On Mobile World Congress and the iPhone

A reader comment on today’s news from the 2009 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona summed up our thoughts succinctly:

“I hope the pressure Apple has put on its competitors to improve their devices and application development will also occur in the opposite direction and push Apple to also add some much needed features to the next iPhone.” – TosaDeac

The key word above is “hope,” as distinguished from “think.” It would be great if Apple viewed its competitors as important enough to continue leapfrogging, in much the same way as it did when it declared the iPhone to be five years ahead of other smartphones. But does it? Is there any sign that Apple even cares about all these other smartphones and app stores, except for any threats they may pose to its patent portfolio?

Thus far, the answer is “no.” The first iPhone came out, people had their complaints, and Apple addressed a grand total of three of them: speed, pricing, and audio output. In so doing, it ignored—and compounded—concerns about battery life, made no improvements to its camera or screen, and diminished both its body quality and accessory compatibility. These sorts of changes were signs of a certain Apple confidence: namely, that the company believed it knew what it had to do, didn’t have to do, and could get away with in making a sequel to its original device. If sales were the only measure of whether the company was correct, the iPhone 3G would suggest that it was.

So what about the next-generation iPhone? By this point, the specs have been locked down, so it’s unlikely that any of the new hardware announced today will have directly influenced whatever Apple unveils later this year. Consequently, you can pretty much rule out an 8- or 12-Megapixel camera, HD video recording, and the like; at best, the next iPhone will bump the still camera up a bit and enable low-res video functionality. If a screen resolution bump is in the cards, which seems less likely than a screen technology/brightness change, it was planned well before today’s announcements; similarly, whatever processor and audio chip changes are coming have been underway for many months, and Apple’s main objective will be to improve things the iPhone is already doing pretty well.

On the software side, Apple has comparatively little reason to “compete” with other companies. Everyone’s still struggling to catch up with iPhone OS 1.0 and 2.0, and Apple’s probably putting the finishing touches right now on 3.0. Unless it has been finished already, whatever software will ship on the new device is surely still at least a little open to change, but we’d expect that Apple will be marching to its own drummer on what does and doesn’t make it into 3.0—not following whatever Microsoft has planned for Windows Mobile 6.5 or Google is planning for Android. That’s just not Apple’s style.

What do you think is going to happen with the next iPhone? Will this be the year when Apple finally splits the line into high-end and midrange phones a la iPod and iPod mini? What are you expecting from the hardware? iPhone OS 3.0? We’re curious to hear your thoughts.

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