Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Messiah phone cometh

Andrew Lim previews Apple's 'revolutionary' iPhone handset

This week Apple's highly anticipated iPhone will hit US shops, arriving in Europe at the end of the year. Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, announced the 'revolutionary' handset back in January at the Macworld Conference & Expo. Ever since its unveiling the iPhone has generated an unprecedented level of media coverage for a mobile phone, impressively picking up nicknames such as the Messiah phone, the Jesus phone and even the God phone.

To the uninitiated it may all seem a little over the top but Apple claims to have ‘reinvented the phone' and given its pedigree and Steve Jobs' eye for detail, the iPhone could indeed be the phone that everyone's been waiting for. It combines Internet, music, telephony and video access with a large 3.5-inch colour touchscreen, in an attractive package that looks like it will fit in well with the rest of Apple's trendy product portfolio.

Unlike any mobile phone touchscreen you may have used before, the iPhone's touchscreen is far more finger-friendly, letting you tap it, brush it sideways and simultaneously touch it with two fingers, expanding or contracting images using a pinching motion. Turn the screen on its side and it automatically changes the screens layout from portrait to landscape, which is particularly useful when you want to view content in widescreen.

While the majority of mobile phones claim to have music players, Web browsers and other similarly useful apps, the iPhone appears to deliver on this promise. The on-board iPod app, for example, which you can listen to using a standard pair of headphones, has all the features associated with a standalone iPod but integrates iTunes' Cover Flow feature, and lets you search through tracks by flicking your finger up and down an album or track list on the screen.

Mobile phone users have traditionally used WAP sites. These are typically ugly and useless stripped-down versions of real websites. Even those with a more advanced phone are still forced to stare at a small portion of a full sized page, scrolling around a site as if peering at it through a tiny peep-hole. Apple have gone some way to changing this. The Safari browser displays the whole page at a reduced size and lets you zoom in on the bits you want to see properly by tapping the screen. Safari on the iPhone also supports Web 2.0 apps, although none have been officially announced yet.

Other noteworthy applications include Google Maps that lets you find directions and obtain location based information. If the iPhone has a 'killer app', it may be YouTube. Given how popular the video hosting site is and how good the videos look on the iPhone's large screen, Apple may find that 'Tube-addicts' lap this product up. If you want to send a friend a link to a funny video, then you can do it via the iPhone's email client. The email client supports POP3 and IMAP accounts, including Google Mail and Yahoo.

Let us not forget that this is also a mobile phone and compared to other phones it offers some pretty impressive services. The user interface is geared towards making calling and messaging straightforward. There's the option to set up a favourite contacts list, giving you quick access to your nearest and dearest. Conference calling is a cinch and you can go through your voicemails in a list format, selecting the specific one you want to listen to rather than have to listen to them all.

Add to all the above, 8GB (or 4GB depending on what model you buy) worth of on-board memory that can store up to 2000 songs, Wi-Fi connectivity, a snazzy docking station and a pair of headphones that lets you listen to music and make or receive calls, and what you have is a very impressive device indeed. But every silver lining has a cloud and many sceptics have pointed out a few flaws with the messiah phone that could possibly see it tumble from the heavens.

For starters, touchscreens can be fiddly to use and don't provide the reassuring tactile feedback you get from mechanical keys. There have also been murmurs about the 3.5-inch widescreen display getting scratched and phone geeks are angry about the piddly 2-megapixel camera, the relatively large design, the lack of 3G connectivity and FM radio and the hefty price tag that stands at £250 for the 4GB model and £300 for the 8GB model, not including network charges.

Battery life has also been vigorously questioned, particularly since the iPhone aims to be everything to everyone. If you listen to a couple of hours worth of music during your daily commute, make phone calls throughout the day and watch YouTube videos in the evening while you sip a pint with your mates, then how long is the battery life really going to last?

In an attempt to appease any pre-launch doubts, Apple recently released a tour-guide-style video on its site that shows how easy the touchscreen is to use, and announced that the display will be protected by optical-quality glass, which should lessen the chances of it getting defiled. They have also put up a battery life chart that shows the iPhone's battery life supersede that of several major competitors and expressed confidence that their pricing plan is fair, comparing any raised eyebrows with the reaction to early iPod price plans.

As for the other issues, there are rumours that a 3G model will be available by the time the iPhone reaches the UK but unfortunately, no word on an FM radio or improvements on the camera. Regarding the iPhone's size, speculation is rife that Apple has already designed a nano version of the iPhone, which will be made available possibly some time next year.

Whether or not any of these potential problems get in the way of Apple taking over the mobile phone market, as they did the MP3 player market, has yet to be seen. If there are any major problems with the iPhone, people and in particular journalists will be quick to raise the alarm. But if the iPhone fails it won't break Apple, it will just tarnish its clean and fresh image. Judging by how excited people have got over a product they have never seen in the flesh, the Messiah phone should find itself rich in disciples.


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