Apple aims to take bite out of handset market
The iPhone represents Apple’s most ambitious and riskiest project to date, writes Aaron Greenwood.
Apple has finally taken the wraps off its highly anticipated iPhone, marking the company's first crucial foray into the mobile handset market.
The news sent jitters through rival smartphone makers, with Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the hugely popular Blackberry, and Palm, both recording single-digit stock devaluations on the same day as the iPhone was revealed.
Lauded by Apple as a breakthrough in mobile phone design, the iPhone resembles a miniature Sony PSP in form and an iPod in function, offering a widescreen video interface and music capabilities for the first time.
The quad-band GSM iPhone also features an innovative and intuitive touchscreen interface, which Apple claimed is one of the most advanced ever to be included as a standard feature on a smartphone.
The company claimed that iPhone's advanced built-in sensors - an accelerometer, a proximity sensor and an ambient light sensor, in Apple parlance - combine to enhance the user experience.
iPhone's accelerometer detects when the user rotates the device from portrait to landscape configuration, changing the display accordingly.
The handset's proximity sensor detects when it is being used to make a call, switching off the display to save power, while the ambient light sensor automatically adjusts the display's brightness according to environmental conditions.
We want to make a leapfrog product that is super-easy to use [compared to current smartphone devices]," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs, revealing the device at MacWorld 2007 in San Francisco last month. "The iPhone's interface is the result of years of research and development."
Jobs cited rival smartphones marketed by Nokia, Palm, Blackberry and Treo as illustrating the key challenges facing mobile handset designers.
He argued that the current trend towards integrated QWERTY keyboards in new smartphones challenged many mobile phone users and restricted the development of innovative mobile communication applications.
"We have invented a new technology called multi-touch, which is phenomenal," he claimed. "The technology doesn't require a stylus and it ignores unintentional touches and recognises multi-finger gestures.
"Software on mobile phones is like ‘baby software' - it's not that powerful. Our software is at least five years ahead of rival offerings. iPhone features Mac OS X, which enables us to create desktop class applications and networking technologies - not the ‘crippled' stuff you find on other mobile phones."
The handset syncs with iTunes - a feature that is sure to appeal to current iPod users. Jobs claimed the widescreen iPod interface enabled users to "touch their music" by easily scrolling through entire lists of songs, artists, albums and playlists with "just a flick of a finger".
Album artwork is also presented, while iTunes' innovative Cover Flow function, which enables users to scroll through their music collection viewing specific album covers, is also included. The handset syncs a user's contacts from their PC or Mac and offers a ‘favourites list' of most accessed phone numbers and personal contact details including email addresses. Conference calls are also easy to coordinate via a simple user interface. Another key highlight of the handset's software package is a new technology called Visual Voicemail, which allows users to access voice messages individually via an Outlook-style interface, disregarding voicemails recorded earlier.
While this service will be provided in the US in conjunction with Apple's exclusive network partner, Cingular Wireless, details remained sketchy as to whether the service would be available in other markets worldwide, where Apple remains uncommitted to forging exclusive deals with network providers.
iPhone includes an SMS application with a full QWERTY ‘soft' keyboard to send and receive SMS messages in multiple sessions. Jobs said the touch-sensitive virtual keyboard was designed to prevent and intuitively correct user errors, providing a key advantage over rival handsets equipped with small plastic keyboards.
iPhone also includes a calendar application that automatically syncs with a user's PC or Mac and a two-mega pixel camera and photo management application that enables users to store and share images via MMS.
These images can also be displayed on the iPhone's 3.5-inch monitor, which Jobs claimed was the highest-resolution screen yet included in a portable Apple device.
iPhone can play back content purchased via the iTunes Store, including music, audiobooks, audio podcasts, video podcasts, music videos, television shows and movies.
For internet access, the handset features a rich HTML email client that is compatible with most industry standard IMAP and POP-based email services, such as Microsoft Exchange, Apple .Mac Mail, AOL Mail, Google Gmail and other ISP mail services.
Apple extends its proprietary software approach to the iPhone's internet browser. With the company's Safari web interface included as standard, the iPhone replicates - albeit scaled - web pages, which users can zoom in on by tapping the iPhone's display.
Internet access is available via Wi-Fi or EDGE, while the Safari web browser also includes built-in Google Search and Yahoo! Search engines.
Finally, Apple is aiming to corner the burgeoning market for handheld GPS satellite navigation solutions with the iPhone. The handset features dedicated mapping software that operates in conjunction with Google's much-lauded Google Maps application to provide users with maps, satellite images, traffic information and point-to-point directions.
Pending an unlikely legal battle with Cisco Systems, which currently owns the rights to the iPhone name but has said it will sell to Apple for an unspecified amount, the handset will be launched in the US in June. It should be available in the Middle East in the first quarter of 2008.