The unvarnished facts about the iPhone

Read Part 2 of this story: Candid answers to all your iPhone questions…and then some

We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the iPhone ‘s release, so people who feel strongly about the popular smart phone have had plenty of time to weigh in with their wallets — it’s been a consistent seller since its release last June 29 — or with epithets. (Remember the early description of iPhone fans as “iPhonies?”)

In the past 11-plus months, seemingly everyone has offered an opinion about the iPhone, usually colored by which side of the Microsoft-Apple divide they’re on. One of my favorites came from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer : “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Mac fans, myself included, dismissed this as iPhone envy, but even we’ve been taken by surprise at how quickly the iPhone seems to have gone mainstream.

Chances are, Palm CEO Ed Colligan is among the surprised. Months before Apple’s iPhone announcement in January 2007, he said, “We have learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They are not going to just walk in.”

Maybe PC guys couldn’t figure it out, but Apple certainly did.

Not only is the iPhone introducing Apple technology to a whole new audience, it’s grabbing buyers who had previously shied away from smart phones because the devices are often needlessly complex. It’s even infiltrating markets Apple hasn’t much targeted, including business. Long the territory of Microsoft, Palm and Research In Motion, whose BlackBerry remains the poster child of corporate communications.

Since the iPhone’s release, I’ve spent countless hours debunking an amazing amount of FUD — and just about as much time answering questions about how the device works and why it’s different from the competition. The questioning has grown sharper since Apple announced plans for its iPhone Software Development Kit (SDK) in March. Suddenly, sales seemed to jump, companies started testing it out, and even here at the media company I work for, I quickly found myself supporting a bevy of iPhones.

With a solid combination of advanced technology and ease of use, it became almost ubiquitous, no doubt spurred by Apple’s popular ad campaign. Despite the media blitz, a lot of people still have little idea what it is, how it works and where it’s taking the mobile-wireless industry. With that in mind, I pulled together this FAQ to help you sort through some of the details. The first question I always get is the easiest: “Oh, dude, is that an iPhone?” After I tell them it is, the quizzing begins.

If the iPhone is so easy to use, why the need for a FAQ?
Someone actually asked me that when I mentioned I was writing this FAQ. The answer is simple: You have to separate truth from fiction, especially when it comes to a product that is as talked about as the iPhone.

Not only that, but as intuitive as the iPhone is, “intuitive” is a matter of perspective. If you use Mac OS X, the way the iPhone works and the built-in applications it uses — like Photos, Calendar, Mail and the iPod music software — make sense. If you use Windows, all of the icons and apps — even the way it syncs using iTunes — represent terra icognita. And if you already have an iPod, regardless of your main OS, you’re already ahead of most people new to the technology.

Those familiar with the iPod/iTunes ecosystem have had few problems understanding the iPhone’s setup. With the iTunes Store besting Wal-Mart and Target as the No. 1 music store in the U.S., and with iPod owning 75% of the digital music player market, it made sense for Apple to use the well-recognized and well-established syncing system within iTunes.

But what about those for whom this was their first Apple mobile device?
They bought their iPhone, plugged it into a computer without iTunes and…nothing happened. What usually followed was a panicked phone call to an IT department or an Apple Genius Bar. (After getting just such a call, I instructed my boss to install iTunes, then plug in the iPhone.) iTunes is pretty much required. There’s no getting around this if you’re setting up a new AT&T account.

I have heard complaints from some Windows users who claim to loathe iTunes, and after seeing the Windows version, I understand. The Windows version feels more sluggish then the Mac version. There are some ad hoc ways of avoiding iTunes, but I haven’t tried them and can’t vouch for them.
My advice: If you find yourself with an iPhone, the easiest way to start enjoying it is to stop resisting iTunes.

I don’t want to buy a phone from a company that’s going to stop selling the device because it’s not selling well. Then buy an iPhone. Apple isn’t going to stop selling one of the hottest, game-changing devices to come along in years.
You’ve been listening to Ballmer again, haven’t you?

Steve Ballmer said the iPhone wouldn’t gain any market share. Stop right there. If you’re reading about the iPhone or any Apple product and the article quotes any of the following people — MarketWatch columnist John Dvorak, analyst Rob Enderle and Ballmer — consider the article null, void and useful only as satire. Just do a Google search of their names and “Apple,” and you’ll understand why.

Isn’t that the phone that costs $500 a month?
Wait, let me get my jaw off the floor. Short answer: No. Now, it is true that the iPhone isn’t subsidized (at least the current generation isn’t), so there is no discount on its cost. If you want the 8GB version, you pay $399; if you want the 16GB version, it’s $100 more. They are currently out of stock right now at Apple’s online store, and supplies are tight worldwide, leading to speculation that Apple is preparing the next-generation iPhone for release in June.

As for AT&T’s voice and data plans, they start at $59.99 for 450 daytime minutes, 5,000 night and weekend minutes, 200 text messages and unlimited data. This also includes the standard rollover minutes and unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes. The plans go as high as $119.99 per month for unlimited minutes, unlimited data and — curiously — rollover minutes for your unlimited plan and 200 text messages. So if you use the iPhone 24/7 for the better part of each month, then yes, it’s theoretically possible to spend $500 a month. But you’re going to have to work at it.

Just 200 text messages?
Isn’t that kind of lame? It sure is. And the cost of additional texts is even worse: an extra $10 for an additional 1,300 texts, for a total of 1,500 texts, or another $20 for unlimited texts.

AT&T is a mega-evil company. I don’t want to sign my soul away. Do you know that Verizon actually turned down the iPhone and then wrote a press release about it?
The excuse was that Apple wanted too much control over its product, the pricing and the feature set, and Verizon officials didn’t want to change the company’s network just for a phone.

AT&T had no problem with that arrangement, and even went out of its way to change the way its voice-mail system worked for iPhone. The result was Visual Voice Mail, one of the more popular iPhone features.

Does that mean Verizon is more “evil” than AT&T?
No. They’re both businesses, and Verizon made the decision it felt was best; AT&T took a gamble that seems to be paying off, if the latest subscriber numbers are accurate.

Steve Ballmer said the iPhone was… Stop again. What did I tell you about a Ballmer quote concerning Apple? He’s wrong. He has a competing product to sell, what would you expect him to say?

Is a 3G-capable iPhone coming? Yes.

When? Ask Steve Jobs. If you don’t know him, you’ll have to wait like the rest of us. The Magic 8-Ball says, “It’s coming this month.”

Should I buy an iPhone now?
Normally, I’d say that’s highly dependent on your current needs. But at this moment, I can’t recommend buying. We’re so close to Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, which starts June 9, and there’s a definite lack of iPhones in the wild. I’m sure this is not a coincidence.

With rumors stating that the new iPhone model will have an onboard front-facing camera for videoconferencing, built-in GPS, fast 3G data transfer, higher-capacity memory, a more nifty case design, and the ability to make toast to go, I think it’s a safe bet to wait a couple of weeks. (I’m kidding about the toast.) Even if none of these features appeals to you, you’ll still benefit from any price drop for the previous-generation model.

Other phones have touch screens now. Are they like the iPhone’s?
While competitors continue to increase the number of phones with touch screens, no other phone has multi-touch capability, and this missing feature alone guarantees a half-hearted touch-screen experience. Multi-touch is the ability to use multiple fingers to perform actions.

Its execution means everything in the world of touch screens. On a small screen, space is extremely limited, and every button, element or line takes up precious real estate. It’s not long before small screens get cluttered, leaving little room for displaying actual media or data. Consider this scenario: zooming in and out on digital photos.

With a non-Apple interface, I can press an on-screen magnifying icon to zoom in and out. To move to the next photo, I press arrows on the screen. If the developers designed the interface well enough, there would be a simple way to get the interface elements out of the way so I can view my media full-screen.

However, with an interface that supports multi-touch — such as the one on the iPhone — you can use multiple fingers to invoke a response, say “pinching” two fingers together to zoom in and out of photographs, Web pages, maps, e-mails and their attachments. Multi-touch support allows you to perform actions without cluttering up the interface.

Read Part 2 of this story: Candid answers to all your iPhone questions…and then some

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