By now, you've heard that Apple's really cool iPhone has sold more than a million units, and that there's not much for customers to complain about. I'm personally not getting one; AT&T has no service where I live, so there's just no point at present. But I really want one, and not because of the great user interface or because it's a swell iPod. Rather, it's the first handset to have a truly serviceable Web browser.
What's so important about the browser? First, a key direction for the mobile industry is to minimize, if not eliminate, the behavioral and performance differences that exist between wireline and wireless. We've already accomplished this for voice, and data throughput on wireless WANs continues to accelerate (it's already good on wireless LANs). Increasingly, though, the Web is becoming the preferred platform for all mobile data, from email to messaging to multimedia. A desktop-class browser on a handset means that mobile Web services can move forward, eventually getting very close indeed to the desktop experience. And access to the Web regardless is becoming just as important as access to telephony, so this goal is more than noble.
And why will Web services make such progress? Because it's now impossible to mobilize most applications without them. Oh, sure, you can build a spreadsheet or word processor or whatever and run it just fine on a small mobile platform. But the data is another matter altogether. Can you carry all of the data you need in a compact package? No, you can't, and eventually you won't be able to carry all of the applications either. Why not just put a hard drive in the phone, you say? Do you really want to maintain your handset, just as you have to maintain your PC? Do you really want to pay $600+ for a handset, plus more for the software you need? The costs associated with operating a typical PC are becoming astronomical, prompting the question: Why not provide mobile users (and, for that matter, office users as well) with access to computing rather than a computer itself? The data we use is now way more valuable than the computer anyway. Lose your handset and you might be out a few hundred dollars, but the information you have on it could be worth far more – particularly if it's unsecured and falls into the wrong hands. Let's focus on storing, managing and securing data where it belongs – in the data center -- rather than spending ever more cash on hardware and systems software on handsets (and PCs, for that matter). And let's run apps on great big servers, similarly secured, not on battery-powered handsets.
The key argument against this strategy, and I admit it's a good one, is that we really need ubiquitous wireless service to make this vision a reality. Well, we're on the way to that, thanks to a combination of a wireless WAN and a wireless LAN in the handset – the iPhone does indeed have both. And there's a big incentive for the wireless carriers to improve their data services, as the voice market saturates amid demands for more growth from company managers and shareholders alike.
The press has focused on the various shortcomings of the iPhone, including AT&T's use of EDGE in place of UMTS or HSPA (not really a big deal -- EDGE is plenty fast in many applications); no memory card slot (forgivable); the lack of a removable battery (unforgivable); and, well, the price. But the iPhone is an astounding first product from what is, after all, a new cell-phone supplier, and it will be broadly influential on other handset designs. But I think the most interesting element of all will be the push it gives to wireless Web services, thanks again to that wonderful browser.
I'm not exactly sure what Web 2.0 is, but I am sure that the Web will form the basis of most enterprise IT strategies going forward. The days of the thick client are numbered. OK, $500+ may be too much for most people to spend, and we don't really need iTunes in the business world, but the iPhone is a powerful step in the right direction for future mobile IT users. And though the iPhone may not be the platform for everyone, it truly points the way for most mobile enterprise users.