Snap Judgments! The Early iPhone Skepticism

What predictions of failure for the iPhone can teach us about iPad predictions.

By  |  Monday, February 1, 2010 at 4:03 am

Matthew Lynn, Bloomberg, “Apple iPhone Will Fail in a Late, Defensive Move,” January 15th, 2007:

The iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks. In terms of its impact on the industry, the iPhone is less relevant.


There are three reasons that Apple is unlikely to make much of an impact on this market — and why it is too early to start dumping your Nokia shares.

First, Apple is late to this party. The company didn’t invent the personal computer or MP3 player, but it was among the pioneers of both products. Yet there is no shortage of phones out there. There are already big companies that dominate the space, all of whom will defend their turf. That means Apple will have to fight hard for every sale.

Next, the mobile-phone industry depends on cooperation with the big networks. Phones — the high-end ones in particular –are usually sold with a network contract. The provider subsidizes the handset in the U.K. and hopes to recoup its money with ridiculously expensive charges for calls and data. Yet Apple has never been good at working with other companies. If it knew how to do that, it would be Microsoft Corp.

On top of that, its rivals will be pulling out all the stops to prevent the networks offering iPhones. Sure, a big operator such as Vodafone Group Plc would like an exclusive deal to sell the iPhone in, say, the U.K. market. Against that, how much does it want to annoy Nokia — and what kind of incentives will Nokia be offering not to go with the Apple product? There will be lots of tough conversations between companies that know each other well. Apple will find it hard to win those negotiations.

Lastly, the iPhone is a defensive product. It is mainly designed to protect the iPod, which is coming under attack from mobile manufacturers adding music players to their handsets. Yet defensive products don’t usually work — consumers are interested in new things, not reheated versions of old things. Likewise, who is it pitched at? The price and the e-mail features make it look like a business product. But Apple is a consumer company. Will your accounts department stump up for a fancy new handset just so you can listen to Eminem on your way to a business meeting?


Apple will sell a few to its fans, but the iPhone won’t make a long-term mark on the industry.

Harry says: McCracken’s Fourth Law of Apple Predictions states that the more definitive a dismissal of an Apple product is, the more likely that it’ll turn out to be ludicrously wrong. While Lynn’s piece is dated almost a week after the iPhone was announced, it almost reads like it was written beforehand–I don’t see how anyone who was paying attention could conclude that the phone was “a defensive product” that was “mainly designed to protect the iPod.”

Richard Sprague, a Microsoft employee and former Apple evangelist, in “Steve Jobs Says Java is History,” January 18th, 2007 and “More on Why iPhone Will Fail,” January 26th, 2007:

I can’t believe the hype being given to iPhone.  Even some of my blindly-loyal pro-Microsoft friends and colleagues talk like it’s a real innovation and will “redefine the market” or “usher in a new age”.

What!?!?  Without even mentioning that the same functionality has been available on PocketPC, Palm, Nokia, and Blackberry for years, I just have to wonder who will want one of these things (other than the religious faithful).  People need this to be a phone, first and foremost. But with 5 hours of battery life?  No keypad?  (you try typing a phone number on that screen, no matter how wonderful it is — you will want a keypad).  And for all that whiz-bang Internet access, you absolutely need the phone to work, immediately, every single time.  Will it do that?

So please mark this post and come back in two years to see the results of my prediction:  I predict they will not sell anywhere near the 10M Jobs predicts for 2008.  Okay, it’s possible there are enough Apple religious people to buy a lot of them at first, but even the most diehard Mac fans who buy one of these will secretly carry two phones.  One to prove how loyal and “cool” they are, and the other to actually make and receive calls.


Here are more reasons I am not impressed by their phone, and why I’m surprised so many otherwise intelligent people think this is a watershed for the industry.

  1. It’s closed to outside apps.  It’s a “feature phone”, not a smart phone.  You are at Apple’s mercy to make a good experience.   Sure, it’s nice that Apple can control the entire experience, but that only gets you so far.  How popular would iPod be if you could only play songs downloaded from iTunes?
  2. No Keyboard!?!  I don’t care how wonderful the on-screen experience is, you will demand a keyboard within a day of using it.  Lesley points me to all this research on haptic interfaces that demonstrates why we don’t like to write on glass.
  3. No speech?!?  I admit that only 20% of people use speech features on their existing smart phones, but that’s because so few phones have Voice Command.  I don’t know how people make phone calls without high-accuracy voice dialing. I use it every single day.
  4. Is it a good phone?  Latency is hard to get right in a device like this, and by being essentially a media device, iPhone is trying to do a lot. If you’re watching a movie and your doctor calls, it is unacceptable for the phone to take its time answering.  Or if a bad guy starts your building on fire, you need to call 911 without the phone complaining that you are in the middle of a precious download.

Microsoft’s not perfect; we don’t have the ultimate phone either, but I’ll take Windows Mobile any day over the iPhone and I bet serious users will agree.

Harry says: Sprague underestimated the appeal of the iPhone’s interface and Apple’s ability to make a touchscreen device into a decent phone. And I’m not sure why he brings up latency as a reason he’s unimpressed when he hasn’t tried the phone yet. He’s chimed in about the iPad on Twitter, and he’s not impressed by it, either:

A few overall thoughts about these predictions:

  • They failed to figure out that the iPhone was a fungible platform. It’s dangerous to predict that a pricey phone that doesn’t support third-party apps is destined to tank–its manufacturer just might cut the cost and open it up to developers.
  • They didn’t get that the phone’s browser was a breakthrough. For many people, it, not the phone, turned out to be the gizmo’s primary application.
  • They didn’t acknowledge how far ahead the iPhone’s software was, and how long it might take for other companies to catch up. Two and a half years later, the iPhone still has a lead in multiple respects.
  • They came to conclusions about the phone’s usability based on insufficient evidence. In January of 2007, almost nobody who didn’t work for Apple or one of its partners had touched an iPhone, with the exception of a handful of journalists. I don’t think any of these writers were among the lucky few.

All of which leads me to one conclusion about the current spate of iPad predictions: The best ones aren’t the ones that read like they were written by someone who belonged to the debate club in high school. The best ones are the ones that cheerfully acknowledge that there’s a lot we don’t know yet; that the iPad could look a lot different in a year than it does today; and that expressing opinions about a product you haven’t tried is inherently dangerous.

That said, if you’ve got predictions about the iPad–or thoughts about iPad predictions in general–I won’t try to discourage you from expressing them in the comments…

More Apple history on Technologizer:

A Brief History of Those Apple Event Invites

Apple Patentmania: 31 Years of Big Ideas

The Patents of Steve Jobs

Apple Rumors: The Early Years

Inside the Macintosh Portable



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14 Comments For This Post

  1. Allen Says:

    Yes, I want an iPad 🙂 And if you look at my issues with the iPhone when it first was released, look how Jobs listened to me and made significant changes for mass appeal – price dropped and the rate plans dropped big too.

  2. Pelpa Says:

    The iPhone was a success because Apple amended most of the highlighted issues.
    In fact, the iPhone wouldn’t have been so popular if it hadn’t got almost every missing feature, especially the App Store.

  3. Jubei Says:

    Easy really. No matter how idiotic you are, how off your prediction is, fall flat on your face, make up the silliest post to cut down Apple products, you can still keep your job for looking like an idiot or a fool. Thats the best job in the world. Look at Dvorak, Thurrott, Ederle and the many PC-centric bloggers going at it again and again and again…. Best job in world. 😉

  4. Dave Zatz Says:

    Here’s what I wrote January 9th, 2007 as everyone at CES in Vegas turned their attention to Macworld in San Francisco:

    “If the iPhone works as advertised, they’re going to sell a ton and really bring “smart phones” to the masses (despite the $500-$600 price tag) — along with music and video. I prefer the tactile feel of keys to dial with (especially when driving), but have grown accustomed to my 6700 (“the brick”)… so I can probably live without.”

  5. Oslodude Says:

    For the same reason I have not yet bought an iPhone, I will not buy an iPad:


    How obvious is this? And for what reason has the feature been excluded?

  6. drew Says:

    I am really torn on this. The iPhone succeeded since it fully replaced prior devices that were not nearly as good.

    The iPad, it seems, is a little different. It seems to be a new category, but is aimed at the netbook. If you go back and look at criticism of Win7 starter edition, people criticized that you could only run three apps at one time.

    From what I understand, the iPad only runs one app at a time. Also, it appears you cannot simply move files on and off the iPad the way you can on netbook. I find I use my netbook (with Win7 starter) as a big flash drive. I can run the programs I want, and run more than one program at a time.

    Now, having said that, as a device for consuming media (as opposed to creating it) the iPad seems very impressive.

    I was surprised by the price point of $499. I think that alone will sell a lot of these. The problem is if I am going on a trip, what I am going to take with me? If I had a iPhone and a netbook, where does the iPad fit into that?

    As an aside, what would be really neat is seeing (I am a high school teacher) is the iPad as a educational tool. Digital textbook, and specific apps that would allow students to use the device within the class, and then they could submit assignments electronically.

    Since all students would be doing the same thing, running one app at a time would not be a problem.


  7. Glenn Dixon Says:

    Philip Greenspun has now opined, sort of…

  8. Matt Says:

    Interesting look back. Apple has done a decent job of addressing issues with the original iPhone, either through software (copy & paste) or hardware (3G) updates. As a consultant who travels weekly, there are three features I was hoping for that will keep me waiting until rev 2:

    1. USB/SDHC – I would like to use an iPad to manage my iPhoto library and have the ability to upload/email photos while on the road. I currently do this with my work laptop (copy pic from camera, upload to Flickr, sync back to iPhoto when I get home), but would prefer to have an easier way. I know there is an adapter, so this isn’t a deal-breaker, just a gripe. Another option would be if the iPad will work with Eye-fi cards.

    2. T-Mobile Support – I don’t understand why they are selling the iPad unlocked, but didn’t include support for T-Mobile’s 3G network in the US. Again, not a deal-breaker, but without that I will be sticking with the wifi version.

    3. Webcam – My primary use for this type of device would be using Skype/iChat to video chat with my family while I’m on the road. Again, I currently use my work laptop+external webcam for this, but would happily carry a smaller, faster device for this purpose.

    If they add a webcam, I’ll buy the wifi device and camera connection kit on release. If rev 2 comes with webcam/usb/T-Mobile frequencies, I’ll pick up the 3G version in an instant.

  9. Jake Says:

    I wrote a similar story for the Industry Standard a while back, contacting early iPhone skeptics to find out what they thought a year after its introduction:

  10. gargravarr Says:

    Pelpa – That’s like saying the automobile wouldn’t have been a success if they hadn’t added seat belts, a roof, air con, etc. Name me lots of successful products which did not evolve or add new features. Arguments from hindsight are easy to make.

  11. drew Says:

    Gargravarr-but USB is not a “new feature”, it is an industry standard. Apple is entering a market where people expect certain things on a computing device.

    Having to use a connector (and carry that connector around) takes away from the utility of this device. Once you add in the keyboard dock, you’ve moved away from the svelte appeal of this device. How much will I be carrying around in my bag to make this device useful?

    The iPad is slick looking device; but as I have thought about it, how would I use it if I had one? It won’t replace my netbook (I can’t really type without the keyboard dock, and the dock does not look like that I could balance it in my lap).

  12. gargravarr Says:

    Thanks Drew, but we talking about the iPhone, not the Pad. I was commenting on Pelpa’s Captain Obvious statement that features = interest (and possible sales). My point is that it’s easy to claim to understand the success of something AFTER it becomes a success. To do it beforehand takes more than just blind luck.

    As for the iPad, if you think you can’t use it, don’t buy it. Simple.

  13. drew Says:

    Alas, that is the problem; everything I see makes me want one! While people will debate practicality, the form factor and usability seems very appealing. I use my netbook mainly for email and web surfing. I don’t type all that much on it, and the extra screen real estate is very appealing. It comes down now to cost beyond the device. I am already paying for the wireless modem for the netbook. To go 3G is $129, plus the service.

    This points in many ways to the way I have done computing in the last few years. My last laptop was 6 pounds and duplicated my desktop. The netbook I got last year copies enough of what I need, and weighs a lot less. The form factor of the iPad is lightyears ahead of my netbook-how much typing do I think I will do, vs. how much will I actually do.

  14. dpme Says:

    And also, as a total aside, is price. I had expect that the iPad would come in just under $1000. Looking at the pricing at Apple, I am (pleasantly) surprised that the most expensive iPad (3G, 64GB) tops out at $829.

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