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When the future lands

The launch of Apple's iPhone was a school example of successful marketing. But is the novelty more than a costly toy for the tech upper class?


By Henning André Søgaard, Silicon Valley, San Francisco

[mobile] Most people have probably been introduced to last week's launch of Apple's mobile phone iPhone in the US. Ever since the solemn unveiling at the Mac Congress in January, the smartphone has been the subject of a rumor and hype that is unparalleled even in Apple's history. Rumors and speculation on the web, where Apple products are almost cultured, have given the wireless thing the nickname Jesus Phone. A full 500.000 copies were ripped away in the first few hours after it was out, and the value of Apple shares skyrocketed, from $ 114 to $ 122 in record time.


Much of the secret behind Apple and iPhone's success so far is undoubtedly in the hype. Apple founder Steve Jobs is known for his ability to create an almost fanatical interest around the launch of his products.

"Ever since the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, Apple has known which strings to play to capture customer interest," said Jeremy Horwitz, editor of the tech website iLounge, a meeting place for iPod and iTunes enthusiasts around the world.

He is a tech-saver himself, but has never seen anything near the iPhone hype.

- How many companies can advertise a product six months in advance and not only maintain interest, but continue to build up the level of expectations until the product is put up for sale, he asks rhetorically.

Now the hype and hysteria surrounding new products is nothing new in today's competitive entertainment market – the launch of the Harry Potter books and new PlayStation games are just two examples. But expectations for the iPhone's entry assumed almost religious dimensions. Employees at the United States' 164 Apple stores and the mobile operator AT&T – which delivers the subscription – their 1800 outlets were specially trained in advance to handle all questions related to the Jesus phone, at the same time as they were given temporary uniforms; t-shirts with the following text, «June 29. The wait is almost over».

But exactly what they were waiting for, no one knew. Four days before the launch, none of the specially trained employees Ny Tid spoke to could tell how the phone should be activated, how much a subscription would cost, or how many phones they would receive. Three AT&T outlets did not even know if they would get a batch of the Apple phone. However, it did not seem to worry four young boys who had arranged to wait outside the same sale the day before.

In this well-orchestrated information vacuum, rumors and speculation were rampant online. Among other things, it was reported that the armed police escorted the first supplies from Asia via a "Hong Kong-based airline". The website posted a map of where the most hysterical Apple survivors could find public restrooms while waiting for the wonder machine.

Two days before the launch, Steve Jobs managed to make headlines by launching something as dry as prices on the subscription agreements that would come with the iPhone. Another website crashed when an internal AT&T memo leaked. The memo contained little other than technical information on how employees should handle queues, as well as talking points on questions from the public.

Employees of an AT&T store in Sacramento were clearly nervous and admitted to New Time that they were terrified of losing their jobs if they said too much. There was no question of being photographed.

Meanwhile, potential customers were bombarded with aggressive television and newspaper advertising and online training manuals for how to use the phone. All Apple outlets had giant variants of the iPhone on display in the shop windows with the same training manuals night and day.

Three days before launch, Apple made several headlines as the four most influential tech writers in the country released the first reviews of the iPhone. The reviews were largely free of critical remarks, and could just as well have been cleared with Steve Jobs himself. Influential David Pogue in the New York Times did not spare the good words either; «Fun, powerful, amazing». Obvious shortcomings, such as a bad supplier – AT&T has a very bad reputation – and a battery that can not be replaced, were well hidden far down in the text.

Unique software

After the launch, one could find phones for up to $ 2000 or $ 14.000 on the eBay and Craigslist websites. Is it worth it?

With the exception of the touch screen and the sleek design, the iPhone is a relatively ordinary GSM / Edge mobile phone with a widescreen iPod and internet communicator for web surfing and email in one.

There is something else that makes the iPhone an insight into the future:

- With the iPhone, Apple has taken as its starting point its own operating system, Mac OS X, with small adjustments for a smaller screen, says technology expert Jesse James to Ny Tid.

No other mobile operator has done this successfully before. For example, Nokia with its mobile OS is known for its fragmentation and lack of continuity for users, who have to adjust every time a new product comes on the market. In contrast, Mac OS X offers most of what one would expect from a regular PC.

This makes the iPhone the world's first mobile PC, a simple portable device that can be connected to larger keyboards and larger screens when needed, or simply used on its own as a telephone or navigation system.

- This makes the iPhone different from other mobile phones, says Kim Yooh-ho, technology analyst at the South Korean company Prudential Securities.

Yooh-ho believes Asian companies have underestimated what he calls the Apple threat. and now have to wake up.

Critical shortcomings

In the long run, the price level will be pushed down and make the technology more accessible, also among groups that currently do not have access to the internet. Sources at the organization One Laptop per Child Association, which aims to provide children in developing countries with access to the internet, admit to Ny Tid that they may consider using similar technology in their work. Apple, which earlier this year donated revenue from iPod sales to the fight against HIV / AIDS, will not comment on whether there are any concrete plans for cooperation.

It remains to be seen whether the iPhone meets expectations, even though it sells like hot cakes at the moment. The extremely inflexible supplier scheme with AT&T is undoubtedly emerging as the biggest complaint. The company is ranked as the worst of the US eight mobile providers by the website Consumer Reports and the US Consumer Council.

The fact that Apple has locked itself into this company for at least four years also means the end of Steve Jobs' tradition of "end-to-end control" over its services, as in the iPod and iTunes. Because with the iPhone, Apple will only control the device itself, while the terms of the subscription will rest on the supplier AT&T. The company uses relatively outdated technology, and it took this writer just over a minute to download Ny Tid's website. This means that unless you have access to wireless internet (the phone has Wi-Fi), web browsing will be terribly slow. When asked by Ny Tid about why Apple chose AT&T, the message was that it was not talked about.

Agreements with giants

Another question concerns the life of the phone.

- So much technology squeezed into one and the same device will probably reduce the phone's total lifespan, fears James Tindall, British software developer and designer.

The battery can not be replaced in a regular mobile sale, but must be sent to Apple for repair at a price tag, just like on today's iPod. This is not good news for those of us who depend on our cell phone for work and other communications, and cannot wait several days or weeks to get it back from repair.

However, there are many indications that customers will look through the fingers with poor customer service and complicated and binding subscription options. After the iPhone was launched internationally in 2008, the goal is to sell ten million units in 2008, about one percent of all mobiles sold that year. Sources at Apple headquarters admit to Ny Tid that the number can quickly double. As many as 20 million Americans say they are interested in acquiring an iPhone, even if they have to switch suppliers to AT&T.

iPhone also represents an important test for Apple, which has now really taken the step from being a pure computer manufacturer to becoming an innovator of multimedia gadgets, reflected in the name change from Apple computer to Apple incorporated. Although stock value has skyrocketed since the success of the iPod, the response to other Apple products, such as its web TV experiment Apple TV, has been far more measured.

Apple will not answer when the iPhone arrives in Norway, but tech enthusiasts are betting on the fourth quarter of this year. ■

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