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What if everyone had the same cellphone?

A la Ferret iPhonomics
Tue Jul 03 2007, 14:59
JUST TO GAUGE the reaction amongst my peers to the Ifawn, I figured I'd give a few of my buddies in the States a call. Here in tres chic Paris, we haven't really been exposed to the full force of the Apple hype machine since the mobile won't be out here until 2008, in all likelihood. But even the buzz here on the streets suggests that l'Iphone could be rather a big thing.

So I got on my, rather standard, phone and called a few buddies. "Hey!" says one - who I'll call Jim for today - as I catch him on a morning coffee break, thanks to the time difference. "Guess what you're talking to me on?" he enthusiastically bellows down the phone, in that very Silicon Valley way, leaving me little doubt as to what exactly I'm speaking to him on. "Let me guess, I'm on with Iphone, right?" My voice betrays no small amount of envy. "Sure thing buddy! This thing is awesome! I've been loading up music and contacts all morning, setting up my email. It's the neatest thing ever! Say, when's it out your neck of the woods?"

Jim is a fairly straight-laced biz-dev guy for a Valley dotcom, and his enthusiastic reception gives me small cause to suspect any divergence in the rest of my friends' reactions. Sure enough, call after call results in a "Hey! Guess what phone I'm talking on?"

It's true - all my friends have Iphones.

Seriously. I called, like, 10 of America's finest tech employees, and they all have iPhones, even ones that work at places they shouldn't necessarily have them. And that got me thinking. All my friends have the same cellphone. Soon enough, most of my friends over here are going to have the same cellphone, too. What is that going to mean?

For one, it means that putting all of them in a room is going to result in that old-school-Nokia hilarity of one person's phone going off and 10 people all whipping out mobiles. Not one of my friends had bothered changing the default Apple ringing style - "It sounds pretty neato," said a chap I'll call Clark - and that means that, should I extrapolate correctly, the average phone call at any Silicon Valley networking event next month will generate at least 47.5 hands in pockets.

Secondly, it means an end to Blackberry comparisons. This is a favourite activity of corporate drones everywhere, where each drone presents the model he or she has, then compares it with their associates. The merits of the roller ball versus the scroll wheel are debated, the precise intricacies of keyboards tested, and those still stuck with monochrome displays generally laughed at. It's usually fine until someone reads someone elses 'private' email by accident, at which point everyone swiftly coughs, puts them away and makes a mental note to set up filters to prevent 'personal' stuff heading to the phone. When everyone has an iPhone, those days are over.

More excitingly, it means that people get to change their digital lives in a way that hasn't happened since, well, the Ipod. It's amazing the kind of technology that we take for granted these days - the ability to have our entire music collection in our back pocket without resorting to boxes of tapes; the ability to send a photo to fifty friends without first having to go to the drug store and have fifty prints made; the ability to have a real time text conversation with someone on the other side of the world with just a keyboard and a phone line. All those things are about to be pumped up and re-invented in a new, mobile way.

When all your friends have the Iphone, Apple has the ability to roll out a new feature that will instantly transform how you live and work. Imagine an upgrade to the phone that makes use of the built-in Wi-fi for photo and music sharing. The Ifawn sold in excess of half a million units in its opening weekend, a little over half the entire inventory shifted in six months of the WiFi-enabled Microsoft Zune. Based on that growth, which one do you think is going to hit wireless ubiquity first? Microsoft knew that localised social networking in the mobile space was a great thing, but it didn't have the hardware or the market penetration to really enable it. Apple has both, and iPhone could deliver an incredible local experience if Apple chooses to go down that route.

And that's just the local experience - the wider experience has the potential to grow even further. Instant messaging and update services such as Twitter, Jaiku and Pownce have flourished online, but when everyone has a phone with a data plan - as every iPhone does - multiple updates in both directions are suddenly ubiquitous. What will the Facebook growth be when there's an iPhone compatible web interface and every other kid in high school has an iPhone? How will news consumption change when mobile RSS is de facto? The Iphone has the pizazz, the technology and the cool to single handedly kickstart the mobile web revolution.

Importantly, for Apple's beancounters at least, that revolution will be on Apple's terms. On its platform, its browser, its end-to-end service. Apple's stated sales goals for the phone are relatively modest, but it's hard not to imagine that, within five years, Steve must be hoping that every single iPod will have cellphone and data functionality, building on the iPod's unassailable market share to create a mobile computing service that Apple single-handedly owns. And as more and more of the value in a computing service moves from local to connected, that's a major weapon in the battle against Microsoft's desktop dominance. When 75% of all a person's emails are read on an iPhone whilst out and about, who really bothers buying Outlook and Office? When 90% of the browsing a person does is via iPhone Safari, how much power does Microsoft have to dictate web standards and drive traffic to its MSN portal? The list goes on.

So the answer to the question is easy enough. If everyone you knew had an Iphone, the world of the web and the desktop computer would be turned upside down. And unless I'm way off base with this one, almost everyone you know is going to have one soon enough. Give it five years, then check back in with me, and we'll see where we are. µ


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