Is everything that Steve Jobs does awesome?
Of course not.
The iPod and iMac are tremendous successes, but the G4 Cube and software like Aperture 1.0 are examples. Likewise, the iPod Hi-Fi will never be the dominant speaker system for the iPod because it doesn’t actually offer anything special over the competition. That said, the development costs for a iPod Hi-Fi were miniscule – it doesn’t take a lot to make that a smart business decision.
Launching an Apple-branded phone is different. It’s a hefty investment that requires a lot of careful planning. The first question to ask is what Apple can bring to the existing market.
Apple Famed Interface Design?
I keep reading about how the market is ripe for an Apple entry into the mobile phone market because “mobile phone users often find their interfaces confusing, even within the same brands.” With phones adding more and more features each year, it seems like Apple’s secret sauce to usability would be a key selling point.
The problem, an “easier to use” mobile phone is virtually worthless. While I agree that mobile phone interfaces are far from perfect, it’s really not that hard to use a modern cell phone. People say that most Hollywood starlets are ditzy, but if they have no trouble using a modern cell phone, why are you having trouble? Well, what about who has to turn off their phone and turn it back on when they accidentally get into the SMS or camera mode, or asks you why their phone doesn’t work after entering in the numbers (and not hitting send)? These users aren’t people who are in the market for a “high-end” phone in the first place.
Bottom line: Apple will not enter the mobile phone market based upon the idea that they’re making it easier to use. An excellent interface is only a side-effect.
Return of the Newton?
Maybe the Apple phone is going to be a PDA and a phone running some sort of MacOSX Mini? What a cool name for an operating system, right? Apple could bring back handwriting recognition, integrate iTunes support, and throw in some of that Apple fit and finish?
This is also unlikely. PDA’s aren’t as popular as they were once thought to be. There’s no point in keeping a separate contacts list when it’s already on your cell phone. Physicians don’t need mobile access to reference texts because the move to electronic medical records means that dozens of desktop workstations can be found on any floor of a hospital.
The Treo and Blackberry are great phone/PDA’s – they both use a keyboard based navigation. Could Apple design an PDA email client superior to the one in the Blackberry? Sure. But the people who need constant email access and are willing to pay for it don’t find it difficult to use. The problem with a keyboard interface, of course, is that you lose the iPod advantage in having a good interface for listening to music. A virtual keyboard would preserve the scroll wheel functionality, but you’d lose the tactile advantage of a true keyboard like the Treo and Blackberry.
Some crazy WiMax/VOIP style network?
Who here has free long distance calling on their cell phone? How about free mobile-to-mobile within the network? And nights and weekends? Who cares about having a phone that has a signal in most places?
VOIP is an important technological feature of the 21st century, but it doesn’t address a real problem with mobile phones right now. As bad as you think your cell phone reception is, a pure wireless internet-based network is going to be even worse. A decade from now, this will probably change, but right now, there’s no way Apple is going to break off the traditional mobile phone spectrum. Companies like Microsoft are ambitious about going for long-term technology investments and sticking with a project even though it may be a money loser. Apple has never done that – they’ve built their success on identifying usability problems and addressing them as soon as the technology allows them to do that.
Apple Branded Service Provider?
Apple will not simply re-badge Cingular or Verizon service as “Apple.” The only way an Apple-branded service provider makes sense is if there is some sort of added functionality. The only innovative solution would be if Apple somehow established a universal roaming agreement where Apple mobile phones would connect to the nearest Cingular or T-Mobile GSM tower. The customer pays Apple a regular fee, and Apple pays Cingular/T-Mobile the appropriate percentage based upon usage. Since Apple is the reseller, they can still take advantage of Cingular/T-Mobile’s subsidies (like your independent mobile phone retailer) to help subsidize the cost of the hardware. From a pure economics stand-point, it works for everyone. The telco’s can benefit from having additional customers, Apple taps into service provider subsidies, and consumers get the added functionality of better cell phone coverage and Apple customer support. In practice, this is unlikely to happen due to the political difficulty of negotiating a deal that gets all three companies to agree to take the “second greediest position.”