In a land of Internet nomads, will iPhone be a legacy?

The iPhone will either be a fond memory of a pioneering technology or Apple's proprietary legacy

Google Ventures' Rich Miner recently predicted at a conference in Cambridge, Mass., that a significant number of people will disconnect from the wired Internet in 2 to 3 years, abandoning their computers for mobile devices.

His prediction, at the Xconomy forum on the Future of Mobile Innovation, raises some interesting questions about what such a future might mean for the Apple iPhone. One in seven adults relies solely on a mobile phone for voice communications, according to a recent Harris Interactive poll. A generational crosscut of this data reveals that wired telephones have almost no presence among the digital generation. Compared to the 25 years it took for large numbers of people to cut the cord to voice communications, liberation from the wired Internet will occur more quickly. Measuring from the introduction of the iPhone, it will take only one fifth that amount of time for the masses to begin to cut the cord to the wired Internet

When Internet nomads become a significant population, the iPhone will either be a fond memory of a pioneering technology or if still prevalent, it will be Apple's proprietary legacy of equal distinction to the Intel 8086 and Microsoft Windows, a contradiction to today's preference for open development.

There are three pillars of innovation to the iPhone, an attractive US$200 entry price, an addictively simple mobile user interface, and the Apple App Store. Price is a very short term advantage in this world of relentless miniaturization and cost reduction. And Apple and Microsoft both proved that PARC's "mouse" based user interface was an easily adapted royalty-free innovation. The iPhone UI will be one more nonproprietary innovation on that same continuum.

Is the App Store a lasting competitive advantage for Apple or an ephemeral pioneering innovation destined for business school case studies and computer museums?

The genius of iPhone applications is as a solution to inconsistent throughput of current mobile broadband services and the genius of the iPhone App Store is the standardization of application download and installation that is reasonably spyware and virus free.

The iPhone's impressive arsenal of communications alternatives -- UMTS/HSDP, GSM/EDGE, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth -- should be sufficient to begin the nomadic Internet lifestyle now, if the build-out of mobile data communications infrastructure was not lagging mobile voice communications infrastructure. Well designed iPhone apps smooth out data service inconsistencies and provide a lot of value to AT&T customers who want to justify the iPhone's acquisition and monthly data service costs.

AT&T, Apple's exclusive cell phone network iPhone reseller in the United States, could not have created the community of diverse mobile data application developers and thus its population of premium customers without the Apple App Store. And even if AT&T could create this community of developers, it could not afford to staff its call centers with enough customer service representatives to overcome the user problems encountered in the downloading and installation of this diversity of off-deck applications. The App Store's installation standards imposed on independent developers protect AT&T's customer service staff from intervening in iPhone app problems.

But fast forward a couple of years, let the mobile data networks catch up and let the mobile device designers iterate a couple more generations of denser electronics, better battery life and faster processors. Most App Store offerings would be more efficiently hosted and run in a secure browser. Building on the personal privacy standards of browser technology is a very attractive option compared to the unresolved status of personal privacy on the iPhone.

When 80% of the Java, XML and Flash that one runs on a computer can operate on a mobile device without too much user frustration, most of the App Store applications become redundant. A standard SDK for controlling the mobile device's hardware (display, GPS, camera...) from a browser and a security policy to restrict or allow access to these devices and data stored in memory is all that is needed to enable the growth of mobile device applications as rich and diverse as the wired Internet.

As the mobile Internet emerges, what will the iPhone's legacy be? Will the App Store retain its popularity because it is a great business model for developers and advertisers? Or will competition, improved mobile bandwidth, a new generation of mobile devices and the advantage of open development obsolete the proprietary App Store?

Miner's prediction of Internet nomads is almost indisputable. How much branded and open source technology that the nomads will hold in their hands is yet to be resolved.

Patterson is a freelance tech journalist and new business strategy consultant. He can be reached at stevepatterson2007@gmail.com

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Steve Patterson

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