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Consumers Prepare for iPhone's Grand Entrance


I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: the diva of divas turns 90 - celebrating Lena Horne's birthday, and my Can I Just Tell You commentary. But first, if you have been living on a space station, then you might not know this. Otherwise, how could you not know that Apple is about to unleash the iPhone on Friday?

Tech gurus of all sorts have been panting over this gadget, so, yes, it's the next big thing. Joining us to separate the hype from the facts about the iPhone is technology analyst Omar Wasow. He's with us from Charlottesville, Virginia. Hi, Omar.

Mr. OMAR WASOW (Technology Analyst): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Now let me just say upfront, you were not one of the two lucky journalists to get an iPhone in advance, but you have been reading up on it for months. So what's so special?

Mr. WASOW: Well, there are a couple of things that I think distinguish the iPhone from the sort of current pack of other kind of multi-function phones. I mean, one clearly is just the incredible presentation that Steve Jobs at Apple have done to kind of promote this. And so there's been enormous kind of building, almost hysteria about the device.

But underneath that is the fact that people are getting frustrated with having to carry multiple devices - you know, a cell phone for home, a cell phone for work, a Blackberry for doing e-mail and maybe an iPod. And what Apple is promising is that a lot of those functions will be integrated elegantly into one device.

And I think that second point is also a really important part, that people really frustrated with clunky interfaces and the difficulty of using a lot of the features that are built into these devices. And so having it in a way that makes it really easy and pleasurable to use is a very compelling part of why people are excited.

MARTIN: So it really is something revolutionary. It's not just a revolutionary marketing plan.

Mr. WASOW: There are definitely a cluster of improvements. And by cluster, I mean there are bunch of innovations, any one of which might not be so radical, but together really represent a significant leap on what cell phones offer. For example, this is going to be almost certainly, out-of-the-box, the best phone to use for listening to music, for watching any kind of digital movie, for surfing the Web.

It's going to be great if you hate voicemail and sort of navigating what some people called the voice jail of trying to get to an individual voice mail. And so…

MARTIN: How is it going to be good? Why is it good for that?

Mr. WASOW: Oh, it…

MARTIN: Like I buy the whole thing about music. It's just better music quality than you're getting from the existing technology. And I get the idea that the video is actually sharper because, you know, I actually have a video camera in my phone. It's not just that great. It's not worth using. So I get it that it's just technologically better. But talk to me about that, like why it can get you out of voicemail hell.

Mr. WASOW: You know, in the same way that music and movies will make use of the big screen, voicemail is being designed so that you can access each individual voicemail separately as if they were almost like e-mail. And you can kind of click in, play it, play it almost like it was a music file on your phone and access it so you can rewind and fast forward easily.

And everybody who's used voicemail has that frustrating moment where it's like having to rewind two or three times to get a number. And those sorts of subtleties are the kind of things that have been thought through in detail. And I think kind of over-arching all of these is that Apple - particularly in the last few years with the success of iPod - has had this just incredible track record of offering really well-designed consumer electronic devices.

MARTIN: Now, a lot of people have devices that have a bunch of features on them. Do people really use all those features on one device, is it just something that they like to have?

Mr. WASOW: Well, there's this, you know, great New Yorker cartoon where somebody is going into a phone store and saying, do you have a cell phone that makes phone calls? And it's like - you're exactly right. There are all these phones and all these functions, and at some level, all we really want to do is have one that, you know, makes calls reliably.

And that's what most people do most of the time. But you're seeing more and more people are using phones for text messaging. They're using them for entertainment, playing games. They're using them occasionally to access information, you know, over the Web about, you know, is this flight on time. You really are seeing this go from being kind of a phone to what one analyst calls a teleputer.

MARTIN: Which raises the question of cost. I mean, on its face, the minimum price is $499. And I think it goes up if you want more memory. People are going to pay that for a phone?

Mr. WASOW: Well, that's another sort of interesting kind of way that Apple is pushing the market. Right, it's clearly an expensive phone. This is a high-end phone. This is not for the average consumer. One of the riddles initially was is there a market, as Apple is pushing for, say, 10 million iPhones at these fairly high-price points.

And what you're seeing, I think, broadly, is that these kinds of technology devices are moving from being kind of the plumbing of our lives, sort of in the background, to really being status symbols. And people - in the same way that people are wearing their Bluetooth headsets almost like jewelry, the iPhone will become a status symbol in the same way that some people are buying fancier cars as status symbols.

And so for those folks, for people who are real technology enthusiasts, for certain corporate users who want to have fewer devices, the $500 to $600 price point won't be that much. And one other to think about it - this was, you know, kind of Steve Job's sales pitch, so take it with a grain of salt. But if you're going to buy a new iPod, a new cell phone and you are trying to integrate and you wanted something that could do e-mail and some computer functionality, that could very easily add up to $500.

MARTIN: You're listening to TELL ME MORE, and we're talking about the launch of Apple's iPhone with technology guru Omar Wasow. And the other issue is if you going to run a phone, you still need a network, right?

Mr. WASOW: This is true.

MARTIN: So, as I understand it, you can only use, what? AT&T or - yeah.

Mr. WASOW: It's only AT&T, and you have to buy a two-year contract and it wouldn't make much sense to get this phone without what's called data service, where you can get access to, you know, the Internet and other kinds of mobile information services. And some of the techies are really upset that AT&T's data network is a relatively slow one. So if you're accessing the Web, it's not going to be as fast as some of the other, you know, sort of, cell phone carriers offer.

MARTIN: And the other thing about it is it's got this touch-screen technology. I've seen pictures of it. A lot of pictures that are available now, so you can see it. And instead of using the standard keypad that so many people are used to having on their phone and even on their other, say, personal organizer devices, it's a keypad. Now how do you think that's going to go? You know, I think I'm quite petite and delicate, but my fingers aren't that small, and I wonder is that really that easily manipulated?

Mr. WASOW: I think of it as sort of the ATM problem, where you're sometimes looking at that touch screen and you can't figure out where the touch screen button is because it supposed to, you know, align it with an arrow on the right. And it's like, you know, it's hard without having an actual bottom with actual feedback response to know have you hit the right spot.

And Apple has built in a bunch of software to sort of make this process simpler, and it sort of guesses your words. And once you kind of get in the hang of it, at least a couple of the reviewers have suggested it works pretty well. But I think it's pretty clear that if you're somebody who is heavy text messenger, a heavy, you know, sort of instant messenger, somebody who's doing a lot of e-mail, this may not be the right phone for you. And this is one of these challenges with technology, is that sometimes you want a butter knife for the problem you've got, and sometimes you want a jackknife.

And when you start to bundle a lot of functions into a device, you know, say a cell phone, it can't be quite as comfortable as, you know, like kind of a banana to your ear for talking. Or it can't be as good as, you know, (unintelligible) for watching movies. It can't do both of those really well simultaneously.

MARTIN: Who is the phone for?

Mr. WASOW: Clearly, there are group of techies, the early adopters for whom this is just going to be, you know, a fun new toy to play with. And these are people who are always kind of at the leading edge of technology, and that's particularly given Apple's recent success. It's going to be a fairly sizable market. They've built a really good loyal following of iPod and Mac user enthusiasts. Another group, I think, will be people who are really interested in it as a status symbol. It's had the most buzz of any device on the market. You know, it's been months of building 11,000 articles in the press, just an incredible amount of buzz, and…

MARTIN: You're not exaggerating. Really, 11,000 articles? That's a real number?

Mr. WASOW: Yeah. And so that's - I mean, there's a whole lot of side story of just how masterfully Apple has…

MARTIN: And here we are playing into it. Omar, I'm so ashamed.

Mr. WASOW: Yeah. But there's a certain point where you kind of have to cover the story that is being covered so heavily, so - the other audience, I think, will be corporate users, who really want a kind of integrated device. And here, Apple is also going to have some challenges. It's not - out of the box - a device that works really well with Microsoft's suite of office applications. You can view things, but you can't edit.

There's going to be a little bit of arm wrestling within corporations where the executive wants the all-in-one. They want really good Web access. They want the sexy new toy, but the IT manager in-house, you know, cuts them off. And so, I think those are going to be the three big audiences.

And maybe, actually, to a slightly lesser degree, kind of consumers who have some money to burn - may not be as techie, but are really enchanted by - you know, the iPod enthusiast or somebody who just is really enchanted by the idea of status and also the ease of use.

MARTIN: See, I think they should have just brought up 50 Cent, because this is really for hip-hop heads. I mean, what CEO do you know needs to be listening to music all day and like, you know - come on, CEOs have people to drive them. So they don't need a GPS. They don't need to find the Starbucks. They have somebody to find a Starbucks for them. Okay, come on.

Mr. WASOW: Yeah. This is true. This is far and away the most blinged out phone on the market today…

MARTIN: You know that's right.

Mr. WASOW: …or tomorrow. Yeah. And so it's certainly going to be - if you trick out your car, you're going to trick out your phone. And, you know, there's not a better phone to do that with right now.

MARTIN: So are you going to get one?

Mr. WASOW: I actually am somebody who does so much e-mail on my phone and so much text messaging, that it actually may not be the fit for me.

MARTIN: Technology analyst Omar Wasow joined us from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities studio in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Thank you, Omar.

Mr. WASOW: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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