Given a number of facts that have since become public, there probably was no way for Apple to “win” unilaterally with the announcement of iPhone—a statement I make as an optimist. If Apple had tried to hold back the announcement until a month before shipping, all of its secrets would most likely have leaked through the FCC, AT&T, or international provider partners, and fewer customers would be prepared for the device to arrive at its announced price points. Similarly, the longer Apple waited, the worse its iPhone trademark position might be relative to Cisco’s, and the better the chance that it would have had to release the product under a different name. And would there be any prayer of third-party accessory support for iPhone on day one? Perhaps generic Bluetooth headsets and sock-like cases, but that’s not the sort of ecosystem Apple would want to brag about.
Then there’s the “nothing else to announce” issue. If you’d wagered last December that the biggest Apple hardware or software release of 2007 would be a colored iPod shuffle or an 8-core Mac Pro without much software support, or that neither Leopard nor iLife would be coming until year’s end, my guess is that you’d be very, very wealthy right now. No one figured that Apple TV and iPhone were the Macworld Expo keynote’s topics solely because all the Mac stuff was months off, and they did a good job of occupying Mac fans’ attention in the meanwhile.
Put another way, there were some really compelling reasons for Apple to pre-announce iPhone five or six months before it actually became available. But there have also been some negative consequences, even leaving the sticker shock and AT&T parts aside; those were going to happen in any case. Most notably, major parts of the iPhone interface have already been knocked off by everyone from Pocket PC hobbyists to no-name but defiant Chinese companies. Even if they don’t eventually succeed at commercializing their products, they’re taking some of the iPhone’s cool factor away just by making its ideas available on lesser devices—some of which will be available before the real thing. Unlike the iPod, which Apple’s been able to protect against interface theft because it was an actual device at the time people started to copy its design, the iPhone isn’t a shipping product yet, raising some fascinating copyright and patent questions that have yet to be answered.
This week, something else became public. We’d heard whispers many weeks ago that Chinese companies were circulating iPhone shells—apparently physically perfect representations of the iPhone—for reasons that weren’t totally clear at the time. An easy guess was that they were making the shells for use in creating iPhone accessories, such as cases, but our still-unanswered question was whether the shells were real, taken from Apple factories overseas, or simple fakes. It’s easy enough to create paper or cardboard iPhone models, but could there be real iPhone casings floating around out there, showing off some of Apple’s new and possibly cutting-edge manufacturing techniques? It’s possible, and if it’s happening, competitors are probably trying their best to figure out how much can be stolen there, too, without retribution.
If you’re an average reader, and not a member of the iPod accessory industry, I can guess your response: “who cares,” right? The answer is: lots of people. Everyone’s going to want a way to protect the iPhone. Lots of people are going to want new wireless and other types of accessories for it. So the opportunity to be first to market with working iPhone accessories could be worth tens of millions of dollars to a company, and right now, the heat is up so high that some vendors have started to make nonsense claims that certain of their products are iPhone-compatible, even though we’re basically certain that they won’t be. Remember the gap between the announcement and release of the second-generation iPod shuffle? During that time, companies manufactured plastic shells that met the expected dimensions of the device, but had to melt them down or throw them away when the real things didn’t measure up. A real iPhone shell, though, might prevent this from happening; a real, working iPhone would frankly be priceless.
The full consequences of the iPhone’s early launch won’t be known for a while, but it’s interesting food for thought. Based on the facts that are known right now, what do you think – on the whole, was it good or bad move for Apple to announce iPhone so early, and why?