Snap Judgments! The Early iPhone Skepticism

What predictions of failure for the iPhone can teach us about iPad predictions.

By  |  Monday, February 1, 2010 at 4:03 am

A month ago, before any of us knew anything for sure about Apple’s tablet, I looked back at the period before any of us knew anything for sure about Apple’s phone. It turned out that about 95% of the speculation and rumors about the iPhone had nothing to do with the device that Apple actually announced at Macworld Expo in January of 2007.

Now that we know quite a bit about the iPad, a massive rush to judgment is already underway, with pundits predicting everything from historic success to epic failure. Which led me to wonder: How accurate were the first predictions that got made about the iPhone’s fate? So I went back and read scads of stories from the first couple of weeks after the phone’s announcement.

Overall, they weren’t bad. Lots of pundits said it was a landmark product with the potential to transform the phone business. But there were plenty of dissenting opinions, too. This article is devoted to them.

I’m not dredging up these stories to mock anyone. For one thing, some of them make reasonable arguments about the original iPhone’s limitations; it’s just that the phone managed to thrive despite them. For another, I thought that famous flop the G4 Cube would be an influential hit, and am therefore in no position to taunt anyone for making inaccurate forecasts about Apple products. I’m doing this because I think reviewing iPhone predictions is a useful exercise as we think about the future of the iPad.

A quick executive summary of some of the issues that writers most often brought up as evidence that the iPhone was headed for failure:

  • Price: Many skeptics correctly noted that the iPhone’s starting price of $499 was a lot of money for a phone.
  • Lack of apps: Naysayers reasonably criticized the phone for its lack of support for third-party applications.
  • Not businessy enough. A phone that pricey needed stuff like Exchange support, the doubters pointed out.
  • Cingular: The fact that the iPhone was only available on Cingular–which changed its name to AT&T Wireless before the iPhone shipped–was supposed to be a major problem.
  • Entrenched competitors: How was Apple going to compete with the Nokias and RIMs and Microsofts of the phone world?
  • Missing features: No keyboard? No removable battery?
  • Hey, Apple is a cult: Those who squawk about Apple products often throw in a reference or two to mindless fanboys who’ll snap up anything Steve Jobs instructs them to buy. (I wonder what percentage of a specific market Apple must hold before everyone involved agrees it’s silly to describe its customers as cultish?)

As it turned out, none of these factors killed the iPhone, and some of them eventually went away. The iPhone was too expensive, too limited in apps, and not enough of a business tool to succeed? A year after the first iPhone went on sale, the iPhone 3G arrived–a $199 phone with an App Store and Exchange support.

Other things that doubters complained about didn’t change, but weren’t fatal flaws. Today, people still grumble about AT&T exclusivity, and yet the iPhone 3GS sells like gangbusters.  And I’m not sure when I last heard someone gripe about the on-screen keyboard and fixed battery.

Herewith, some representative pieces from January 2007 on why the iPhone was doomed, with thoughts from me–including comments from the authors on the iPad when I’ve been able to find them.

Hung Truong, “4 Reasons Why the Apple iPhone Will Fail,” January 9th, 2007:

Here are 4 reasons why the Apple iPhone will fail:

1. Public Acceptance:
The average person doesn’t even use the WAP browser on their phone, let alone any full blown OSX apps! What people want in a mobile phone is a phone; they don’t need all of these extras. Extra software just makes it more difficult to perform the main function of the phone: to make phone calls.

2. Price:
The price of the iPhone was announced at $499 for the 4GB model and $599 for the 8GB with a 2 year contract. Right now, you can get a T-Mobile MDA smartphonefor $0 after rebate. The mass market is not willing to pay this much for a phone.

3. Copyright and Regulations:
There already is an iPhone out. It’s the Linksys Wireless-G Skype iPhone. I hope Apple has a lot of money or lawyers to acquire the rights to the name.

Pair this with the fact that the iPhone doesn’t have FCC approval and we might never see the iPhone get to market. How did Steve make all of those phone calls anyway?

4. Battery Life:
The iPhone runs OSX! This is great for a laptop or a desktop computer, but does a phone really need OSX? The battery life was announced as 5 hours of talk time, browsing, or video. Basically, 5 hours of active use. What happens after that? Your phone is dead and no one can call you.

People are not going to use the iPhone’s features for fear of losing their connectivity when the battery runs out.

Harry says: I was shocked, shocked to learn that Hung Truong now says his iPhone bashing was cynical Diggbait–but now he’s listing reasons why the iPad will fail, and he says really means it this time.

Allen Stern, CenterNetworks, “Three Reasons Why the iPhone Won’t Be as Mega as Some Think,” January 9th, 2007:

Reason 1 – Price

The entry-model is $500, the mega-model is $600. This is not an iPod at $249. Can the average American (you know the ones who own an iPod) afford this? I think not. I am sure there will be some incentives to switch but overall the price will be a barrier to entry. But not to the early adopter crowd. Walk down 43rd street in Manhattan from 5th ave to 6th ave. Ask every person with an iPod if they will get this device. I bet maybe 3% will say yes, and thats a very aggressive figure.

Reason 2 – Locked to Cingular

I am a Cingular customer. How many are not? Will you switch to get this phone? Some will, many won’t. Assuming it is GSM, I am sure someone will hack an unlock code but many won’t know how. What about those who recently signed deals with the other carriers? Will they spend the $200 or so to break their contracts? Doubt it! I can’t wait to read the posts on Consumerist.. they will go something like this “my wireless provider won’t let me out for free because I want an iPhone.”

Reason 3 – Data Rate Plans

I wrote about this last week with the MySpace deal. The data rate plans will kill this phone. I hope Cingular gets their act together and becomes an industry leader with regards to data pricing but today it is absolute crap. This device will use a lot of data when using the Cingular network (I understand it gets WiFi but that’s not available free everywhere!). Can the average American afford $600 for a device and then another $30ish over their normal rate plan for some data? Nope.

Harry says: Allen Stern is not only not predicting that the iPad will be a bomb, he’s saying it’ll be a hit, and that he wants one.

Philip Greenspun, “Apple iPhone,” January 9th, 2007:

Apple introduces its first phone today.  It is a bit tough to tell from looking at Apple’s Web site, but it appears that this is yet another smartphone that is not a flip-phone.  In other words, if it brushes up against something in your pocket it will make or answer unwanted calls.  Basically all Japanese phones are flip-phones and it baffles me as to how American consumers are denied the simple interface of “open to make or answer a call; flip closed to hang up”.

Apple gives us an MP3 player, which other brands of smart phones have had for several years.  What I want is a phone that won’t make calls from inside my pocket.

Harry says: If Greenspun couldn’t tell from Apple’s site whether the iPhone was a flip phone or not, he wasn’t looking very carefully. (For the record, the iPhone autolocks in a manner that comes close to eliminating the possibility of pocketdialing.) I haven’t seen him say anything about the iPad.

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14 Comments For This Post

  1. Allen Says:

    Yes, I want an iPad 🙂 And if you look at my issues with the iPhone when it first was released, look how Jobs listened to me and made significant changes for mass appeal – price dropped and the rate plans dropped big too.

  2. Pelpa Says:

    The iPhone was a success because Apple amended most of the highlighted issues.
    In fact, the iPhone wouldn’t have been so popular if it hadn’t got almost every missing feature, especially the App Store.

  3. Jubei Says:

    Easy really. No matter how idiotic you are, how off your prediction is, fall flat on your face, make up the silliest post to cut down Apple products, you can still keep your job for looking like an idiot or a fool. Thats the best job in the world. Look at Dvorak, Thurrott, Ederle and the many PC-centric bloggers going at it again and again and again…. Best job in world. 😉

  4. Dave Zatz Says:

    Here’s what I wrote January 9th, 2007 as everyone at CES in Vegas turned their attention to Macworld in San Francisco:

    “If the iPhone works as advertised, they’re going to sell a ton and really bring “smart phones” to the masses (despite the $500-$600 price tag) — along with music and video. I prefer the tactile feel of keys to dial with (especially when driving), but have grown accustomed to my 6700 (“the brick”)… so I can probably live without.”

  5. Oslodude Says:

    For the same reason I have not yet bought an iPhone, I will not buy an iPad:


    How obvious is this? And for what reason has the feature been excluded?

  6. drew Says:

    I am really torn on this. The iPhone succeeded since it fully replaced prior devices that were not nearly as good.

    The iPad, it seems, is a little different. It seems to be a new category, but is aimed at the netbook. If you go back and look at criticism of Win7 starter edition, people criticized that you could only run three apps at one time.

    From what I understand, the iPad only runs one app at a time. Also, it appears you cannot simply move files on and off the iPad the way you can on netbook. I find I use my netbook (with Win7 starter) as a big flash drive. I can run the programs I want, and run more than one program at a time.

    Now, having said that, as a device for consuming media (as opposed to creating it) the iPad seems very impressive.

    I was surprised by the price point of $499. I think that alone will sell a lot of these. The problem is if I am going on a trip, what I am going to take with me? If I had a iPhone and a netbook, where does the iPad fit into that?

    As an aside, what would be really neat is seeing (I am a high school teacher) is the iPad as a educational tool. Digital textbook, and specific apps that would allow students to use the device within the class, and then they could submit assignments electronically.

    Since all students would be doing the same thing, running one app at a time would not be a problem.


  7. Glenn Dixon Says:

    Philip Greenspun has now opined, sort of…

  8. Matt Says:

    Interesting look back. Apple has done a decent job of addressing issues with the original iPhone, either through software (copy & paste) or hardware (3G) updates. As a consultant who travels weekly, there are three features I was hoping for that will keep me waiting until rev 2:

    1. USB/SDHC – I would like to use an iPad to manage my iPhoto library and have the ability to upload/email photos while on the road. I currently do this with my work laptop (copy pic from camera, upload to Flickr, sync back to iPhoto when I get home), but would prefer to have an easier way. I know there is an adapter, so this isn’t a deal-breaker, just a gripe. Another option would be if the iPad will work with Eye-fi cards.

    2. T-Mobile Support – I don’t understand why they are selling the iPad unlocked, but didn’t include support for T-Mobile’s 3G network in the US. Again, not a deal-breaker, but without that I will be sticking with the wifi version.

    3. Webcam – My primary use for this type of device would be using Skype/iChat to video chat with my family while I’m on the road. Again, I currently use my work laptop+external webcam for this, but would happily carry a smaller, faster device for this purpose.

    If they add a webcam, I’ll buy the wifi device and camera connection kit on release. If rev 2 comes with webcam/usb/T-Mobile frequencies, I’ll pick up the 3G version in an instant.

  9. Jake Says:

    I wrote a similar story for the Industry Standard a while back, contacting early iPhone skeptics to find out what they thought a year after its introduction:

  10. gargravarr Says:

    Pelpa – That’s like saying the automobile wouldn’t have been a success if they hadn’t added seat belts, a roof, air con, etc. Name me lots of successful products which did not evolve or add new features. Arguments from hindsight are easy to make.

  11. drew Says:

    Gargravarr-but USB is not a “new feature”, it is an industry standard. Apple is entering a market where people expect certain things on a computing device.

    Having to use a connector (and carry that connector around) takes away from the utility of this device. Once you add in the keyboard dock, you’ve moved away from the svelte appeal of this device. How much will I be carrying around in my bag to make this device useful?

    The iPad is slick looking device; but as I have thought about it, how would I use it if I had one? It won’t replace my netbook (I can’t really type without the keyboard dock, and the dock does not look like that I could balance it in my lap).

  12. gargravarr Says:

    Thanks Drew, but we talking about the iPhone, not the Pad. I was commenting on Pelpa’s Captain Obvious statement that features = interest (and possible sales). My point is that it’s easy to claim to understand the success of something AFTER it becomes a success. To do it beforehand takes more than just blind luck.

    As for the iPad, if you think you can’t use it, don’t buy it. Simple.

  13. drew Says:

    Alas, that is the problem; everything I see makes me want one! While people will debate practicality, the form factor and usability seems very appealing. I use my netbook mainly for email and web surfing. I don’t type all that much on it, and the extra screen real estate is very appealing. It comes down now to cost beyond the device. I am already paying for the wireless modem for the netbook. To go 3G is $129, plus the service.

    This points in many ways to the way I have done computing in the last few years. My last laptop was 6 pounds and duplicated my desktop. The netbook I got last year copies enough of what I need, and weighs a lot less. The form factor of the iPad is lightyears ahead of my netbook-how much typing do I think I will do, vs. how much will I actually do.

  14. dpme Says:

    And also, as a total aside, is price. I had expect that the iPad would come in just under $1000. Looking at the pricing at Apple, I am (pleasantly) surprised that the most expensive iPad (3G, 64GB) tops out at $829.

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