Few devices have been the subject of more speculation and anticipation than Apple's iPhone, which Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced with characteristic flair at the annual Macworld conference on January 9. And the discussion has only spiraled since the introduction. Through January 21 -- a period of less than two weeks -- the number of blog posts mentioning both brand and product climbed to around 54,000, according to a search on Technorati. Jobs' dramatic keynote remained the number one podcast on iTunes as of January 21 (a nice postscript about the message supporting the medium and vice versa, by the way).
No mention of the iPhone would be complete without some reference to its striking design and form factor. Without getting too bogged down in the debates about either, suffice it to say that just as the Mac and iPod were dramatically different from other PCs and MP3 players, respectively, the iPhone appears to be unlike nearly every mobile handset that has come before it, including most high-end smart phones. If the device delivers on its promise, it will make the now-everyday acts of making calls, taking pictures, playing music and sending messages far more exciting, if not just downright cool.
Yet, as striking as the iPhone's design, form factor and feature set might be, the real story lies elsewhere. The richness of the internet access experience it promises is the potentially game-changing aspect of the iPhone-- for mobile marketing in particular. By all signs, the iPhone figures to be more successful at providing its users with something akin to untethered browsing than have other mobile devices. This means the mobile internet may become precisely that -- the internet on a mobile device -- rather than something totally distinct, compressed to satisfy the limitations of screen size and lack of mouse. And this, in turn, could help to give mobile marketing, with its combination of ubiquitous reach and highly personalized content and messages, a welcome boost.
The iPhone alone is not going to be responsible for this shift, and certainly not right away. Apple's stated goal is to sell 10 million iPhones and gain one percent of the global handset market by 2008, modest in light of the gadget-lust the iPhone has inspired in even the stingiest technophobes (by comparison, Apple sells nearly that many iPods in a good quarter). But then again, it won't have to be. The premium pricing underscores the degree to which Apple and Cingular (now AT&T), the carrier to which Apple has given exclusive iPhone rights for a period of 18 months, have not positioned the device as a mass-market product, at least not when it launches in June. Some industry voices expressed surprise that a mobile handset at this price point would launch without support for 3G, especially given that Cingular has made substantial investments in upgrading its network to broadband speeds in most metropolitan markets across the United States. However, it does support Wi-Fi and there is certainly a good chance the first if not the second generation iPhone will work with carriers' highest-speed networks without severely compromising its size or form factor.
Other companies will have to do their part as well. The leading handset manufacturers, which undoubtedly have been anticipating an iPhone as long as Apple watchers, are unlikely to take the iPhone introduction lying down, especially not after Steve Jobs disparaged their brand-new mobile devices (Motorola Q, BlackBerry Perl, Palm Treo and Nokia E62) with their suddenly "old-fashioned" QWERTY keypads in his Macworld keynote address. While these handsets also allow for mobile web access, their feature sets and form factors emphasize smart phone capabilities-- messaging (especially email) rather than browsing. Nearly all other mass-market handsets likewise have built-in browsers, but their traditional alpha-numeric keypads do not do much to encourage anything beyond essential browsing. A mediocre experience, combined with the modest speeds of most standard carrier networks and the high cost of access, explains why consumer adoption of the mobile internet lags far behind other data services such as text and multimedia messaging and ring tone downloads.
The excitement generated by the iPhone comes at an auspicious moment. Forrester Research recently issued a report that found 79 percent of U.S. consumers consider mobile marketing to be "annoying," while just three percent view text ads as trustworthy. Those consumers who did evince interest in receiving mobile ads placed more emphasis on viewing ads in exchange for free content than on getting text messages from marketers or viewing banners. The youth segment may be the primary exception to most rules about lack of adoption of advanced mobile services, but more user-oriented devices might go a long way toward spreading that enthusiasm across other demographic segments.
We are unlikely to see devices with iPhone-like browsing capabilities or iPhone style reach the market at one-tenth the iPhone price, and certainly not in the next six months. However, Apple has made a powerful point, one that wireless carriers and other handset manufacturers alike should not ignore: devices designed around the consumer experience of using the web stand a better a chance of spurring adoption of advanced mobile web services.
Back when I was an eMarketer analyst, I wrote an would see the beginning of a short period of disenchantment with mobile marketing. Whatever the merits of that prediction at the time, I think it is safe to assume that the launch of the iPhone thoroughly invalidates it, especially if other handset manufacturers decide to follow a similar path. Reliable, cost-effective broadband internet access was the key to spurring today's Web 2.0 environment. For Web 2.0 to work wirelessly, affordable access and browsing-friendly handsets are a must.
Noah Elkin, Ph.D., is vice president of communications at iCrossing. .