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iPhone Seeks to Redefine the Mobile Phone

Despite months of rumors about an Apple phone, Steve Jobs still managed to wow the crowd at the Macworld Expo 2007 keynote with the iPhone, a sleek handheld device that incorporates features of the iPod, a smartphone, and an Internet communications device. A two-year service commitment from Cingular is required; it will not be sold separately. Service plans have not yet been announced. The iPhone will begin shipping in June 2007 in the United States in two configurations: a 4 GB model for $500, and an 8 GB model for $600. Jobs said that it will be available in Europe by the fourth quarter of 2007, and available in Asia in 2008.

The delay in availability was a letdown for the primed audience, but Jobs noted that the iPhone still needs to go through certification by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC); he said Apple wanted to announce the iPhone, even if it’s six months early, and not have the FCC “announce” the device in its public records.

(This explanation rang flat to contributing editor Glenn Fleishman, who noted that the FCC has a confidential process in its Office of Engineering and Technology Equipment Authorization program for products that have not been publicly announced; it was expanded to handle items like the iPhone back in 2004. Confidentiality can be granted for up to 180 days before a product is marketed or shipped, and it covers all details of the product. In fact, it’s likely that the AirPort Extreme introduced at Macworld at the same time as the iPhone was certified under these rules, as no information was available from the FCC until
the device was announced.)

Design — As we’ve come to expect from Apple’s industrial design division, the look of the new device is both impressive and distinctive – it looks nothing like any other phone on the market, nor does it look like an iPod or any of the supposedly leaked mockups that appeared before the announcement. Measuring 2.4 inches (61 mm) wide, 4.5 inches (115 mm) tall, and just 0.46 inches (11.6 mm) deep, it’s only slightly larger than the current fifth-generation iPod with video. It weighs 4.8 ounces (135 grams).

Apple opted out of a physical keyboard, eschewing the tedious 10-key phone layout, the awkward mini-QWERTY keyboard on devices like the Blackberry and Palm Treo, and even the newer two-letters-per-key entry found on the Blackberry Pearl. Instead, you type with your fingers on a virtual keyboard that appears as needed on a touch-sensitive color display measuring 3.5 inches diagonally. The screen resolution is 320 by 480 pixels at 160 pixels per inch (ppi). Omitting the keyboard also allows nearly the entire face of the device to be used to view video or photographs.

The iPhone can be viewed in landscape or portrait mode; a built-in accelerometer automatically shifts mode (when viewing photos or Web pages, for example) depending on how the phone is held. David Pogue of the New York Times noted that the phone can be used upright in portrait mode with the single front button at the bottom, and in a counter-clockwise landscape mode, but not 180 degrees from either of those positions.

In addition to the accelerometer, the iPhone incorporates two other sensors. A proximity sensor above the screen turns off the backlight and disables the touchscreen feature when you bring the phone to your ear, to avoid, in Jobs’s words, “spurious inputs from your face.” An ambient light sensor automatically dims the screen in low-light conditions (thereby also reducing battery consumption).

A Home button below the display takes you to the iPhone’s main screen, and is one of just a few physical switches; there’s also a mute switch and a volume slider on the left side of the device, and a button on the top to put the phone to sleep and lock the touchscreen. The paucity of physical switches is important; the more of the iPhone’s interface that’s provided by software, the easier it is for Apple to change or add to it.

The back of the unit is an expanse of brushed metal, interrupted only by a small camera lens – for its 2-megapixel digital still camera – and a mirrored Apple logo. (That logo is a good example of Apple’s minimal design approach. Most camera phones include a small mirror near the lens, which you can use when framing photos of yourself. That reflective blob would be superfluous to Apple’s designers, leading to the mirrored logo.)

What you won’t find on the back is a speaker, another departure from many cell phone designs. Instead, there’s a speaker at the top of the front face where the iPhone meets your ear, along with a second speaker on the bottom edge for playing ringtones and other sounds, and for when you’re using the iPhone as a speakerphone. You can listen to music through the speaker, too, and the quality was fine on a prototype unit. A microphone at the bottom captures voice input. As one would expect, the iPhone also includes two ports: a jack for headphones and microphones, and a 30-pin iPod connector for connecting to an included dock.

Jobs advertised the battery life at 5 hours of talk time, video playback or Web browsing, or 16 hours for audio playback. (In a Saturday Night Live sketch, “Steve Jobs” was asked – after describing a range of hyperbolic features including iGenie for making iWishes – about battery life, and said, “20 minutes” to guffaws from the audience.)

Apple also plans to release an optional wired headset (resembling iPod earbuds with a small microphone on the cord) or a tiny Bluetooth headset that would automatically pair with the iPhone; it was unclear if third-party headsets would be compatible. Given that Apple is using the term Bluetooth, it’s reasonable to assume that other Bluetooth headsets would work, as the Bluetooth specification doesn’t allow the use of the name and associated profiles – like headset – without allowing all compatible devices to be used.

User Interface — Since the iPhone’s screen takes up nearly the entire front of the device, most of the controls are offered through what Apple is calling the “multi-touch display.” The proprietary technology (“And, boy, have we patented it!” exclaimed Jobs) allows the user to control the device with a hand, incorporating not just pointing, but also scrolling by dragging a finger across the touchscreen, and “pinching,” a two-fingered gesture that zooms images and other content.

Pressing the Home button takes you to a page of icons representing the main features. From there, everything operates via gesture. For example, a virtual left-to-right slider unlocks the rest of the interface (so you don’t inadvertently activate the iPhone in a pocket or purse). Scrolling through the list of contacts functions like a physical wheel: run your finger up or down the screen and the list scrolls by at a speed based on how fast you dragged, slowing gradually and “rubber-banding” off the top or bottom if you hit the edge fast. On her Creating Passionate Users blog, Kathy Sierra has an excellent discussion of why this lack of
abruptness in the interface is so important.

By not implementing physical buttons, Apple gains the capability to display whatever interface is most appropriate for a given task, such as context-specific buttons while talking on the phone, watching movies, listening to music, or browsing the Web. Watching Jobs demonstrate the device during the keynote provided half of the “wow” factor. View the keynote online or watch the QuickTours that Apple has set up on its Web site for a better sense of how multi-touch functions.

Jobs made much of the fact that the iPhone is actually running Mac OS X – not a stripped-down version, but the full operating system that powers your Mac. (David Pogue says that Apple told him otherwise – that it was a subset of Mac OS X.) However, don’t expect to run it the same as a computer. The iPhone’s features and interface are the only aspects of Mac OS X that are accessible, with the rest of the system locked away by Apple. This also means that developers are not going to be able to write their own applications or even widgets; if anything, Apple will approve future applications and distribute them itself. Given Apple’s tight hold on the
iPod, we anticipate that third-parties will be limited to cases, docks, and other accessories that can plug into the iPhone’s 30-pin dock connector.

Phone Features — Job announced that Cingular will be the “multi-year” exclusive provider of cellular service to the iPhone in the U.S., and guest presenter Cingular CEO Stan Sigman noted, in reading a speech from index cards, that the two companies forged a “multi-year” contract. Interestingly, according to Glenn Lurie, Cingular’s president of national distribution, in a PC Magazine article, the deal was a win for Cingular, with Apple giving more than they got. (Cingular’s name will start transitioning to AT&T today, as the acquisition of BellSouth by AT&T gave the telecom giant 100-percent ownership of Cingular. Formerly, it owned 60

The iPhone goes way beyond the basics of placing and receiving calls, making it easy to look up phone numbers, put calls on hold, and create conference calls. Jobs demonstrated taking an incoming call and performing other features, such as looking up movie times from the Web, while the call remained active. These aren’t unique features to smartphones, but Apple has made the interface extremely easy to use (especially setting up multi-party calls, which on most phones is frustrating).

It also features Visual Voicemail, which provides nonlinear access to voicemail messages and avoids the dreaded menu trees used by most systems. Most phones and smartphones show, at best, the number of messages waiting for you to listen to. The rest of the process is aural: you listen and skip messages in the order they were left. On the iPhone, the process is both visual and random access. The messages appear in a list, each of which is accessible with a finger tap. The messages have a contact name if Caller ID matches someone in your address book. Apple was able to add Visual Voicemail through the partnership they’ve forged with Cingular, which had to re-engineer part of its network and storage system to provide this feature. It’s a
bar to entry for other non-U.S. Apple partners, to be sure, unless Apple makes that feature optional outside America.

The iPhone also features SMS text messaging, and the iChat-like interface allows users to maintain multiple discussions, while typing on a small QWERTY key layout on the touchscreen. Text input is eased by automatic completion and other entry aids. There is no instant-messaging client planned for inclusion, oddly enough, not even a version of iChat.

Internet Features — The new iPhone can connect to the Internet via super-fast 802.11n-enhanced Wi-Fi or a mobile connection using Cingular’s EDGE service (which provides data speeds of about 50 to 150 Kbps downstream). Jobs promised third-generation (3G) network support at some future point. Cingular has, to date, deployed UMTS (200-300 Kbps downstream) and HSDPA (350 to 500 Kbps downstream) spottily throughout the United States; European and Asian carriers have deployed those faster flavors aggressively. The supposition was that Jobs didn’t want a phone that offered higher speeds but couldn’t work at those higher speeds in all urban areas. Verizon and Sprint’s incompatible 3G technology covers virtually
all major cities and many smaller ones. AT&T will likely push HSDPA nationally as part of its overall strategy as a new, enormous entity.

Once connected, the iPhone uses a version of the Safari browser to display Web pages. In contrast with most WAP-enabled browsers running on mobile phones, Web pages load with their layout looking as it would normally in Safari running on a Macintosh, but with tiny text and images. iPhone’s Safari compares favorably with Opera’s browser designed for mobile phones, too.

Users can use hand gestures like double-tapping and “pinching” to enlarge portions of the page that they wish to view. Although, no doubt you wouldn’t want to do huge amounts of Web surfing on such a tiny screen, it looked like an intelligent and useful way to use the Web, especially in comparison to any other mobile phone in existence.

You can also send and receive HTML email from the device, which will apparently work with any IMAP or POP3 connection. In particular, Apple has partnered with Yahoo to provide free “push” IMAP email to all iPhone customers. Push email was one of the reasons that Research in Motion’s Blackberry devices gained such quick acceptance: the instant you receive mail at a server, that server in turn pushes the message to your device, much as receiving voicemail causes an almost immediate notification on a phone. You can also pull messages through normal POP and IMAP.

The iPhone’s email interface looked like it would be familiar to users of Apple Mail, although no one will be typing long messages on the onscreen QWERTY keyboard. The device automatically recognizes phone numbers in email messages, and users can call a number by tapping it. It’s likely that the Bluetooth support includes a keyboard profile, which would allow a compact keyboard to turn the iPhone into more of a computing device on the road.

Jobs also demoed widgets (mini-applications, just like in Dashboard on the Mac) working on the iPhone to check stocks and weather, and he showed what appeared to be a special Google Maps application that provided mapping (but apparently not driving directions) in both a street map view and a satellite image view. While no mention was made of location-based GPS services in the phone, a federal mandate requires all cell phones to offer E911 coordinates to operators. The iPhone thus has to have some method of triangulating its location and sending it over the air – whether real GPS or cell-tower interpolation – and we might see a combination of mapping and location awareness.

iPod Features — The iPhone software that enables it to play videos and movies has the same basic organization as what you’d find in an iPod, but it adds some new access methods. You won’t find a click wheel; instead, you scroll using the multi-touch dragging method described earlier. The iPhone also inherits the CoverFlow feature from iTunes, which lets you browse albums by flipping through miniaturized versions of the album covers.

Waiting for June — All in all, for anyone who is struggling to integrate data between different devices, or for anyone who wants to put more of the features found on a personal computer onto a mobile device, the iPhone looks like a winner, assuming the touchscreen works as well as advertised and doesn’t show greasy fingerprints too much. Well… there are plenty of other open questions about the iPhone, and we’ll be looking at those in an upcoming article.

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