June 30, 2007

The Real iPhone Revolution

Tim Wu is wrong when he says the iPhone is not revolutionary, though he's right when he's in CYA mode in the last few paragraphs:

Sensitive to this point, Steve Jobs claims to have left some room for developing iPhone applications. The iPhone, as we said already, is a miniature Mac, and comes with Apple's Safari browser. Developers will be able to write Web-based applications that will work on the iPhone via the browser.
If you're an optimist, the more intriguing possibility is that Apple's iPhone is a Trojan Horse. The iPhone is fatally attractive to AT&T, since it gives the firm a chance to steal tens of thousands of new customers from rivals like Verizon. But Apple may be betting that, once it has its customers, they'll be more loyal to Apple than AT&T. With its foothold in the wireless world, Apple may be planning to slowly but inexorably demand more room. If iPhone 2.0 is a 3G phone that works with any carrier and supports third-party apps, then industry power will begin to move away from the carrier oligopoly and toward Apple and other Silicon Valley firms. Now, that would be a revolution.

The iPhone does to the cellular carriers what iTunes is doing to the music industry, making them money while inducing them, step by step, into shedding their most self-destructive business habits whether they like it or not and mostly while they don't notice or can pretend they don't notice. In this, Apple plays a key role as revolutionary midwife. The point of the technology revolutions that Apple is midwifing isn't to financially break the incumbents but rather to save them from the consequences of their past stupidity. This is why Apple is on the inside cutting billion dollar deals that will change the world while so many other companies are on the outside building useful widgets that won't get wide adoption and don't survive.

Apple knows full well how marginalizing it is to take over too much of a business. The Macintosh has gained its second life because Apple has fully embraced technologies that are in common use and good enough to fulfill their technology dreams. The last uncommon hardware choice for Apple is in being a market leader in embracing Intel's BIOS replacement, EFI. Everything else is stock PC parts, albeit optimized to emphasize unusual traits (silence over speed, heat efficiency over speed, aesthetics over cost).

Apple has lock-in on the iPhone because creating a small browser that fits in a phone and has sufficient market and mindshare that web developers will test their pages on that platform is incredibly expensive. Only Apple can do it because only they had the foresight to bet their web client platform on small footprint software. Both Mozilla and IE have to be cut down to make them fit in phones and that means that developers have to test "regular" IE/Mozilla and their cut down versions.

And the browser/server combination is enough to stoke a revolution. The third revolution, the one where everybody's going to notice, is when the cost of the phones goes down to such an extent that for the same introductory price point you can also host a web server. With that, you can run apps even without a cell signal, even in disaster conditions. Government demand will likely drive that, both civilian and military.

The second revolution is going to be the ability, sometime in the next year or two, to put an alias on the home screen, a tiny little text file that will allow you to kick up safari so that those user generated applications that are coming down the pike will have screen equality with the regular applications that ship with the iPhone. With that, Apple will have essentially gone and created Microsoft's nightmare (the one they killed Netscape over and tried to kill Java and Google over) of a web OS that allows you to do what you like outside of the base OS.

Nobody outside the technogliteratti are going to care that poking the icon on the screen launches safari which launches the app, just as nobody cares when that same chain happens with Java or Flash applications. For the rest of us, that's going to signal the opening of the iPhone and I guarantee you that the functionality is already there, just as the functionality to do all the neat iTunes add ons that have been added was mostly there at iTunes inception.

Posted by TMLutas at June 30, 2007 10:48 AM