A new Apple drops from the tree

The Apple iPhone went on sale in the States this weekend. Over half a million were sold. This is rather a lot—roughly equivalent to one iPhone per head of population of Washington DC and more than twice the expected level of sales.

The reason why there is so much excitement about it is that the iPhone attempts to marry a mobile phone, iPod and handheld computer, with Apple’s “celebrity gadget” appeal. The blogoshere is a-hype with instant reviews, videos etc. (Engadget’s video, for example, was one of the first to show a demo of the working product) and already there are the first signs of a backlash. Concerns are being raised about the speed of Internet access (it uses what is known as 2.5G or EDGE mobile phone access for data transfer—an older, slower version of the 3G system common in Europe), battery life, and the cost and quality of the contract with AT&T, who are providing the telecomms part of the deal (see, for example, New York Times review).

Despite these concerns it does seem to offer a new and exciting platform for accessing the Internet whilst on the move. Steve Jobs gives an interesting insight into his company’s thinking on the iPhone in a hour-long, and under-reported, interview which took place in June at the Wall Street Journal’s D5: All Things Digital conference (which is available through ZDNet as a video). He describes the product as offering three key things: a cell phone, an iPod and “Internet in your pocket”. To me the latter is by far the most interesting.

Here’s why. To date all efforts by mobile phone companies to offer the Internet whilst on the move have been widely derided. The screens are too small, the browsers are not fully featured and the phone companies have often attempted to control (and charge for) access to content (known as the “walled garden” approach). As Jobs points out in his interview, people don’t want this—they want full, unadulterated Web access. The iPhone claims to provide this, with a large screen and a full version of Apple’s Safari Web browser.

Internet access is provided either by WiFi (when in range) or the mobile phone data network. The device allegedly switches seamlessly between the two depending on what’s available. The speed may be an issue when using the mobile phone data network, but perhaps less so in Europe, where the device is likely to be 3G from day one. Incidentally, though, I can’t help wondering whether European mobile phone companies will want the automatic switch from 3G to Wifi, as the need to recoup revenue spent on 3G licence fees is a major issue for them.

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