A Luddite Reacts to iPhone 4

I’m the only TMO writer who doesn’t own an iPhone. Believe it or not, I actually don’t own a smartphone at all. But Apple’s iPhone 4 is the first phone that has me rethinking my prior always-get-the-free-phone-with-the-contract policy.

Why did I stay away from the iPhone, and what has me intrigued? In the wake of yeaterday’s keynote, I thought I’d share my thoughts.

I’m already wired all the time.
Some people might actually need a smartphone — traveling salespeople, for example. For everyone else, I’ve always thought that the real killer application for the iPhone was location-based searches for shops, restaurants, people, the night sky…you name it. Those searches can be quite convenient, but they’re rarely necessary. I’ve always said that if I spent more time in unfamiliar places, or in airports, that a smartphone might make more sense.

But I’ve been doing biophysics research in a basement lab for the last five years. We’ve got Wi-Fi everywhere. Phones don’t have the first prayer of getting a cell signal. And besides, I’m supposed to be doing work during the day. What possible use could an iPhone be?

My situation hasn’t changed dramatically — as a post-doc, I spend more time above ground, but not a lot — but the utility of a Wi-Fi-only iPhone has expanded, thanks to the growth of the App Store. And with the multitasking features of iOS 4, VoIP programs like Skype and Line2 would be able to reach me anytime and anywhere, even in the basement. My wife could finally stop playing phone-number roulette when she was trying to get ahold of me at work.

The new iPhone 4

It’s too expensive.
The cell carriers have always taken the edge off the upfront cost of moving to a smartphone by subsidizing the gadget itself. (Unless you were a very early adopter of the iPhone.) But the cost of the data plan was always a sticking point for me. Was watching YouTube on the bus really worth US$30 a month? That’s about what it costs to insure my house! And besides, it’s highway robbery for me to be paying for an unlimited data plan when I’m on the University’s Wi-Fi network all day long.

The situation improved last week, when AT&T lowered their rates for 200 MB data plans. For the many iPhone users, this means a savings of $15 per month. The total cost over and above a normal cell phone — $185 a year on the 200 MB plan — is still real cash, but it substantially reduces the sticker shock of moving to a modern phone. It also brings some sense of fairness to the pricing scheme: the pigs have to pay for how much they use the pipe.

Phone cameras suck.
About three years ago, I boldly predicted to my family (I wasn’t brave enough to do it here on TMO) that smart phones would nearly kill the point-and-shoot digital camera market within five years. I’ll update and clarify that prediction now: by Christmas 2013, the stand-alone point-and-shoot digital camera (and the stand-alone GPS, for that matter) will be decimated product categories, rarely covered by technology press, and with stagnant or declining sales.

The announcement of iPhone 4 is the first clear death-knell for point-and-shoots. Apple made it clear that they were going to fight an image quality race, not a megapixel race. They’re using bigger sensor pixels and trying to capture more light. Where Apple goes, the competition follows, and phone cameras will be no exception.

Mark my words: in 2011, phone makers will start in on an image-quality war, increasing apertures, zooms, and low-light performance. They’ll battle over built-in software, too, including shooting modes, panorama stitching, red-eye reduction, and slide show editing. By the time the dust settles, today’s camera makers will be retreating to the prosumer and professional markets — or they’ll be putting their brand on cell phones.

But what about buying a smartphone today? I want to wait and see what the reviews say about images from the new iPhone camera. History suggests that when Apple claims to set a new bar for a specific feature, they usually deliver. But the real question is how the camera stacks up against sub-$200 point-and-shoots. Oh, and HD video (bye-bye, Flip!) and iMove for iPhone are also welcome steps forward.

The grab bag.
The iPhone’s functionality has been a moving target since day one. In 2007, as I was covering its release, I predicted that we would eventually see several types of iPhone add-ons that Apple didn’t initially allow on the phone, including word processors, stylus pens, and games. With iOS 4, pretty much all of these accessories will be fully available and functional. For crying out loud: it will allow an external bluetooth keyboard!

From note-taking to writing to movie editing to drum sequencing, there’s not a lot you can’t get done on an iPhone. The only unaddressed issue from my 2007 list is external storage, and Apple is addressing that by steadily increasing the iPhone’s built-in memory. (iPhone 4 maxes out at 32 GB.)

Apple’s focus on battery life and performance, best captured by their work on the A4 chip, is important too. The first two iPhone models set the iPhone’s reputation because of its novel touch interface, but they were not snappy machines. Judging from the performance of the iPad, iPhone 4 will set a new standard for phone-as-mobile-computer.

Of course, my gripe list isn’t totally addressed. My biggest remaining complaint is that I can’t travel abroad with it like any other GSM phone, because it’s locked to AT&T’s network. If only — if only — I could swap out the SIM card when traveling!

But at the end of the day, iPhone 4 looks like it will be the first device to truly capture the promise of smart phones that we first glimpsed back in 2007: a completely mobile computer, a location-aware camera, a GPS, and the easiest way to stay in touch with anyone, anywhere in the world.

So, will I finally get one? Nope. Fact is, I still don’t need one. Besides, my wife and I are very conservative about bringing new gadgets into the house, and I need to think about the etiquette of smartphone use. But that’s a topic for another column. In the meantime, I’ll be watching the rollout and the reviews with wide eyes.