Christmas comes Friday for gadget geeks and Apple fanboys when, at 6:00 p.m., all will be able to behold and buy the iPhone.
It wraps a cellphone, iPod, camera, Web browser, and e-mail reader in a package of plastic and touch-sensitive glass less than half an inch thick. Most features exist already on other smart phones that are cheaper than the $499 iPhone. But Apple is promising a smoother software experience, including the familiar Mac operating system and the Safari Web browser.
The iPhone and other new devices advance a trend toward putting our computer and the whole Internet in our pocket. That's promising to further blur work and play and expand Web use outside the home and office. It could also, say a minority of industry watchers, spell the decline of laptops.
"The industry is moving toward a convergence device. In the iPhone, the MP3 player, and the phone are converging along with some parts of the laptop," says Sramana Mitra, a Silicon Valley strategy consultant, who writes a tech blog, sramanamitra.com. "You push that a little bit further, maybe another three, four, or five functions of the laptop ... then the need for the laptop starts to diminish."
While a few companies are deploying workers with smart phones rather than laptops, and some techies talk of letting their laptops gather dust, any widespread transition is unlikely for at least five years – if it all.
A major hurdle, say analysts including Ms. Mitra, is the keyboard. If it's too small, crafting long e-mails, reports, or spreadsheets becomes difficult.
Some devices offer a mini keyboard; the iPhone opts for a touchscreen version. Either way, it's typing with two thumbs. One smart phone maker, Palm, announced the Foleo, a companion screen and keyboard that can be linked to a phone for more typing-heavy tasks.
Apple, however, isn't chasing the power business user but the general consumer who may be surprised to learn just how much phones can do these days.
"They are spending a lot of time educating the mass market, which is something that no one has really bothered doing before," says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research in New York.
The company has also whipped up buzz by offering teases of information while withholding the phone from widespread press review. The few initial reviews have been mostly positive, but the approach risks leaving consumers with either impossibly high expectations or a cautious attitude.
"I'm planning on waiting to see what happens after the initial rush and reviews," says Mac devotee David Golden standing outside an Apple store in San Francisco. While the phone is expensive, he says, he likes the Web features. "I could imagine wasting a lot of time looking at YouTube videos of dogs on skateboards."
Web page display represents the biggest breakthrough of the iPhone, says Craig Mathias of the Farpoint Group, an analysis firm specializing in wireless communications, based in Ashland, Mass. "The exciting thing is having a really good browser so that the mobile Web experience is very much the same as the desktop Web experience," he says.
Programmers can extend the capabilities of the phone by creating Web applications that the phone can run remotely through Safari. But Apple is preventing developers from writing software that sits on the phone, independent from the Web browser. That means the phone will not run many applications you can currently put on your laptop. Instead, the Web-only programs must run over the phone's network, which is criticized for being slow.
The ability of other handhelds to run outside software has allowed a few businesses to use the devices for serious work.
North American Van Lines, a relocation company, sends assessors out to clients' homes with an iPAQ, a handheld device made by Hewlett Packard. The assessor enters into the iPAQ all the items to be moved along with weight and space estimates. The device can calculate the total charges, snap photos of unusual objects, and provide instant copies for the client with the help of a portable printer.
"Before it was done with carbon paper and calculators," says Nick Frischer, managing director of the Boston office. "The productivity is day and night. The time savings alone can be invested into developing a relationship with the person who is moving and instantaneously show the consumer their pricing options."
CSX, the freight railroad company, now sends out track inspectors with an ultramobile PC from the San Francisco-based company OQO. The device, called the OQO-02, is a fully-functional Windows PC that weighs less than a pound and measures 5.6 inches by 3.3 inches – small enough to fit in a pocket. It retails for $1,499 and up.
According to Intel, by 2010 at least 10 percent of the total global PC market will be ultramobile PCs.
But several companies have offered extremely lightweight laptops in the past and found potential customers skipping over them in favor of two devices, one for their pocket and one for their desk, says Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst. That may be partly because consumers don't want to work on screens less than 10 inches and thumb on tiny keyboards, say analysts.
The OQO-02 can be docked into a standard keyboard and monitor. Advances in microchip technology and wireless networks have made it possible to offer a pocket-sized product with enough connectivity and battery life – approximately three hours of continuous use, says Bob Rosin, an OQO spokesman.
"Once you have your computer with you all the time, you can never really go back," he says. "You become so accustomed to looking up a map or looking up an e-mail that someone sent you a few days ago. It brings an immediacy to whatever you are seeking."