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Why Can’t I Shut Up About the iPhone?

All right, I have said in these pages and on the radio show that I’m not really interested in buying an iPhone right away, that an ordinary mobile phone works fine for me. Yet, the iPhone feeding frenzy makes it near-impossible not to talk about it. Even Paris Hilton must feel jealous at all the press Apple is getting!

Just looking at the marketing campaign, you have to envy the masterful approach. Apple didn’t inundate the media with paid ads anticipating its arrival. The ads that were placed were mostly low-key. Just just show the phone and a few of its flashy features, and the tech press did the rest.

Why is so much attention focused on a wireless phone?

This can, I suppose, become fodder for college-level marketing classes, but I think the answer might be a whole lot simpler. Despite all the tens of billions of dollars the wireless providers have invested in their systems all these years, service still sucks. Indeed, the most severe criticisms leveled in the early reviews of the iPhone have focused, laser-like, on its weakest link, which is the quality of the AT&T network. Certainly, readers of Consumer Reports will recall that the company formerly known as Cingular rates at or near the bottom when it comes to audio quality, network reliability and customer service.

Forgetting the brilliantly-designed touch screen and all the rest, it appears that the quality of calls is strictly average, no better than the phones that AT&T gives you free in exchange for signing up to ones of its plans. Is that Apple’s fault, or AT&T? Well, it doesn’t really matter, although the latter runs the network, so you can blame them for such shortcomings. Even if Apple is using the very best audio chips in the industry, that’s something they cannot overcome.

However, making and receiving phone calls ranks extremely low as a reason for having an iPhone. The reason all the other wireless carriers and mobile phone makers are having fits about the iPhone is that Apple has exposed their other most serious weakness in a single product, and that’s the user interface.

It’s not that the iPhone does more things than other so-called “smart” phones, just as the original Macintosh didn’t necessarily do more things than its predecessors. In both cases, Apple took existing technologies and weaved them into an innovative user interface that is at once revolutionary as it is disruptive.

By and large, today’s mobile phones are stuck in the dark ages, with incredibly complicated navigation screens that bury even simple functions within numerous arcane dialogs, where you have to do ten things to accomplish one task.

A lot of that is dictated by the wireless carriers, of course. Take Verizon Wireless. I’ve been a customer of theirs for several years, largely because they have a good network, and call quality is reasonably tolerable. Customer service is even adequate, which is saying a lot in that business, unfortunately.

The problem is that Verizon dictates a consistently awful navigation system among all or most of its products. If it worked well, it would mean that getting used to one phone would pretty much acquaint you with the settings options of the next, give or take a few features. But you are confronted with the interface from hell, no doubt inspired by the worst characteristics of Microsoft Windows. Such similar-sounding labels as “Call Settings” and “Phone Settings” are guaranteed to force you to check both to locate the singular configuration panel that may fit into either category.

Now we all know that Verizon turned down a chance to add the iPhone to its lineup early on. No doubt one reason is that Steve Jobs clearly demanded that nobody tamper with the iPhone’s look and feel. Nothing in the iPhone could possibly have been influenced by AT&T, which, until now, was just another mediocre carrier existing in a universe of mediocre carriers.

Indeed, Apple will apparently service the phones itself if they require repair. The standard mobile phone warranty coverage isn’t even available for the iPhone. Instead, you have to rely on Apple’s own guarantee.

How will all this turn out? Well, despite its flaws, the iPhone will evidently be a smash hit! Consider that dude who has been suffering the hot New York City sunshine to be the first in line an Apple Store to acquire his very own iPhone. Like the iPod before it, the iPhone will be a cultural phenomenon, and you will see lots and lots of imitators early in.

In the meantime, AT&T’s competition is already rehearsing their talking points about why the iPhone really isn’t a good thing. But few will care. Have I said enough now?