Should You Buy an iPhone This Holiday Season?

Computerworld, Nov. 29, 2007

I have a problem. Maybe you have the same one: Somebody in my house wants an iPhone this holiday season. Real bad. Like don’t-get-me-a-single-other-thing, it’s-the-only-present-I-want bad. That kind of bad.

While I’m sorely tempted to be able to bypass the gift-boxed golf balls and three-pack of fake-cashmere dress socks this year, I also don’t want to be played for a fool by everyone’s favorite fruit-logo’ed electronics vendor. 

As early iPhone buyers who were caught out by the unit’s unexpected price drop just two months after its release know only too well, Apple Inc.’s plans for the iPhone are, shall we say, still evolving.

Do I really want to watch my beloved unwrap an iPhone on the big day, only to have it look old and clunky when some newer, hotter model hits the shelves?

(The notoriously closed-mouthed Apple won’t say anything about its plans, won’t even confirm that it has plans, but Macworld, at which the company traditionally makes a raft of important announcements, is scarily close to the holidays, a mere two weeks into the new year.)

Then, too, there’s the features list, or as some detractors like to call it, the not-yet-features list. Right now my loved one is blinded by the iPhone light, but is it truly the best phone for his needs? From G3 to GPS, there are a lot of features missing from the version of iPhone being hawked for the holidays.

And in the meantime, other, almost-as-cool phones have hit the market and won some attention as well. What if the AT&T Tilt or the LG Voyager or the rumored-to-be-upcoming BlackBerry 9000 is actually the better choice?

The service plan could be problematic as well. For reasons too dorky to disclose in public (cough Tracfone cough), we don’t in my household have any existing wireless service plan, but other iPhone wanters who have current plans with carriers other than AT&T need to decide if they want that Apple unit badly enough to eat whatever’s left of their current agreement.

Finally, there are a couple of practical timing questions. As we all know, it’s the Biggest Shopping Month of the Year, which means I’m not the only person out there contemplating an iPhone purchase right now.

If I wait till the last minute, or even the last week, is there a chance Apple will run out of units? (Apple, surprise surprise, officially says “no,” but declines to comment on how many units have been manufactured or shipped.) If I choose to buy an iPhone in-store, will there be an educated, upbeat Apple employee available to answer any lingering questions, or will it be three-deep at the Genius Bar?

And, skipping ahead to the big day, what happens when thousands and thousands of iPhone giftees all rip their phones out of that tasteful Apple packaging and try to activate them in the very same two- or three-hour time slot? Will iTunes be able to handle it? Will AT&T be up to the task?

Spokespeople for Apple and AT&T both separately swore to me on a stack of greeting cards that they’re ready for whatever onslaught ensues, but I’m still worried. Buyers who bought the iPhone in its first couple days of availability reported having problems with activation when transferring an old mobile number over to their new unit. Is that going to happen again?

So many questions! So few buying days left!

As luck would have it, though, I work at Computerworld, which means that instead of wasting hours surfing the blogosphere looking for answers, I get to wander the halls of our (virtual) office and waste the time of my hard-working colleagues instead.

Because journalists and analysts are a slippery bunch that wiggles away from definitive declarations, I resolve to not just gather opinions, but to pin everyone to the mat. Which means that, after hemming and hawing, my homegrown band of experts had to come up with a yes or no answer. The goal? To make my, and perhaps your, holiday iPhone buying decision a little easier.

Stop one: Scot Finnie, Computerworld editor-in-chief

Finnie’s a 20-something-year veteran of the computing industry who garnered a lot of attention (and caught a lot of flak) by very publicly switching from a PC to the Mac. Based on his new devotion to Apple, I suspect I know what the answer will be.

Finnie insists he’s not much of a gadget freak, and he’s happy he waited for the price drop, but yes, he bought an iPhone and yes, he’d recommend that you buy one now.

While he’s as concerned as the next guy about the speed of the EDGE network and the usability of the keyboard, Finnie says the iPhone’s touch screen and the Safari browsing experience are just too good not to have now. And he feels as confident as one can that Apple won’t drop the price again soon enough to embarrass holiday season buyers. 


The tally: Buy now: 1. Buy later/never: 0.


Stop two: Harry McCracken, PC World editor-in-chief

Next, I hop over the corporate firewall to check in with our sister publication, PC World. Harry McCracken, another editor-in-chief with a couple of decades of experience behind him, penned a piece back in July entitled 13 Reasons Why I’m Not Buying an iPhone—Yet.

Has he changed his mind—or his smart phone—since then?

When I ask him, he takes a moment to call up the file and page through his original list of complaints. Aside from the price cut, McCracken says, the most significant change in the six months since his article was published is that Apple finally announced it will release an iPhone software developer’s kit (SDK) next February.

That should pave the way for third-party developers to write, among other things, applications that can fulfill McCracken’s specific business needs, which include more robust note-taking capabilities, support for Lotus Notes, and a to-do list.

His other big issues still stand unresolved—including the slower EDGE rather than the faster 3G network and the non-tactile keyboard that some users will never warm to.

“I do want to make it clear that the iPhone’s an extraordinary device,” McCracken tells me. “And once we see the higher speeds and the third-party apps, I might change my mind. But for now, I’m saying ‘wait.’”


The tally: Buy now: 1. Buy later/never: 1.


Stop three: Ken Mingis, Computerworld online news editor

Back on this side of the wall, I catch up with Ken Mingis, who’s covered Apple for Computerworld for five years and takes what can only be described as a devil-may-care stance on my buy/don’t buy dilemma.

If you need, or want, an iPhone now, go ahead and get one, Mingis says. (He did, the first weekend the phone went on sale.) Trying to gauge when better or cheaper technology will hit store shelves is always a gamble, he says, and guessing Apple’s next move is like trying to read the Kremlin.

Even so, he feels it’s unlikely there’ll be another price cut soon. “That first cut was an anomaly for Apple, dropping the price so soon after the iPhone’s release. It really did throw people for a loop,” he says. In his opinion, it’s highly unlikely it’ll happen again anytime soon.

It’s more likely we’ll see a thinner iPhone, perhaps with more memory like the 16GB iPod Touch, at some point down the road—and it’s possible such a unit could debut in time for Macworld, he guesses. 

Either way, Apple will keep interest in iPhone high by rolling out features on the software side, which current owners will of course be able to access with a simple update.

And if the worst does happen and Apple rushes out a new iPhone midcycle, that doesn’t mean your unit will be obsolete, Mingis says. “People always want to have the latest and greatest, but yours will still work,” he points out equanimously. It’ll just be slightly fatter.

His verdict? There’s no reason to wait.


The tally: Buy now: 2. Buy later/never: 1.


Stop four: Ross Rubin, analyst, the NPD Group

Hankering for a little perspective on that elusive and ever-changing swamp known as the consumer marketplace, I next put in a call to the NPD Group, which specializes in that very geography.

Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis, consumer technology, gives me his take on Apple and the iPhone. The company’s done a notable job of bending many rules of the wireless game with the iPhone—it’s gone against the tide in terms of how handsets are distributed and (via iTunes) of how content, even ring tones, are offered, Rubin says.

And thanks to its wildly successful iPods and computers targeted toward end users, Apple should be well positioned to market the iPhone directly to buyers.

That said, the iPhone landscape is still a volatile place, what with both Macworld and the release of the iPhone API on the horizon. Rubin suggests that users who feel they simply can’t live without the iPhone’s user interface and Web and media experience could take a look at the iPod Touch, which delivers most those features along with 8 or 16 GB of storage (just no phone).

Otherwise, he advises iPhone buyers (and would-be gift recipients) to wait and see what the new year brings.


The tally: Buy now: 2. Buy later/never: 2.


Last stop: Mike Elgan, Computerworld columnist

Oh, dear. Hung jury. I was afraid of this.

For solace, I seek out CW blogger Mike Elgan, who manages to follow Apple and the iPhone closely without actually drinking the Kool-Aid (or would that be “Apple juice”?)

He likes the iPhone very much. He thinks, in fact, it’s the best version 1.0 device he’s seen, and he gives Apple props for that accomplishment. But it’s still a 1.0 unit after all is said and done, and for that reason, he can’t recommend it. Not this year, anyway, and especially not as a gift.

“Six months ago, when there was the novelty factor, this would have made a great gift,” Elgan says. “But now we could be more than halfway toward an upgrade for a product that requires an expensive two-year commitment. You’d be giving six months of joy followed by a year and a half of someone feeling like they have something old.” So no.


The tally: Buy now: 2. Buy later/never: 3.


Attention, iPhone shoppers...

OMG (as the kids say), the iPhone goes down, 3-2!

On the one hand, I’m overjoyed. I just got a theoretical $299 plus $60-per-month-times-two-years put back in my wallet, and that feels good during the first week of December.
On the other hand, what am I going to get my guy?

Honey, how about a signed copy of Fake Steve Jobs’ new book? Or maybe an iPod Touch and a Tracfone, how about that? No?

Well, what about something truly classic, something that’s timeless, unmoved by development cycles or changing marketplace conditions. Something like golf balls. Or dress socks, maybe cashmere dress socks…