Mac Musings

Thinking Through the iPhone: This Could Work

Dan Knight - 2005.06.24 - Tip Jar

The theory is that cell phones that function as digital music players are going to eat away at the iPod market.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Think about it. Everyone seems to be carrying a cell phone these days, and a lot of people carry iPods. Wouldn't it be sensible to merge the two? After all, putting a digital camera inside a cell phone has been a raging success.

Maybe, but I don't think building an iPod into a cell phone is the answer. Cell phones are smaller than the iPod mini and tend to survive a fair number of drops. Most of them are flip phones, which means you have to open them to see the screen, dial a number, or answer the phone.

iPods are more rugged than cell phones, because (except for the iPod shuffle) they have to protect a relatively fragile hard drive. The screen and controls are right out in the open for quick and easy access.

Yes, both devices have LCDs, batteries, and sound output, but beyond that there isn't a whole lot of overlap. Still, there seems to be no end of the iPhone rumors.

What would you gain by combining a cell phone and an iPod - and what would you lose?

The most obvious gain is one less device to carry, charge, and keep track of. Another benefit would be multiple charging options - you could use a simple AC adapter, plug it into a dock connected to your computer, or connect with a FireWire or USB cable to charge the battery.

The only other benefit I can think of is that a combination phone/music player could pause your music when the phone rings.

Drawbacks of the iPhone concept include battery life. Cell phones are designed to use very little power when you're not on the phone, and MP3 players are designed to provide hours of continuous music listening. Do both in one device, and you're going to need a longer life battery, which means more size and weight.

And then there's the whole interface thing. The control wheel is brilliant. It's as defining of the iPod experience as the white ear buds. You could do the same thing with buttons, but the click wheel is intuitive, efficient, and elegant.

Conceptualizing the iPhone

To become an alternative to digital music players, the iPhone has to store enough music, and that means a lot more memory than the iPod shuffles have. I'd say 1,000 songs on your cell phone is a realistic minimum, which means 4 GB of flash memory or a 4 GB Microdrive - neither of which is cheap.

Another factor is that cell phones tend to get banged around more than regular iPods, so for the sake of ruggedness I'd lean toward solid state memory. The iPhone would have 4 GB of storage for your music, your calendar, your contacts, and whatever files you want to store on it. (Like a real iPod, the iPhone should have a disk mode.)

I think the iPod shuffle has demonstrated how small Apple can make the click wheel, and the iPhone would benefit from that. Cell phones have shown us how small and inexpensive color displays can be.

So let's put the pieces together.

To work well as a cell phone, the iPhone should be designed as a flip phone or like one of those Nokia slider phones. You have to have a keypad for dialing.

Either way, you want a screen you can view when the iPhone is closed - and quite a number of flip phones today include two screens. Mine has a tiny b&w one on the outside and a larger color one inside. An iPhone with a flip design could work that way by adding a click wheel below the external screen.

Nokia 6800With a slider design, there's only one screen, and I think that would be even more sensible for an iPhone. And then I found the Nokia 6800 (right).

The 6800 is designed to fold out into a keyboard, but that's not the part that intrigues me. What I like is the fixed screen and two types of input. You could put a click wheel on the part that flips up, and when you want to make a phone call, you flip it open, it pauses your music, and you can access the keypad.

Brilliant. Exactly right for an iPhone.

And maybe we'll get a nice digital camera thrown in for good measure.

Cost

Isn't something like this going to be expensive? An iPod mini with 4 GB already retails for US$199, and the Nokia is already a US$279 phone - or is it?

And that's where the economics of cellular phone service enter the picture. With a two-year service contract, you might get a US$200 phone for free. Or you might get it for US$50. Or you might get it for US$129.

It's one of those crazy things, but if you're going to sign up for cell service or renew your existing contract for another two years, you can get some great prices on some very cool cell phones.

Let's imagine Apple and Nokia team up on the iPhone and come up with an initial model with 4 GB of flash memory that retails for US$299. With a US$150 discount for a two-year service contract, you have a 4 GB iPhone for the same price as a 1 GB iPod shuffle - can you see any way for this not to succeed?

Add a lens and let it function as both a digital camera and a webcam, and you've got a runaway success on your hands.

It's going to take some engineering to combine the functionality of an iPod and a cell phone while providing good battery life, but I can see it working. And I can definitely see a phone that synchs with iCal, Address Book, and iTunes as the one I'd pick next time around. LEM

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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