Apple trying to tell still-the-default-search-engine Google anything?
Why the Wi-Fi meltdown at Moscone? I kind of assumed it was the plethora of MiFi mobile hotspots in the audience. So, apparently, did Steve Jobs–he said there were more than five hundred hotspots in the room, which would mean that about ten percent of the attendees had a MiFi, a Palm Pre, a Sprint EVO 4G, or another device capable of delivering Internet access over Wi-Fi. But James Kendrick of the excellent mobile blog JK on the Run isn’t so sure.
Was this the last Apple event anyone will liveblog? When Steve Jobs couldn’t get his Safari image-quality comparison to work, he asked attendees to turn off their Wi-Fi connections and put their laptops on the floor–and he specifically included bloggers in his request. Some complied, others didn’t; I kept blogging, since I was using a MiFi connected directly to my notebook via USB, and was therefore positive I wasn’t mucking up Steve’s Wi-Fi. I’m already curious what measures Apple will take to ensure smoother proceedings onstage next time around. (Then again, I may just be paranoid–I attended one Apple event a few years ago and left convinced that the company had somehow blocked cellular signals for the duration of its presentation.)
Why no Mac stuff? We knew this would be an iPhone-centric event, but I expected at least a nod to Apple’s most venerable platform. Nope–you could have attended this event and left unaware that the company makes traditional computing devices, even though Safari 5 was released today for both OS X and Windows. More thoughts about this in another post soon.
What’s the deal with the Verizon iPhone? Actually, scratch that one–I’m sick of writing about the whole topic. But if you have thoughts about it–or anything else relating to things that were or weren’t announced today–I’d love to hear them.