Unanswered questions about Apple's 3G iPhone

What's with the plastic back, does the iPhone 3G have real GPS, what's the future of the iPod Touch, and many other questions spring to mind.

If you expected startling news to come out of Monday's keynote for Apple's World-Wide Developers Conference (WWDC)--headlined, of course, by Steve Jobs — you went away unstartled and disappointed.

This event was mostly about confirming widely reported rumours: The high-speed iPhone 3G is indeed arriving shortly (on July 11), it's half the price of its predecessor ($US199 for an 8GB model with a two-year contract), and it has GPS. Otherwise, much of the keynote was devoted to recapping stuff announced back in March regarding the iPhone's SDK for third-party applications and its support for Microsoft's Exchange e-mail platform.

As the day progressed, information emerged about certain things that Jobs and company hadn't mentioned, such as the fact that AT&T remains the exclusive U.S. carrier and will charge $30 a month for all-you-can-eat data. Gizmodo reports that the iPhone 3G must be activated in person at an Apple or AT&T store — a major step backward from the slick at-home iTunes activation of the original version.

In short, we're awash in answers. But as usual, I'm wrapping up the day of a major Apple announcement in connection with an extremely promising product still curious about a bunch of things. Things that — as far as I know — remain mysteries. Such as...

1. What's with the plastic back?

As Jobs ticked off the design achievements of the iPhone 3G at the WWDC keynote, he mentioned its "full plastic back." I think that this change may indeed be a virtue — the shiny metallic backs sported by first-generation iPhones and most varieties of iPods are maddeningly effective magnets for scratches, fingerprints, and grime. But Apple usually upgrades its products by replacing plastic with metal; it's hard to imagine the company going the other direction unless it had a motive unrelated to aesthetics. Was it able to shave a millimetre or three off the required thickness by using plastic? (Cramming everything in was clearly a challenge. Despite Jobs' pollyanna-ish statement that the new iPhone is "even thinner" at the edges than its predecessor, Apple's official depth spec for the iPhone 3G is 12.3mm, versus 11.6mm for the original iPhone.) Maybe the metal would have interfered with GPS reception? Or did Apple simply have to go with cheaper materials when it cut the cost of the iPhone in half?

2. When will we get 32GB and 64GB iPhones?

For some of us, an iPhone can't function as a first-class iPod until it has enough memory to hold every song and video in a fairly large media collection. It's safe to assume that Apple will boost the phone's memory as soon as it can cram enough storage into its case and sell the resulting device at a price that a sane person might spring for. Since the iPhone-like iPod Touch already comes in a $499 32GB version, I'd be surprised if a 32MB iPhone is more than a few months away. But I'd be equally surprised if a 64GB iPhone showed up before mid-2009 or so, given the still-imposing cost for that much flash memory. (Apple charges a $999 premium for a MacBook Air equipped with a 64GB solid-state drive instead of an 80GB traditional drive.)

3. Will we ever be able to use an iPhone as a modem?

As I attended the WWDC keynote at San Francisco's Moscone Center, I was online with my MacBook — courtesy of my Windows Mobile-based AT&T Tilt phone, which served up high-speed Internet access to the laptop via Bluetooth. Jobs didn't mention similar functionality for the iPhone 3G; if it's on its way, it's likely to cost more than the $30 a month that AT&T says it'll charge for an iPhone 3G data plan. But modem use is so handy that I'd happily pay more for it if it becomes available in some official form. (You can use an original iPhone as a modem, but only through scary, unauthorised techniques.)

4. How about turn-by-turn driving directions?

The iPhone 3G's GPS capability is nearly as exciting as the 3G itself. But the examples shown at the keynote ranged from the slightly alarming (Loopt's location-based social networking, which lets your friends determine exactly where you are) to the somewhat frivolous (Jobs's demo of "tracking," showing a car zig-zagging its way down San Francisco's famously crooked Lombard Street). The real killer app for GPS continues to be turn-by-turn driving directions, of the sort that companies such as Tom Tom and TeleNav make possible on other GPS-enabled phones. If Apple were planning to release such an application in July, Jobs would surely have mentioned it. Maybe it'll come in a future iPhone software upgrade, but it would be fine with me if a third-party developer beat Apple to the punch.

5. How will the iPhone 3G/BlackBerry Bold wars shake out?

An awful lot of folks who are in the market for a multimedia-savvy smartphone this summer will probably winnow their options down to two contenders: the iPhone 3G and RIM's BlackBerry Bold. Then the choosing might get tough. The iPhone has a bigger screen, multitouch input, an accelerometer, and the sophisticated multimedia content engine known as the iTunes Store. And its price ($199) is likely to be significantly less than the Bold's. But the Bold has a real keyboard that feels good and that--unlike the virtual one on the iPhone — never eats away at available screen resolution. It also sports a full-blown office suite rather than the iPhone's relatively rudimentary document viewers. I'm still not sure which phone I'd ultimately pick.

6. What does all this mean for the iPod Touch?

Until now, the iPod Touch has delivered all the goodness of the iPhone (except the phone part) for less money. But things look dicey for the Touch in its current form at its current price point: It doesn't have the iPhone 3G's GPS, and the 8GB and 16GB variants now cost $100 more apiece than their iPhone counterparts. If you're happy with your current phone and have no desire to lock yourself into a pricey two-year voice and data contract to score an iPhone, you might still be interested in a Touch, I guess. But it's hard to imagine that it will stay popular at its current price--and since Jobs didn't mention a price cut today, I wonder if its days are numbered.

7. Will MobileMe be worth 99 bucks?

Back in 2000, Apple released a free set of Web-based services called iTools. In 2002, the company redubbed them .Mac, and attached a yearly price tag of $99 to them — which is pretty pricey considering that the Web is rife with comparable (and sometimes better) free services. Yet another metamorphosis is imminent: .Mac will become MobileMe; and rather than focusing exclusively on the needs of Mac users, it'll target both Mac and PC owners who have iPhones or iPod Touches and want to keep their mail, appointments, and contacts in sync.

Apple marketing head Phil Schiller's demo was impressive — and MobileMe's Web-based applications looked as if they might be the first Apple services that live up to the high standards of Apple's traditional desktop software. The one thing that hasn't changed is the price — still $99 a year. A 60-day free trial will give prospective subscribers plenty of time to determine whether that's a decent deal.

8. Is the iPhone on its way to becoming Apple's primary product?

Jobs began today's keynote by saying that Apple had three primary product lines: the Mac, digital music, and the iPhone. Then he launched into a 2-hour keynote that discussed only the iPhone. The next version of Mac OS X, Snow Leopard, was exiled to a session in the afternoon. That might be because Snow Leopard's release is so far in the future that Apple doesn't want anyone except developers to pay attention yet. But it's also a statement about how rapidly the iPhone has become core to everything that Apple does.

Those are the first eight questions that sprung to my mind, though I'll probably have dozens more as I mull over the keynote's news and the fallout from it.

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Harry McCracken

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