Let me say right up front that I have not accepted the Jesus Phone as my personal Lord and Savior. The iPhone might turn out to be insanely great. It might become the best-selling mobile phone ever. Or it might not.
Either way, the iPhone’s arrival and the attendant frenzy mark the beginning of a new phase in the mobile phone world – a phase based on the radical notion that it’s possible to make a pocket-sized device that is a pretty good phone and a pretty good networked computer at the same time.
From a purely technical standpoint, this isn’t surprising at all. Phones are basically computers, and we know how to cram a decent computer into a small, low-power package. The engineering isn’t trivial but we know it can be done. Apple might have modestly better engineering, and significantly better human-factors design, but what they’re doing has been technically possible all along.
Yet somehow it hasn’t happened, because the mobile carriers don’t want it to happen. They have clung to their walled garden models, offering limited, captive services rather than allowing easy development of Internet applications for mobile devices. An open system would provide more benefit overall, but most of that benefit would accrue to consumers. The carriers would rather get a big share of a small pie, than a small share of a big pie.
In most markets, competition keeps this kind of thing from happening, by forcing producers to account for consumer preferences. You would expect competition to have forced the mobile networks open by now, whether the carriers liked it or not. But this hasn’t happened yet. The carriers have managed to keep control by locking customers in to long contracts and erecting barriers to the entry of new devices and applications. The system seemed to be stuck in an unstable equilibrium. All we needed was some kind of shock, to get the ball rolling downhill.
Only a company with marketing muscle, design mojo, and a world-historic Reality Distortion Field could provide the needed bump. Apple decided to try, in the hope of selling zillions of the new, more capable devices. The real significance of the iPhone, whether it succeeds or fails in the market, is that it will trigger the transition to more open networks. Once people see that a pretty good phone can be a pretty good mobile computer, they won’t settle for less anymore; and mobile networks will be pried open.
Whether or not the Jesus Phone achieves worldly success, it will succeed in its own way by convincing people that the world can be different.