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CONSUMER WATCH

All-in-one iPhone looks nifty, but should you put it on hold?

June 17, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

THE iPhone.

It's the most highly anticipated piece of digital hardware since IBM unveiled the PCjr in 1983 to win over the masses to home computing.

The iPhone's battleground is outside the home, where for nearly a decade, digital alchemists have searched for the ultimate hand-held gizmo: a true all-in-one device that will not only make phone calls, play music, e-mail, manage an appointment calendar and take pictures but also surf the Web.

That device has been created several times over. But never entirely well.

Apple Inc.'s iPhone, set to go on sale June 29, is the latest aspirant in the portable arms race. It wants to do all of the above, plus show video, update stocks, give weather reports, display maps and flip through photos at the touch of a finger.

For $500, or $600 for a souped-up model.

Add on the monthly phone and data plan charges needed to fully operate the iPhone, and the first year's nut could sail past $1,500.

Is Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive-guru-visionary-tyrant, crazy to think anyone would pay that much for a phone?

The collective wisdom of Wall Street is betting that Jobs isn't loony. Since Jan. 9, when the iPhone was announced, company shares have risen more than 40%.

It's not because the iPhone is offering any revolutionary new functions for cellphones.

The promise of iPhone is that it will be the first to get the whole package right. Or even near-right.

Other phones can e-mail, but the iPhone ditches the standard pixie-sized keyboard for one that is larger and on a touch screen.

Other phones show the Web as text. The iPhone is designed to present it in all its graphics-rich glory. (This is not just a nicety; a full-fledged Web is far easier to navigate.)

Other phones with loads of features are bulky enough to pass for rapper bling. The iPhone is sleek.

And most important, although there are phones that sport music and video players, the player aboard the iPhone is an iPod, the wildly successful device that was a watershed for personal technology. And for Apple.

In fact, without the advent of the iPod, it's doubtful there would be much interest in an Apple phone.

Pre-iPod, new releases from Apple generally got a big "so what?" from most computer aficionados and the business world. Mac computers were easy to use and even elegant, but they were seen largely as the province of elitist, artsy types. PC fans regularly predicted, with thinly disguised glee, that with less than 5% of the computer market, Apple would eventually disappear.

Then in 2001 came the iPod -- with its butter-smooth functionality and seamless computer integration -- and suddenly Apple was no longer the object of derision. Even those who had snickered at the company didn't want to get stuck using one of the klutzy players other companies were turning out.

Since its debut, more than 100 million iPods have been sold. That's nearly 1 for every 3 people in the nation.

The prospect of a phone-iPod-Internet device seems like a personal electronics dream come true despite the price.

But the proof will be in how well the iPhone carries out its tasks. The keyboard is, well, key. If it can't be used deftly, the iPhone could get a bad rap from the starting gate.

The Web might be beautiful to see on the phone's screen, but frustration could abound if it comes in too slowly. One thing the iPhone has going in its favor is that it can access not only the regular cell data network but also Wi-Fi signals. When in a Wi-Fi hot spot, iPhone's Web reception should be especially solid.

On the flip side: Although the iPhone can access the high-speed Edge cell network, it can't hook into the even faster 3G cell network that some phones already on the market can use.

E-mail is also crucial to how the iPhone will be received. If it's not as good as the e-mailing phone standard, the BlackBerry, bloggers will be merciless.

And two ever-present questions for portables are yet to be answered in real-world use: How long will a battery charge truly last? How long before the batteries entirely die?

Apple has stumbled before in not fulfilling the promise of an anticipated portable.

That was the Newton Communicator, the 1993 hand-held device best known for its handwriting recognition -- best known, because it didn't much work. It made so many mistakes in trying to read handwriting and transform it into digitized text that the device was the butt of jokes all over the country.

Subsequent models got better, but the Newton never recovered from its disastrous debut and died five years later.

At the time the Newton was introduced, Jobs wasn't at Apple, the company he co-founded. He was creating his own company that turned out to be a disappointment: Next Inc. It made highly regarded computers, but the venture almost went broke.

The damage was temporary, at least for Jobs. Apple bought Next when it brought him back into the fold in 1996.

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