January 11, 2007

Implications of Apple's iPhone

I am sure that you have heard of Apple's announcement of their new consumer device that they call iPhone. Indeed, you are sated with this news that you may wonder I am writing about it this late. Mark Evans has given my excuse. It seems that Apple started to work on this product around two and half years ago. Almost around the same time at the urging of Om Malik I wrote an open letter to Steve Jobs suggesting a radically different approach to telephonic devices. We could safely assume that no one at Apple, let alone Steve Jobs, read that letter. Actually, that was not my intention; it was just a convenient literary vehicle. Now that Apple has announced a device, it is worth reread that letter to see what Apple has achieved and we could expect from others.

Without any doubt, iPhone is much more than what I was talking about in that letter. It is an engineering marvel and many breakthrough technologies have been used. But more importantly, it has made vast improvements in the UI of the phone. In my opinion, the last major UI breakthrough was made some 25 years back by AT&T Information Systems (as Avaya was known then). AT&T's DCP phone introduced the concepts like call appearance and status indicator lights. These allowed the user to unambiguously control the calls. Now iPhone takes the UI to the next level. Even a quick look at the screenshots available at Apple's website will tell you that. In this respect, it delivers on the second request made in that letter – a rich UI that allows for straight forward invocation of features. Take the conference call scenario they demonstrate on their website. A call is received while on the first call; the user is able to place the call on hold, take the second call and the bridge the two calls. In a standard phone one can do only one of the two – go back and forth between the two calls or bridge them together. This is possible because of the rich user interface – they are able to display two buttons, one for “hold” and another for “merge calls”. This way one can eliminate many of the feature interactions and offer a less restrictive feature set.

But iPhone is a cell phone and not really a VoIP client. So it requires a service provider. But for some reason, one can presume for business reasons, they have decided to have an exclusive partnership with a single provider – Cingular. Tom Evslin has commented on it at length.

Apple and Cingular have commented on the tight partnership they have forged and how Cingular has gone out of their way to accommodate Apple's requirements. I will make a much stronger point: with device Cingular has agreed to loosen its grip on feature realization that the incumbents refused to do during ISDN days. In ISDN parlance, they have admitted a “functional terminal” (“intelligence at the end” for Netheads). Of course, an implication of this is that now features can be realized by the end devices. More importantly, the carriers can not introduce new features on their own accord; they need to coordinate with the device manufacturers – after all the UI may be impacted. In my opinion, this hits one of the objectives of IMS. IMS anticipates third party application developers. With iPhone around, third party developers now have to work with not just the carriers, but vendors like Apple. So in effect Apple could be in the critical path of new features.

In the short span of two days, Apple has managed to convince many that “Visual Voice Mail” is their creation. Indeed Apple claims that Cingular expedited their processes to accommodate this service. But I do not agree that Visual Voice Mail is a new service. After all, every “Voice mail as Email” is also a “Visual Voice Mail” service. I think Apple does not deserve the credit for this.

Given the cost of the device I don't think I will buy this in the near future. But, if I did, I can use it many interesting ways. For example, I will use PhoneGnome at home and give out only the home phone number. I will monitor call activity at PG via iPhone's browser, control the calls via a “Relevance Engine” running in the iPhone itself and forward the call to the cell phone if needed. But I am eagerly waiting for other device manufacturers to add screen based phones and improve user experience, not just for cell phones but for wireline PSTN and VoIP phones as well.

Posted by aswath at January 11, 2007 11:45 PM
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I resent your very negative aura in this article about the iPhone. I think you may need to back to basics if you are not going to buy one of these geniously engineered devices. That is what it is after all. Not just a phone!!



Posted by: Darren at January 18, 2007 02:52 PM

Sometimes something revolutionary comes along and smacks us in the face. When it arrives, those who compete atainst it- recognize that it will wipe out what existed before, and can devastate entire industries. Even though it's just a phone, if Apple systematically entered the ring with a machine gun, this could undermine the plans that other corporate warriors had strategized. I think the product is brilliant, and I think it will be successful. I also believe it will change the way phones are used, and the fact that it is sexy will only add to its appeal. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Posted by: TedM at January 18, 2007 03:12 PM


I wish you are more specific as to how I am being negative about iPhone. I suggest how it will change the UI, and for the better. I even say how else one can use this device; they are not even suggested by Apple. So I thought I am admiring the UI design of the device.


Posted by: Aswath at January 18, 2007 03:44 PM

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