Electronic Design

Apple Takes A Bite Out Of The Cell-Phone Market

It's amazing how a company known for its computers and music players can become the talk of the cell-phone world with just one announcement. Introduced on January 9 at San Francisco's Macworld show, Apple's iPhone is a real breakthrough (see the figure). It includes:

  • A standard quad-band GSM phone with EDGE high-speed packet access with service available through Cingular (now AT&T)
  • Touchscreen with standard phone keys and full QWERTY keyboard
  • 3.5-in. color video screen
  • Built-in iPod with 4- or 8-Gbyte flash memory
  • Full access to all iPod resources, like music, audio books, podcasts, and video
  • Internet access via a built-in Wi-Fi 802.11b/g transceiver via hot spots and access points
  • Bluetooth 2.0 EDR for headset, modem, and other short-range connectivity
  • Built-in 2-Mpixel camera
  • Google Maps service
  • Apple OS X operating system
  • A mobile version of Apple's Safari Web browser.

And here's the really interesting thing—these features don't involve any new technology. Virtually all of it is off-the-shelf (OTS). What's new is the combination of technologies and innovative packaging. For example, the touchscreen eliminates the keyboard and frees up space for the larger, higher-resolution (320 by 480 with 160 ppi) display.

The built-in sensors represent another innovation. An accelerometer detects the phone's movement and automatically switches the display between portrait and landscape modes. A proximity sensor detects when the phone is near the ear and turns off the display to save battery power. It additionally prevents inadvertent touches until it is moved away from the ear. Furthermore, an ambient light sensor automatically adjusts the display brightness based on the surrounding light conditions for an optimum display while saving power.

What It Doesn't Have
The iPhone is loaded with features, but it could have had more. For instance, it doesn't have a built-in GPS receiver, which would have given it navigation capability like the popular Garmin, Magellan, and Tom Tom devices. But with the Google Maps capability, it probably wasn't necessary.

It also lacks mobile broadcast TV capability, though these services are on their way. Crown Castle's Modeo will deliver several broadcast TV channels to separate DVB-H receivers in handsets. Also, Qualcomm's mediaFLO mobile TV system runs on cdma2000 networks, but Cingular is a GSM network. Perhaps mobile TV will be a feature on the next-generation iPhone.

Third, the iPhone lacks 3G technology. EDGE, which is 2.5G or 2.75G, is moderately fast and okay for e-mail and some low-resolution video. Apple most likely went for wider coverage instead of higher speed. Cingular has turned on UMTS WCDMA 3G in most major cities, but Apple may have wanted to wait until it was more widely available. If iPhone is a success, future models will offer 3G and broadcast TV.

The Competition
The iPhone offers basic smart-phone features like e-mail, Internet browsing, and PDA functions like the BlackBerry, Treo, and other models from Nokia, Motorola, LG, and Samsung. But none of these competitors uses Wi-Fi to let users access the Web and e-mail via hot spots and access points. Also, none of these other devices includes a full iPod. And, most consumers will buy the iPhone because it combines their smart phones and iPods in one device.

Meanwhile, other phones with music capability just don't come close to the iPhone. Motorola's ROKR and the Samsung hard-drive models were never popular. The LG Chocolate from Verizon is doing well, though, as is the new Sony Ericsson W880 Walkman cell phone.

Yet none of these competitors are smart phones like the new BlackBerry 8703e with its full keyboard, bright color screen, and a browser or the Palm's Treo 750, which runs Windows Mobile 5.0 with e-mail, messaging and security features with a 1.3-Mpixel camera, touchscreen, miniSD expansion card slot, Bluetooth, and a USB port.

Motorola's Q and Samsung's BlackJack are both very thin and run the Windows Mobile operating system. They also embed a 1.3-Mpixel camera. But they don't play music.

What's Not To Like?
The first off-putting thing about the iPhone is its price: $499 for the 4-Gbyte model and $599 for the 8-Gbyte model. It's a killer price, to be sure, but you do get a full iPod and all the other amazing stuff.

Second, many cell-phone users don't want or need an MP3 music player. Corporate America probably isn't going to buy iPhones for its execs despite its email and Web browsing abilities. This is a personal phone.

Third, its battery life has yet to be determined. Apple claims a music play time of 16 hours as well as a 5-hour talk/video/browsing time. Will you be satisfied with what you actually get? We shall see. Another big question is if the battery replacement problem will be similar to the challenges current iPod users endure. It's not an optimum solution, but it may be the price to pay for this neat phone.

Finally, don't get hooked on the iPhone name. Cisco owns the name, and Apple and Cisco haven't come to terms yet. Cisco seems willing to let Apple license the name, but what it really seems to want is a deal with Apple to open up its standards so Macs and other Apple products will interoperate with standard Cisco routers and other networking equipment. It's not likely that Steve Jobs will open his always closed standards for anyone, so maybe we'll be calling this phone the iCell.

What Have We Learned?
The real lesson here is in using existing technology in a new and innovative way. Apple proves again one of the basic rules of innovation: Successful new products are more often just the unique combination of existing ideas, products, and technologies than an entirely new thing.

How can you use OTS chips and technologies to create something really new, fresh, different, and better? Different combinations of features and packages are the secrets to success. Unique features like the sensors add to the mystique. If Apple can do this, why can't you? You only have to think outside the box.

Product managers and marketers often are too afraid to stick their necks out too far. But Steve Jobs does it all the time, and he usually wins. That is part of the lesson. Create, innovate, and take a calculated risk. Let's just hope that Jobs survives the recent Apple stock option backdating scandal so he can continue to be our role model for generating innovative products.

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