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June 28, 2007

Rock-Star Gadget

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I dropped by the neighborhood Apple Store today to enjoy some corporate-strength air conditioning, to garner some new iMovie tips, and to indulge in some gadget-handling entertainment. Amazing how an Apple Store can become a real community center, isn't it? When I'm in the mood to get out of the apartment and kill some time, I'm as likely to visit the Apple Store as I am to see a movie or tour a museum. Judging from the happy crowds nearly always semi-packing the place out, I'm not the only person whose habits have been altered in this way.

Today was of course iPhone Day Minus One, and the Apple employees looked like they were girding for a combination of a party and a battle. And, yes, outside on the SoHo sidewalk, around 30 people were already camping out in line. Does Apple pay people to act this way? Or is excitement about the iPhone genuinely at this kind of pitch? I'm sorry to report that I didn't have the presence of mind to talk to any of the iPhone groupies, and that when I reached for my digicam, its batteries were dead. Me heap big bad blogger.

Is there any way the iPhone can live up to the hype? Perhaps so, if it really does work as well as it does in this Apple video. That's one miraculous-seeming device, and one superslick video. Apple does have a genius for portraying its machines as simple and beautiful headache-relievers and delight-enablers, devices that don't enslave people to the circuitry but that instead meet, serve, and tickle real people on real-people terms. Watching the video, I felt a few blinded-by-bliss shivers myself -- and I'm someone who hates cellphones and does my best to avoid them. These days, it seems to me, Apple does more to affirm and convey the importance (and the fun) of the aesthetic dimension than the arts community does.

The SoHo place was crackling with anticipation, in any case. Which got me wondering: Are there cultural events that can match Apple's best for bravura, glitz, and thrills? Is the iPhone the new version of a rock star? Is technology and gadgetry the new showbiz? (Do the releases of new computer games and game devices attract crowds batty with similar levels of enthusiasm? I'm not a games person myself, and know nothing about the scene.) Engadget, though, reports that excitement outside San Francisco's Apple Store is minimal.

Follow the great iPhone event minute by minute at iPhone Matters, a blog devoted to the iPhone. Here's a Wikipedia article about the history of Apple's ad campaigns.



UPDATE: Newsweek's Steven Levy says that the iPhone is almost everything you'd want it to be. Nice passage:

The iPhone is the rare convergence device where things actually converge ... As it did with MP3 players, Apple has made even its most stylish competitors look like Soviet-issue contraptions ... Even those who never buy one will benefit from its advances, as competitors have already taken Apple's achievements as a wake-up call to improve their own products.

I often like Levy's work, by the way. I've read three of his books -- one about early computer hackers; another about Apple; and one about the science of artificial life -- and found them rousing, fast, and informative. They were all, in fact, good enough to make me wonder if the real literature of our age might not be our popular-journalism books about business and technology.

In another recent Newsweek piece, Levy writes that the U.S. ranks no better than 15th in the world where broadband-access is concerned. Evidently many people in Japan and Korea already have internet connections that are 10 times faster than what we smug cable-modem subscribers enjoy.

posted by Michael at June 28, 2007


A $500 to $600 toy!

Sometimes, in my old fartdom, I get pretty huffy about living in a society where spoiled brats cough up six bills for a Dick Tracy watch. South Park, as usual, has covered the territory. Cartman has himself frozen so that he can live in suspended animation instead of waiting impatiently for some new gizmo to hit the store in three weeks. We are a super fat, super spoiled brat society. And the whole world is headed in this direction.

This is what happens when people cease having children. They fill up their time with nonsense. They don't have anything better to do.

When my old fart indignation dies down, I am also fascinated by these gadgets. I'm generations behind. I use a Treo 650. Once I got a broadband antennae for my laptop, I dropped the internet access on the Treo. It's overkill just to be able to get e-mail and driving directions on the road.

I'm trying to understand the hysteria over the iPhone. We need to watch movies on a screen the size of a palm? I can barely find a movie worth watching on a full size screen.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 29, 2007 8:09 AM

ST, do you have a lawn that I should be getting off of?

Posted by: the patriarch on June 29, 2007 10:13 AM

When I see those ads, unlike Thomas I'm not so put out by the initial sticker shock (because I bought one of the original Macs, so I'm susceptible to wanting a new gadget), but I wonder, gosh, how much do those services cost that allows you to watch movies, find a local sushi store, view pictures, and so on. Every one of those actions lands on your bill. My wife's cell phone actually charges you extra if you email a picture to yourself - it's not just the call charge. My cell phone doesn't allow me to use ring tones unless I pay for them - somehow it knows - so I can't use those free ring tone sites or share ringtones with anyone.

And it's still free to stop someone on the street and ask, you know a good sushi place?

Posted by: yahmdallah on June 29, 2007 10:33 AM

Yes, patriarch, I can see it coming too.

I work at home about half the time now, so I often spend the day sitting around in a pair of old shorts and a stained t-shirt. Sometimes, I don't get around to my personal hygiene until noon or later. So, although I don't notice it, I wouldn't doubt it if I'm a bit... well, you know... funky.

So, yes, I've got a well tended lawn, and I can easily see myself grabbing a stick and chasing away the third graders. At least, I've still got my original teeth.

You can read all about it today at I met an old friend of mine in Woodstock and the first thing I said to him was: "Oh my God! You're still alive?"

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 29, 2007 12:28 PM

I've been waiting for a cell phone like the iPhone for years. It's particularly good for university professors, because we have such great WiFi access.

BUT I HATE THE HYPE. I don't want to be a teenybopper buying the latest X-Box. I was planning to buy one tonight, so that I could take it with me to London tomorrow (for a week). But I refuse to wait in line for hours and wish all those geeks at the Apple store on Fifth would go home. Some of have been sitting out in 90 degree weather and full sun for days.

Okay, "hate's" too strong. But the iPhone has been transformed from a great piece of technology to a geek / teen cult object.

Posted by: john on June 29, 2007 2:40 PM

I'm in total agreement with the Shoutman! I especially love it when he writes: "We need to watch movies on a screen the size of a palm? I can barely find a movie worth watching on a full size screen."


I've never really understood the point of pointing out that South Korea or some other country has cell phone broadband that's ten times faster than ours. I first heard Alvin Toffler mention this several years ago. So what? Are we electronically underprivileged? Does it put us at a competitive disadvantage? I don't get it.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on June 29, 2007 2:49 PM

I sometimes feel as if I'm the only 20-something who doesn't "get" this whole fascination with the latest doodads.

I don't own an MP3 player, much less an I-Pod, and I don't even have a cell phone right now. I simply don't feel as if it's worth spending the little money I have on them and my life isn't severely impacted by not having them.

It's not that I'm tech-phobic. I've been on the net since 1993 and I work in graphic design for my current job. It's just I don't see the utility for the cost.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on June 29, 2007 3:08 PM

I think this looks super-cool and I want one!

And I have never wanted a phone I've seen advertisted before.

Posted by: annette on June 29, 2007 3:09 PM

Incidentally, apple/ipod did not come anywhere close to pioneering the use of mp3 player technology. Basically other gadget manufacturers (iriver, creative etc) were way head before Apple (and continue to sell mp3 players for 50-75% of the ipod's price). The ipod's so-called wheel interface was stolen from Creative, which then sued them and won a $100 million dollar lawsuit from apple last year.

The innovative thing Apple did was a good mp3 organization program (although I would argue that Creative's recent organization program is better). Itunes was also reasonably good at pushing people to the itunes store..which then resulted in more partnerships between it and music companies (and lots of cool advertisements with RIAA music in the background). Apple is good at branding itself as a "cool company," but of course any company can do that if they pay the right Madison Avenue company. (Just look at the ADR commercials before and after the PBS News Hour--Archer Daniels Midland is absolutely evil, and yet the world would never suspect).

About iPhone... well, the demos I've seen have been interesting. The touchscreen gestures are interesting (though I saw Microsoft demo-ing the exact same thing recently too). For me personally, the mandatory data plans are too expensive---I am a cheapskate--I recently cancelled my regular cellphone for a $7/month prepaid and used the money I saved to buy a Dell Axim X51V PDA (for $400). Interestingly, the X51V premiered in 2006, stopped being manufactured two months ago, and its specs were considerably better than the 2007 iPHone. In fact, when doing a cost-value analysis of smartphones (fancy cellphones) vs PDAs, PDA's usually win. In 2007 when I considered buying a smartphone (requiring a $20/month data plan), I was amused to find that the specs of the best ones were no better than pda's produced in 2004 or 2005.

But PDAs have been suffering; they are almost never being bought anymore. In the last year almost no pda's have been been produced due to lack of demand. (Part of the problem is that PDA's work well with wifi, but consumers find they want to have net access through their phone in places where wifi isn't available).

On my Dell axim, I have 10 GIGS of flash memory (8 gig card plus 2 gig card). I have a few thousand ebooks, plus a November 2006 snapshot of the complete wikipedia. Plus I have several gigs remaining, so I could throw some mp3s on it and use it as an ipod.

On the iphone, there is no ability to add storage, and programs must be bought through ATT channels.

Now to be fair, if Iphone gains enough market share (and I think it will), the price might come down and different models with these missing features might come out.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on June 29, 2007 5:13 PM

For Spike:

I used to work for Texas Instruments, the company that produced the chip for a large percentage of cellphones around the world.

I was amused to find that neither me nor my boss owned a cellphone until about 2005, and when we finally did, we ended up going with the one with the most low-tech features (and the cheapest prices). We were helping phone companies produce these awesome multimedia phones, and yet we weren't buying them ourselves.

I'm amused to report that in 2007 instead of upgrading my phone I ended up downgrading to an even cheaper phone (Virgin Mobile's 7$/month prepaid phones--wow!).

Don't be self-conscious about your unwillingness to succumb to the latest gadget. Be proud!

Posted by: Robert Nagle on June 29, 2007 5:19 PM


What Apple has done right is recognizing the social dimension of gadgets. I buy gadgets all the time, yet I usually don't have a chance to meet other people who know the device or have some experience using it. I can't speak about the profitability of these stores, but it's a good way to get apple owners together (this doesn't really happen at a compusa, for example).

I know I sounded like I was ranting about iPhone, but simplicity as marketing claim is very convincing. let's see if it's as simple as it claims to be.

In the ebook reader world, there's a similar thing happening. Sony Reader, a "big name" reading device has recently lowered its device from $350 to $300. In about a month or two, one or two other readers will enter the market at similar prices. The Sony Reader will probably be lagging a little in terms of features when compared against these brand new products. But Sony's competitors have not forged the alliances or partnerships that Sony Reader has already forged with big publishers. The iphone/ipod success story may be the reason why Sony reader will become the ebook reader of choice in the USA.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on June 29, 2007 5:48 PM

It hurts my head. All the things I can do with these toys, when, like Robert Mitchum, "I don't wanna do nothin'."

Posted by: ricpic on June 29, 2007 7:42 PM

Robert, thanks for recommending Virgin Mobile! I just bought a phone from them.

I used to work for Openwave, the company that produced the crap-ass browser ("microbrowser") for a large percentage of cellphones around the world. I used my own browser less than ten times - maybe less than five. I am delighted to see a real OS and browser on a cell phone.

I wouldn't recommend buying one, though. Give 'em a year to work the bugs out.

Posted by: Mencius on June 30, 2007 10:09 PM

Re: Peter Winkler

Are we electronically underprivileged? Does it put us at a competitive disadvantage? I don't get it.

It doesn't put us at an appreciable competitive disadvantage. But we are electronically underprivileged. If I were living in Japan, for example, rather than in the US, I could be getting my internet through fiber optic -- U-sen or another company like that -- for roughly as much as I'm paying for broadband at the moment, even though it would be 20 times as fast.

It's just one of those things you don't realise until you experience how good it could be. When my cousins come out here from Korea, one of their most common complaints is how pokey the internet is out here. And there are all kinds of Japanese sites that stream video just fine to desktops (or cell-phones, for that matter) back in Japan or Korea, but are unusable in the US, because we can't stream anywhere near that fast -- I can barely even download that fast. Most of the major Korean TV networks (MBC, KBS, etc.) make their shows available for streaming off their websites (often in pretty high resolution), but that doesn't do much good for me, since American networks drop half the packets (or something).

On the cell-phone front, we're kind of stuck with crap too. The iPhone, for example, seems shiny and fantastic and new to American consumers (and from a style perspective, Apple is a leader throughout the world, even if the rest of the world is catching up -- the iPhone looks kind of like a knock-off of LG's touchscreen phone, which was announced a few months before the iPhone, and Samsung's touchscreen phone, announced around the same time as the iPhone, looks similar). From a functionality perspective, on the other hand, the iPhone doesn't seem to be all that special. It's a 2G phone -- fine for the US, but three or four years out of date in Korea, Japan, or most of Western Europe.

Posted by: Taeyoung on June 30, 2007 11:58 PM

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