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Innovation

Apple iPhone - what's behind the curtain?

It's still good to know that the Jobs Unreality Field can operate cross-planet. I watched the live blogs unveiling the iPhone, and got quite indecently excited.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

It's still good to know that the Jobs Unreality Field can operate cross-planet. I watched the live blogs unveiling the iPhone, and got quite indecently excited.

I got better.

The good things first: it makes every other phone on the planet look three years old (and the Zune look ten). It's got the iPod magic touch; the only reason you never saw this on Star Trek is because in the future, people won't be as smart as Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive, CBE. It's thin and it's bright and it's colourful.

Those are the only things that are undeniably wonderful. They count for a lot, but they do not make something on which you want to spend £300.

The things that look good on stage but might go badly wrong in real life are more numerous.

First, battery life. "Five hours talk time, sixteen hours music playback", says Apple, and I don't believe it. It's not that I bear Apple any ill-will, it's just that every manufacturer of battery-powered gear chooses the most liberal way of measuring life that it can defend. In real life, we don't get that option. So, a phone that's flat at JFK if you listen to your music all the way from LHR. Mmm. One of the reasons no phone manufacturer has made a device quite like the iPhone is that everything that makes it special, eats battery. And there's a lot that makes the iPhone special.

Second, touch screens on mobile devices. These are bad because there's no tactile feedback - how you gonna change track when it's in your pocket? - and they get grubby. And they are less forgiving of fat fingers than Jamie Oliver is of a Turkey Twizzler. Apple is good at interfaces. It has also produced some stinkers. Which is this? We'll have to wait and see. The same goes for little details like text entry and web navigation.

Third, network provider. OK, Apple has gone for Cingular in the US because it's got the best GSM network - and this has to be a GSM phone (Actually, it has to be a 3G phone, but there's no point in Apple busting a gut on that right now. iPhone 2 will be 3G/HSxPA, ready for when there are enough for the rest of the world). But how is it going to do some of the funky network-dependent stuff (like random-access voicemail) on other service providers? Will it be a single provider in each territory?

Fourth: the five zillion technical details Apple has omitted to tell us. It runs "OS X" - well, why not. But OS X is whatever Apple wants it to be today. Is it a version recompiled for an ARM processor? Is it a seriously cut-down FreeBSD kernel with some heavily hacked network and UI bits? Java? Can we add more memory? What does it do with Apple's DRM? We don't know. There's no SDK, no word on the architecture: at the moment, it is a thoroughly closed system.

That's rather peculiar, and I think it must be because at its heart, the iPhone is running an unannounced processor. My best guess is that it's a new Core ultra ultra low power x86 device - and that's for four reasons.

First, it means so much less pain for Apple when the time comes to let developers in: the existing tools, experience and even some apps will port.

Second, Intel has the basic technology - and has promised - to produce just such a chip; it has been coy about the timeframe, but I saw the fundamentals at IDF at least a year ago.

Third, Intel sold its other low-power embedded technology, the ARM-based XScale, in the middle of 2006. At the time, I didn't really understand why: if the company is preparing to launch a direct competitor to ARM with equivalent or better low power and high performance, but x86 compatibility, I really understand why. The iPhone could easily be the poster child for this new chip.

Fourth, how much sweeter do you think this made the switch to Intel? If anyone has the Powerpoints from Otellini's last roadmap pitch to Jobs... well, you know my email.

That'll do for now. I think there'll be plenty more to talk about between now and June (or Q4 for us lucky Europeans, by which time there'll be at least five iPhone knock-offs in the channel. Betcha) - but for now, as they say about the very beautiful and the very ugly, it's what's on the inside that counts.

(It's started. Just as I was posting this, fellow gadget fiend DJ IM'd me this link which raises some delicious questions. Cisco owns the iPhone brand name, so Apple must have got permission, right? Right? Steve Jobs to the white courtesy iPhone, please. Paging Steve Jobs...)

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