Learning how to buzz

It's iPhone Pre-release Hype Week as I type, and by the time you read it, the Apple iPhone will be on sale in the States and the first reports will be filtering in on whether or not the fabled iPhone will live up to the hype it's been generating since MacWorld in January.


Hint: It won't.


That's no slander on Apple, necessarily. Reality never, ever lives up to the hype that precedes it, and presumably even the early adopters will keep this in mind when trying out their touch-screen iPod phones.


Still, analysts have been preparing for the worst, issuing skeptical research notes, white papers and press releases warning us that the iPhone may not be all it's cracked up to be. My favorite version of this is BetUS.com giving betting odds on something going wrong with the initial batch of handsets.


For example, the firm is giving 30 to 1 odds that the first wave of iPhones get recalled, and 150 to 1 odds that the screen breaks or cracks like the first-generation iPod Nano, or that the device spontaneously bursts into flames. The odds of someone getting trampled trying to buy one‾ Twenty to 1.


We'll see what happens. But even if the iPhone works fine, there's really no way it can live up to the expectations that have been built around it. To be honest, the iPhone in and of itself isn't all that big a deal. Certainly not out here in Asia.


A phone that plays music‾ See: Motorola ROKR Z6, Sony Ericsson W910, Nokia N95 and the super-sexy Samsung F500. Want a touch screen‾ Get a ROKR, an LG Prada phone or even the new HTC Touch smartphone. By the time the iPhone hits these shores sometime next year, it will be, at best, fashionably late.


One vs two



There's another reason I'm not all that excited about the iPhone (and me being both a tech freak and a lifelong Mac user): I'm just not that impressed with the converged device model. I've been using one of the high-end music phones listed above (I'll let you work out which one) for awhile now, and while it's top-notch as a music player, it's switching from one mode to another where the experience gets clunky. By comparison, keeping my iPod and my phone separate is faster and easier, even if I have to juggle two devices. Don't get me wrong - there's a truly compelling argument for device convergence. I just don't think we're quite there yet.


Maybe the iPhone will surprise us. Maybe running on OS X will make all the difference. Maybe not. I don't think it matters inasmuch that the iPhone isn't going to knock any handset maker out of the top ten, let alone the Big Five. What it is going to do, if it hasn't already, is force handset makers to up their game - partly in terms of technology, but also in terms of marketing and branding.


Think of it this way: when was the last time any phone from any handset maker you can name generated the kind of buzz that the iPhone has‾ It was probably when the Moto ROKR E1 came out with iTunes on it. It flopped, but mainly because everyone was expecting something not unlike an iPhone. Notice, however, that it was chiefly the iTunes bit that got everyone excited in the first place.


Coincidence‾ Hardly. People like Jane Zweig at Shosteck have already said it, but it's worth repeating: for all the criticisms that Apple is a hardware company at the end of the day, it's actually reinvented itself as a lifestyle company as a mechanism to sell its hardware. All of the top handset makers have been pushing in similar directions in various ways - Nokia's Nseries, Sony Ericsson's Walkman series, Moto's music branding in China, LG's designer phones like Chocolate, Shine and Prada, etc. But while all are likely to outsell the iPhone, the real challenge may be learning how to outbuzz it.