This iPhone thing – I’ve heard about it but I’m not entirely sure what all the fuss is about… It’s just a phone isn’t it?
Here’s the skinny: the iPhone is a mobile device made by iPod-maker Apple, the first version of which was unveiled at Macworld back in 2007.

It’s a touchscreen device with all the mobile phone functionality you’d expect, plus iPod capabilities and a mobile browser.

Is that it? I thought it was some kind of life-changing uber-gadget.
It’s easy to be underwhelmed now, more than two years after its debut, but the mobile industry is a different beast post-iPhone.

It’s worth highlighting that Apple didn’t actually invent converged mobile devices – there were mobile phones back in the day that incorporated web browsing, multimedia playing abilities and more.

Sony Ericsson’s music-playing Walkman phones debuted in 2005, for instance, while Nokia’s flagship N95 – which launched a few months before the iPhone – included 3G, GPS, wi-fi, a five megapixel camera, multimedia playback, web browsing and even an accelerometer.

That’s more than Apple managed to squeeze into its first device – which begs the question: what’s so special about the iPhone?

Brits queuing to get their mitts on the first iPhone in November 2007 (photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

So why all the fuss?
In a word: usability. The first iPhone may not have had 3G, GPS or even a 5MP camera but it did have Apple’s particular brand of UI magic dust.

The problem with many mobile phones in the pre-iPhone era was they were not very user friendly. While the high-end smartphones of recent years could technically already do all the stuff the iPhone could do, actually doing it was probably not very fun – if not utterly infuriating.

As such the iPhone came as a breath of fresh air – if not a force-10 gale – by making a virtue of its easy to navigate UI.

Given the importance of the UI to the iPhone, it’s no wonder the screen was a key focus for Apple – the iPhone has a 3.5-inch capacitive touchscreen, a noticeable jump up from the competition (Nokia’s N95, for instance, had 2.6 inches of unresponsive TFT).

While Apple did not invent touchscreen mobiles – both Palm and Windows Mobile devices have had touchscreens for years – once again the company used some of its magic dust to transform the status quo, doing away with a fiddly stylus in favour of a tactile capacitive technology that allowed users to control their devices through tapping and pinching.

While these may sound like mere details, you could argue Apple made usability mobile’s killer app. By revamping the humble UI, the iPhone shook up the mobile world, even if it didn’t technically have the best specs.

OK, so it was nice and easy to use. What else?
Well, there’s also third-party applications.

Mobile apps were another thing Jobs and co didn’t invent, but by linking up apps with a proven online content distribution business – the iTunes Store – Apple managed to get consumers interested in a big way by making the delivery mechanism simple. After all, it’s no good apps existing if you can’t find or buy them easily, or download and install them without having a nervous breakdown in the process.

Thanks to the popularity of the iPhone and its app store, a whole world of pointless puffware now exists – such as fart apps or pretend-pint apps – downloaded in a second, laughed at for two, and then consigned to the recycle bin for eternity.

Games are also popular (and hold users’ interest for longer), making ample use of the iPhone’s accelerometer and touchscreen, but apps exist in pretty much any category you can think of – from productivity to entertainment to education.

Just how many apps have been bought?
It’s unclear how many apps have been paid for – and many are free to download – but back in July Apple said users had downloaded more than 1.5 billion apps in the iTunes App Store’s first year of operation.

Nowadays the number of apps available for the iPhone is in excess of 65,000 – outstripping competing app platforms such as RIM’s BlackBerry and Google Android, and even the veteran mobile OS Windows Mobile. Pretty impressive for a year or so but Apple did have the advantage of an existing loyal Mac developer base to draw on.

Again all this may sound rather trivial but the App Store is a business too and allows Apple to cream off a proportion of the revenue from any apps sold – even if it’s unclear exactly how good a business it is.

So Apple’s shifted a truckload of apps – how many iPhones has it sold?
In short, millions. Apple says it sold 5.2 million iPhones in the third quarter of this year alone while the latest stats from analyst house Gartner put Apple as the third largest smartphone maker in terms of sales – with 13.3 per cent market share for the second quarter of this year, behind first-placed Nokia (45 per cent) and second-placed RIM (18.7 per cent).

An iPhone app by Travelodge
An iPhone app by Travelodge (photo credit: Travelodge)

Apple’s share is growing too – it had just 2.8 per cent in Q2 last year…

You mentioned the iPhone 3G S – what’s that?
There have been three iPhones released to-date: the original iPhone with its less-than-cutting-edge 2.5G technology, released in 2007; a year later the iPhone 3G arrived which, as the name suggests, got up to speed with data network evolution and also added GPS; and finally the iPhone 3G S, launched back in June. ‘S’ stands for speed – a processing boost which means it’s “up to two times faster” than the iPhone 3G, according to Apple. It also supports 3.5G (HSDPA) for even faster data downloads.


The iPhone 3G released in 2008 (photo credit: Apple)

Well, it looks and sounds pretty fancy but I’m not seeing much for business users here.
Others would beg to differ on that point.

The first generation iPhone was, it’s true, pretty focused on the consumer market but since then Apple has licensed Microsoft’s Exchange ActiveSync enabling iPhone users to get push email via Microsoft Exchange Servers, along with calendars and contacts and some business-friendly security features too.

Many businesses have another reason to be interested in the iPhone too – creating an app can be a way of extending a brand or trying to drum up extra business.

However, it is admittedly still early days for the enterprise iPhone, as a recent silicon.com CIO Jury showed.

Asked whether they’re planning to offer the device as part of their range of corporate mobile phones, the majority of the Jury of UK IT chiefs said no.

One reason that’s undoubtedly held back enterprise iPhone adoption is Apple’s policy of locking the device to, typically, one mobile operator per country. Another problem is the cost per device – iPhones are high-end devices whichever way you look at it and most businesses are not exactly feeling flush with cash in the present economic climate.

Yet you can argue the iPhone’s impact is already being felt in business: via the explosion of touchscreen devices now on the market, for example. These days you’d be hard pressed to find a mobile maker that hasn’t decided its portfolio of devices must include touchscreen – even the apparent refusenik RIM unveiled a touchscreen BlackBerry in 2008. HTC and Samsung have also upped their touchscreen ante and Nokia joined the fray last year, albeit in a consumery way.

The iPhone’s impact can be felt in other ways too – app stores have sprouted up across the mobile industry and mobile OSes are being overhauled to boot.

Is there anything the iPhone hasn’t done?
For a long time the answer to that question would have been cut and paste but the iPhone 3G S has since plugged that rather gaping functionality hole.


Copy and paste arrived with the iPhone 3G S (photo credit: CNET)

There’s also as yet no ‘budget’ iPhone – the so-called iPhone nano as the rumourmill dubbed it. Will there ever be an iPhone nano? Personally I’m not convinced Apple wants a slice of such a mundane pie, even if it would open up the company to a greater number of consumers. It’s also a sector of the market that’s suffering in the downturn, with midrange mobiles looking increasingly moribund, squeezed out by the growth of smartphones in developed markets on the one hand and the proliferation of very low-end mobiles in developing countries on the other. Of course if Apple did make an iPhone nano it would doubtless be a midrange mobile like no other – if only because it would have to be.