iPhone nano: Fact or fiction?

Apple's game will keep us guessing...

Apple's game will keep us guessing...

It has probably not passed you by that Apple-flavoured rumours have (re)surfaced this week. Specifically that the Mac maker is apparently lining up a slimmed down version of its iPhone mobile device - to be known, in line with iPod branding, as an iPhone nano.

This time the blogosphere can't take the blame for resurrecting buzz around a gadget that does not (yet) exist. Step forward UK tabloid the Daily Mail - and take a bow for repackaging the rumour in a nano-sized five-paragraphs, which cite an unnamed 'industry source' as their authority.

A simple search on Google Trends illustrated how the concept of 'iPhone + Nano' has whirred through the rumour mill before. For instance, there was a big spike in iPhone nano-based chatter in 2007 - the year Apple filed patent 20070103454, which describes an electronic device that uses separate surfaces for input and output.

And sure enough, the last paragraph of the Daily Mail's article - which is otherwise unsurprisingly nano-esque when it comes to details - reads: "One expert suggested the nano phone would have a touch wheel on the back and display on the front so that numbers would be dialled from behind."

A bottom-dialling, front-facing mobile phone surely sounds more like something limping apologetically off a Microsoft drawing board than Jobsian 'it just works' genius to me.

There have been other iPhone nano hype spikes too. Photoshop cowboys have long made merry with Apple myths, distributing images online of dinky iPhones or dainty flip versions - another rumour fuelled by yet another Apple patent (of which the company files many, most of which are considered 'defensive' and never see the light of day as actual products. But then it would be a lesser company if it allowed every madcap invention to escape into the wild).

Earlier this year, Wired Magazine mocked the whole mock-up concept by coming up with a fantasy line-up of iPhone 2.0s - prior to the real device's launch - in this photo feature, including the now legendary iPhone Shuffle, which 'has just one button' and 'calls random people from your address book'. Genius.

(Despite being entirely fictitious, the iPhone Shuffle all but lives and breathes online, as seen by this video and this one. Older school incredible shrinking parodies of the iPod are also in evidence, such as the iPod Flea, so no one can say that second guessing - tongue-in-cheek and/or otherwise - Apple's product roadmap is a new phenomenon.)

So, after you've stopped laughing at the Apple satirists, it's worth remembering that just because a product can be imagined does not mean it's definitely on Jobs' agenda.

Or at least not in the form you are expecting it to take. When it comes to its own products, Apple is the biggest reality distorter and semantic fog generator out there. Prior to launching the iPhone, Steve Jobs consistently denied - and even mocked - rumours Apple would make a mobile, doing all he could to drench the notion in icy and unwelcoming water. He gave the same reception to the concept of a - 'Pa!' - 3G iPhone. Who would want one of those?

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But it's partly this blowing hot and cold that gives Apple its standout character in an industry where too many vendors are more than happy to trumpet endless iterations of products with miniscule variations and eke out, ad naseaum, the same old themes. Jobs' strategy at least keeps people guessing, and thus things interesting.

But back to the iPhone nano. The Daily Mail claims the device will be "launched in the UK at up to £150 for pay-as-you-go customers" - with the suggestion it will arrive in time for Christmas - and adds it will be "a cut down version, with the candy bar shape of iPod nano music players".

So I make that a two-fingered Kit Kat to the full fat iPhone's four-fingered variety. Or an iPhone Snack.

The article doesn't specify whether this cut down form factor will also necessitate reduced functionality - probably because this is where the whole concept starts to become a tad complex.

Does Apple, a company that prides itself on inventing 'revolutionary' products, really want to launch what would surely amount to a pretty basic mobile device, assuming it is truly that small and that inexpensive? Not to mention how cripplingly small would the virtual keys on the touchscreen keyboard have to be… Typotastic.

Does Apple really want to offer 'Just Another Product' in the vastly overcrowded mobile market - especially when there are plenty of alarming signs that well established mobile makers such as Motorola and Sony Ericsson are having a tough time of it as it is?

On ringing Apple to ask them to confirm (i.e. deny) the truth of the iPhone nano rumours an Apple spokeswoman said she could not be considered an Apple spokeswoman - despite working for Apple in their press office (which was confusing to say the least) and she said no spokesperson was available but as far as she knew, i.e. in her capacity as non-spokeswoman, Apple hasn't made any announcements and has no comment to make regarding the Daily Mail's iPhone nano exposé.

Which was exactly the non-response I was expecting. But of course you have to ask.

So what should we really make of the smaller, cheaper iPhone concept?

If you consider the evolution of the iPod, it started life as a rather cumbersome and very expensive niche interest gadget. It became - after several rebirths in smaller and cheaper forms - a mass market phenomenon. So Apple must surely be flirting with the idea of capitalising on the momentum it has created in the mobile industry and doing some kind of similar jiggery-pokery with the iPhone - which is still very much a rich kid's toy in a poor man's world.

Not for nothing is Nokia, the world's largest mobile maker, focusing efforts on developing low cost mobiles for the developing world.

Starting at a high price point to factor 'unattainable desirability' into a product, and then gradually lowering the cost while ramping up the hype has certainly worked before for Apple. But it's worth remembering that the greatest strength of Apple's brand is that it is expensive; it's not cheap or budget. It's luxury and aspiration. It's designer. It's Mac not PC.

And there are a lot more mobile phones already in play now than there were MP3 players when Apple launched the iPod - so the iPod to iPhone comparison should only be taken so far.

But there is no doubt there is massive appetite for an iPhone nano - whatever that device would entail. Plenty of people love Apple, and if they can buy into even a bit of the brand for cheap they certainly will.

Moreover, it never pays to underestimate Apple, or the company's carefully tuned hype machine - which managed to turn a very-slow-to-market 3G offering into some kind of triumphant homecoming. So even a relatively basic mobile could seem revolutionary when pulled out of Jobs' pocket.

Even so, I feel any real iPhone nano will still have to deliver - to have something special up its sleeve that's worthy of the Apple logo. And Apple being Apple, it is going to keep us guessing about what that something will be…