Could The Apple Pundits Stop Writing About Mobility, Please?

The point of writing is (or so I’m told) to pick up vaguely arcane notions that I’m entertaining behind my forehead and transfer them, limbs (or tentacles) writhing and dangling from the invisible fingers of language, to that special place behind your eyes that happens to be you.

All the better if I am able to do so in a way that not only fascinates but also enthralls you, of course.

Now, the trouble with writing is that you need to really want to do it to do it well. Which, of course, is the hard bit.

And the trouble with writing where it regards the Mac (or Apple, or their latest creations) is that there are entirely too many people doing it these days – and, as a result, the field has mostly been dumbed down – since dumbing down the content is, as always, the way to ensure it has the most reach.

Now, when dumbness comes into a room and settles down, fickleness and inaccuracy are sure to step nonchalantly through the door any minute now, rifle through the drawers, find your best cigars, pour your scotch and generally make a mess of the carpet.

Which is exactly how things are looking now where it regards iPhone “news” coverage. It’s an unmitigated mess, with the US pundits sniping at each other and alternatively praising what1 they believe to be the Divine Strategy and packing kindling under the Apple tree for not having the SDK out yet.

And, to put it mildly, it sucks. It sucks when what passes by the Apple fan base starts discussing things like mobile services, pricing, ringtones and a number of things they simply don’t understand, because the end result is not unlike watching your average mid-Western North-American male attempting to buy a sports bra for himself in a Hello Kitty store in downtown Tokyo2 – a bumbling progress at best.

It’s utterly, utterly ridiculous – and, in many cases, the overall effect is not as much humorous as it is embarrassing – as in, a synonym for ignorance.

Not all is lost, of course. There are some genuinely knowledgeable takes on the whole thing (such as the ones you’ll find here, for instance), but they are buried in the landslide of pointless speculation that is driven by click-happy media outlets (or, often, wannabe media outlets).

But mainly the folk who get mobile have been keeping quiet, for a very simple reason: there’s no point.

Whatever sweeping changes the iPhone has yet to bring to the industry won’t show up in the news. They won’t show up in fan sites, they won’t have anything to do with the (excellent) UI, or to the fratricide war between the “dumb and dumber” smartphone camps3.

The device by itself is meaningless – like the first iPod, it will soon be consigned to the tinkling gadget pile of history (no matter how much reading that pains current users). The principles behind it, however (an almost complete evisceration of the design formula manufacturers followed until now), are sure to outlast it and be mercilessly cloned – and, hopefully, improved upon by adding a bit more flexibility.

It is at this point that some people start saying “this is just like when the iPod was launched” and try to cast me as a naysayer, etc. Well, I’m sorry for you. Because, you see, the iPod wasn’t a success solely due to its design – it was a success due to Apple’s follow-through. And if you think I’m dissing the iPhone, you’re not getting it. At all.

But I remain steadfastly skeptical of whether the business model behind it (i.e., turning operators into dumb pipes for Apple’s pick of services and milking them for revenue) will do the same, for several reasons.

One (which is pretty obvious) is that mobile operators rely on a steady stream of multiple handsets to be able to cover every segment of their market. Apple may yet deliver more kinds of devices, but they clearly prefer skimming the cream off the top, so that (automatically, mercilessly) paints them into a corner. They can sell how many tens of millions they want, and look good on Wall Street for doing it – but Nokia (for one) currently spans just about every market niche you care to name, and ships several orders of magnitude more phones than just about everyone else.

Nokia is one of the greatest logistics companies on the planet. It churns out hundreds of millions of phones, changes models frequently, and almost everything works properly. If Nokia were running the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, New Orleans would be 20 feet above sea level by now.
Michael Mace

Another is that mobile operators have been fighting tooth and nail to deliver more sophisticated and value-added services than just plain connectivity. Whatever you happen to believe about this, the fact remains that a mobile network can do a lot more than plain Internet access, and is vastly more reliable than anything else you care to mention (including, ironically, the Internet itself, especially when it comes down to what matters: voice).

And being a dumb pipe is not what any operator aspires to become – even fixed operators want to bundle services these days to boost ARPU (that elusive yardstick analysts are so keen to drool over, often ignoring context and location), and having a device manufacturer come in out of the blue wanting a free ride (or, worse, a more-or-less open-ended ride) atop your network is something that requires quite a bit of mental adjustment.

It is, of course, at this point that the Apple zealots step in and cry out that Steve is their savior and shall cast down the evil, inflexible, money-thirsty dinosaurs that are telcos into the pits of doom, thereby revolutionizing the industry and suchlike drivel4.

And we, the people who actually work in the industry, scoff at these loonies and remind them that we’ve done those mental adjustments years ago.

Because, you see, it’s all happened before.

You might have heard of these crazy Canucks who created the BlackBerry – and, with it, not just a revolutionary UI, but a killer app (e-mail, which Apple hasn’t really got yet), a world-wide infrastructure to support it, and, of course, a complete business model that the “inflexible” telcos bought into to carry the device – and the service.

Sure, it wasn’t the iPhone. It wasn’t anywhere as flashy. But it was every bit as revolutionary in several senses (and this is the main point) it wasn’t the only example.

It’s just one instance of a shared business model between telcos and manufacturers – and one that lasted a lot longer than I think the iPhone’s will in its present state, and not just because the BlackBerry took a while to take off – we’ve adjusted our telco clocks to Internet time a few years back, and in the process learned that time shrinks faster after you’ve made your move.

Thing is, most people don’t know anything about the other business models and partnerships mobile operators have in place – especially Apple enthusiasts. Or should I say believers?

Actually, I wish they actually understood the fact that they’re commenting on an entirely different industry from what they’re used to – that alone ought to give them pause.

Update: A couple of people wrote in pointing out that the believers/non-believers rift is currently best visualized as being the Atlantic Ocean itself, and that 99.9% of the clueless Apple pundits currently gibbering excitedly about mobility live in the US and have therefore very limited (i.e. nil) exposure to sophisticated mobile offerings. But the thing is, I didn’t want to peg this as yet another US vs. “Europe“European argument – there are plenty of those already in the mobile space.

1 Incidentally, this article would be amusing if it weren’t so US centric that it got most of its assumptions wrong – in the sense that the subsidizing model and the “issue” regarding value does not apply to “Europe“European (or at least those bits of “Europe“European I have more than a passing acquaintance with by dint of actually living in them).

2 Don’t ask.

3 Apple has, of course, firmly entrenched itself in the “dumber and closed” camp, something they use to keep people in thrall of the moment when they will eventually turn it into an actual computing platform instead of a (rather expensive) smart glass-lined coaster.

4 Yes, the same ones who unlock their iPhones and go into hysterics at the mere hint that Apple might do the predictable thing and deny any support (and updates) to modified handsets. There’s no pleasing some people.