Dreaming of an Apple Cell Phone? Think Different

By eweek  |  Posted 2003-04-10

Dreaming of an Apple Cell Phone? Think Different

A video editor in Apples marketing department peers into the windows of Final Cut Pro 4.0 and edits a Macworld Expo video guaranteed to take the audiences breath away. First comes the montage of celebrities gushing over the toy theyve been using for the past few weeks under the reasonable condition that if they let anyone see it, snipers will instantly converge. Then, the camera focuses in on Jonathan Ive, the Apple Wunderkind whos brought you such stunning designs as the PowerBook G4, flat-panel iMac, and the original iBook. (Well, two out of three aint bad.)

"With the iPhone," he intones, "we knew it wasnt enough to create an incredible fusion of style and functionality. We had to rethink the way people use a mobile device." The scene cuts to a rotation shot of a sleek sliver of white polycarbonate and chrome, complete with a gleaming illuminated Apple logo and ... Hey! Wake up!

Why? Because while those who sound like theyre smoking something may think Apple has lost its mind, there is no Apple iPhone, and there wont be, at least as long as Steve Jobs stays as close to Apples head as a black mock turtleneck. Of course, lots of people desperately want there to be one. They model design concepts in their 3D software packages and keep Mac rumor sites awash in "hazy details."

The dream will never die. Since Apple discontinued the Newton, Mac users have lamented that they havent been able to take a little piece of their favorite computing experience with them wherever they are, preferably in a shirt pocket, so its radiation is close to their hearts.

The iPod, a wonderfully functional device, brought the portable wow factor back to the Mac faithful. For all its sleek interface, "syncing" and pseudo-PIM features, though, at the end of the day its a passive playback device. Mac users are interactive. They buy 12-inch PowerBooks, not portable DVD players. So why wont Apple finally give in to the technolust of its users and produce a cell phone?

Just Say Nokia

  • Apple is the brand. Theres no way in Helsinki that Steve Jobs will stand for the kind of customer ownership Sumo match that Nokia has been playing with the carriers for the past few years, only to see its market share start to be eroded by Korean insurgents. In Steves world, distribution is a necessary evil; I can just see him storming around the board room, asking Al Gore why users cant just come to Cupertino to pick up their Macs? (As for me, my Gulfstream is in the shop.)

    Dissatisfied with the retail experience for its products, Apple launched its own stores after already having a successful online direct channel; thats vertical integration on the scale of the Seattle Space Needle. The company wants to control so much of the user experience—from your presentation package to your email address—that if it could break even delivering its own products instead of using Airborne Express, it would. In theory, a controlled network concept like SPOT would probably appeal to Apple (just add those usage charges to .Mac), but Apple tends to favor media-rich experiences, not something that is ultimately bionic WAP.

  • A lack of Mac. At some point, Steve the clone-killer is going to have to test the waters outside the Mac market if he really wants to expand market share. Until then, however, Apples products must follow at least a cursory orbit around the Macintosh. Sure, cell phones are part of the "digital lifestyle" that once punctuated Steves keynotes, but are they really going to move beyond the Sony Ericsson clicker in adding value to the platform?

  • The rough ride. Id hate to be the business analyst trying to defend this idea to Steve Jobs. Unlike the MP3 player business, which was relatively immature, success in the cell phone business is harder to find than Nemo. Qualcomm and Ericsson basically threw in the towel, not even Sonys brand image has helped Sony Ericsson rise in the ranks, and Microsoft cant seem to buy its way in. Competition is fierce and global, and product cycles are shorter than they are in the PC business.

    Harried Carriers

    • Minding the gap. Its one thing to partner with Lucent to jump-start the Wi-Fi movement, but what does Apple know—or, even better, want to know—about GSM and CDMA radios? Then theres the operating system part. It doesnt seem to have an embedded one lying around, and it would be loath to license one. The company has the cash and cachet to bring in the necessary engineering talent, but isnt this straying a bit from its core competencies? Besides, if Apple were to start monkeying around with cellular data, its notebook line wouldnt be a bad place to start. Does it take a joint venture with Verizon for a PowerBook to be able to use a 1xRTT card?

    • Almost Bluetooth. Not that Apple is generally a reactive company, but perhaps the best reason for avoiding this dicey market is that Apple doesnt have to produce a cell phone to quench its users thirst for a portable communications experience thanks to Bluetooth. As noted in a previous column, the tiny base of Bluetooth phones doesnt make it practical for Apple to build a device that sucks cellular bandwidth through such handsets, but stay tuned. As the market grows, Apple would love to do an end-run around the carriers like its did around the labels with its "Rip. Mix. Burn." campaign.

    Apple has repeatedly said its not going to get into the PDA business, but something has to give. Jobs acknowledges that the PC business is going mobile, and with Apples continued investment in its portable line, mobile devices beyond a laptop big enough to dive off must be in the queue. I cant imagine that the iPod was Apples 20GB of fame in the portable device market. Furthermore, something tells me it didnt reintroduce Inkwell handwriting recognition just so folks could relive Newton nostalgia on their Wacom tablets. But, as OpenDoc taught us, sometimes the parts just dont come together.

    So. Apples not going to produce a cell phone. Dont despair, though, fair Macolytes: If they can turn a Super Nintendo into a portable gaming unit, Im sure theres an engineer out there with a Dremel, soldering iron and a lot of time on his hands stroking his chin as he contemplates an eMate.

    Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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