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Apple's iPhone, A Special Report

Predictions about the iPhone
Dan Spisak
Copyright 2007 Daniel Spisak

At MacWorld Expo 2007, Steve Jobs finally confirmed to everyone that Apple was indeed building a cellular phone. Of course the rumor sites got things all wrong, with most people expecting the phone to be just a phone with iPod functionality at its core.

The rumor sites couldn't have taken the bait any harder, hook, line and sinker than they did.

Sure, Steve announced a cellphone combined with iPod functionality. But to call the new phone an iPod merged with a phone would be a gross understatement. Apple has quite possibly resurrected the Newton, or the Pocket Computer in Niven and Pournelle's 1973 Mote In God's Eye. The difference is, this time it runs some form of OS X, has a fully usable screen that is in color and might not need to rely on handwriting recognition software.

The Apple iPhone

It is also a sexy piece of hardware. The announcement alone got massive press coverage and frankly was the coolest piece of gear not announced at CES. That isn't to say that CES was devoid of interesting new products, but that show has so much going on and is so big it's hard for the press to give everything a sound bite. Apple knows this and Steve is well known for keeping his keynotes on a straight and narrow message, giving the press lots of depth on a few key items. Combine this with Apple's standard policy of not commenting on new products and its overall level of secrecy on developing projects and your end result is a large buzzing press machine anytime you make the press aware of an upcoming announcement. It's really pretty smart on Apple's part as it lets them maximize their ability to make systems built from commodity parts that people already know exist and get excited about it.

However, this report isn't about how Apple gets the press corps on their side without having to resort to free hardware to review sites. The real question here is why Steve Jobs would announce something as cutting edge as the iPhone without its being available till June, months after the announcement. I've got two words for reason behind the delay:

Resolution Independence (Wikipedia link).

Think about this for a moment. Why would the phone not be ready right now? One obvious reason is that the device hasn't obtained FCC approval yet, otherwise the rumor sites would show the FCC photos and tech specs of the device as it was being tested for compliance with FCC law. The hardware specs of the device are rather impressive, but the phone doesn't have HSDPA, just EDGE, so that can't be holding it back.

No, the problem stems from the fact that this phone can easily switch from portrait to a widescreen landscape mode and the phone's OS can redraw the screen to best use the current screen orientation. More importantly, the screen size of the phone is larger than most phones out now, but is still restrictive when compared to what a current computer running a standard desktop OS has to work with. Because of this it behooves Apple to ensure the OS that runs its phone can be flexible with its UI so as to make the best use of the screen real estate as possible. This also gives them the ability to arbitrarily zoom in or out of any application.

Another win for an iPhone using a resolution independent OS would be the resultant savings in the size of the OS. Based on the way Apple's resolution independence patent is laid out, an OS using this technology would have a greatly reduced number of bitmaps it would need to store on disk. This comes about because many of the UI elements that would typically be stored as bitmaps are now programmatically generated by the graphics GPU for the OS.

But it wasn't until I saw the post on Cabel's Blog (link) about Apple's next-generation theme system (link) that everything clicked for me. The iPhone will run Leopard Embedded, or whatever Apple ends up calling the light version of OS X. It needs Leopard's resolution independence to make full use of the iPhone's screen real estate. But Leopard isn't out yet, and notice that Steve Jobs didn't say a single peep about Leopard during the MacWorld keynote.

I personally believe Apple will release Leopard to the public in May of this year, giving them a month of use on the desktop side of the user base to try and catch any glaring bugs or issues. Apple will then push out a 10.5.1 update to OS X in June to concur with the rollout of the iPhone. This all adds up when I think about it. Apple didn't have the usual yearly refresh of iLife, and no one has even mentioned this odd lack of an update to something well known for yearly releases. This is of course because Apple is working on making iLife work with an as-yet-unreleased resolution independent OS, named Leopard, alias OS X 10.5.

Incidentally, if I were Steve Jobs, I would pay my team of lawyers enough money to deal with the Cisco trademark infringement lawsuit and then rename the device from iPhone to the Apple Phone, using the old Apple Computer bitten apple icon as they did with their Apple TV device at MacWorld.

There are still some unknowns about the iPhone for now, like 1st party applications versus 3rd party applications being allowed to run and install on the device. The lack of any kind of removable media slot could be seen as limiting, especially depending on how much space the phones OS will require from the main flash memory. One potentially bright spot for the more hardcore phone freaks out there who are not a fan of Cingular, soon to be AT&T: they should be able to get an iPhone without a contract for a higher price and then force Cingular to unlock the phone thanks to the recent DMCA ruling regarding carrier-locked cellular devices.

But for now we must wait to see what the iPhone develops into. I for one am greatly interested in it and how it ultimately turns out. If I had one thing to gripe about with it, based on the currently available information, that would be its lack of a 3G data technology like HSDPA. If Apple could correct that aspect of the phone I think they would have an even bigger winner on their hands.