iPhone highlights US-Asia gap

The young new year's most exciting telecom announcement occurred at Macworld in San Francisco, where Apple CEO Steve Jobs went public with a long-anticipated plan to have Apple enter the mobile-phone space.

While Jobs' heavily hyped announcement created shockwaves of excitement in the US, it's a real yawner for much of the rest of the world, especially Asia. That fact simply underscores the gap that still exists in mobile services between the US and Asian countries.

With typical bravado, Jobs told a Macworld conference audience that Apple's iPhone is 'a revolutionary product"&brkbar; that changes everything.' And Stan Sigman, the CEO of Cingular, which has exclusive rights to market the iPhone in the US market, characterized it as 'one of the most innovative devices ever created, and we look forward to letting our customers be the first in the world to experience the future of mobile phones.'

Well, unless you envision a future that's expensive, redundant and controlled by Apple, this might be a revolution you'll want to pass on.

In typical Apple fashion, the iPhone is slickly designed and, when it's released in the US in June, will no doubt be highly intuitive and great fun to use. (Users in Asia will have to wait until 2008.) It also features a something called Visual Voice Mail that allows users to go directly to any voice message without having to scroll through previous ones.

Nice, but hardly revolutionary. The iPhone combines an MP3 player (another overpriced iPod, of course) with a mobile phone that will operate over a 2G network. It can be used to download Apple's iTunes music and video clips and to surf the Internet, as well as place phone calls over the Cingular network.

In Japan and Korea, mobile phones are already widely used to download music, watch video, Web surf and as 'wallets' for numerous financial transactions. That's partly because Japan has made a huge investment in 3G technology. China is expected to do the same by the time the 2008 Olympics roll around.

Even in the US, Apple's new toy is sort of old hat. Blackberries and Treos are widely used to make calls, email and surf the Web, and there are plenty of mobile phones that allow you to watch video and listen to downloaded music.

Sony's recently introduced MyLo (which is available but has not yet really been marketed in the US) can be used to surf the Web and run Skype over Wi-Fi networks. So what's the big deal over the iPhone‾ (Even the device's name is recycled; Cisco already has filed a trademark lawsuit, noting it has owned the iPhone name for nearly seven years.)

Of course, there's one revolutionary thing about Apple's new phone: the price. It will retail for $499 with 4GB (or $599 with 8GB.) That's a tough sell in a market where consumers are conditioned to get a free mobile phone when signing a two-year contract with a service provider. Even Motorola is hard-pressed to squeeze more than $99 from Americans for its vaulted Razr phone line.

Apple's iPhone may say more about the US desire for expensive new gizmos than it does for technology breakthroughs. However, Apple's brand loyalty alone will likely shake up the US mobile landscape.

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