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iWhatever Is Good for Telcos

Pssst! I heard through the grapevine that Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) are launching the iPhone today. Get out those lawnchairs and tailgating gear. Or outsource the whole process by hiring somebody on eBay and go to the beach. So what's the analysis? Well, Corey Brewer is a pure shooting guard who can run up the points from behind the arc. Oh, wait, nevermind... that was the NBA draft.

Back to the iPhone. It will probably be successful, if only because Walt Mossberg gave it his blessing. Will it live up to the hype? That's probably impossible, unless Apple tacks on another $100 billion in market cap.

What's really important about the iPhone is that it's a completely different device for the industry. You see, the iPhone isn't an iPhone at all. It's an iWhatever.

This represents a new approach to selling mobile services. It's the content, data applications, and snazzy interface that are being put forward before the phone-iness. Whether or not the iPhone becomes the definitive next-generation mobile device doesn't really matter, because I think the hype and excitement it has generated alone provide enough value in pushing carriers further toward innovation.

True, Apple isn't the first to do new things with data. BlackBerry popularized data with push email services and its BlackBerry franchises. And I think that remains a healthy business. Give RIM credit for stimulating new demand for communications services by opening up new applications and marrying them in innovative ways to the network. But Apple is taking it a step forward, by putting the content first.

The iPod's primary features, as far as I can tell, have nothing to do with being a phone. Yes, there is "Visual Voicemail" (though I have no idea why people might be excited about seeing what the inside of their voice mailbox looks like). That's just another voice feature. What I really think people are excited about is the prospect of having a high-quality, mobile screen for doing just about anything.

The iPhone could be the ultimate waiting room time-killer, allowing you to timeshift just about any consumer content or computing task into the dentist's office or the airport: Want to watch a movie? There it is. See a clip from Sopranos? There it is. Listen to music? There it is. Look at your voicemail? There it is. Surf the Internet? There it is. [Ed. note: Read a book? Hahahahahahahaha!] And it's all fully mobile.

Will the bandwidth be enough? Will the thing work without the battery croaking or some part breaking? Probably not initially. But they'll work out the kinks. In a year's time, it will be a pretty interesting device, especially when 3G arrives.

Much of this seems obvious and apparent, but it's important to stress that this is a radical new shift in telecom: Unique devices are driving unique mobile services. We are moving far, far away from the plain-vanilla voice plan. This is pushing data beyond voice in the great bandwidth – and profit – hierarchy.

Now, what about the other pesky questions? I'll take a shot. Will this propel Apple's stock price further skyward? I'd like to think that the hype has been efficiently built into the stock, and I would stick with the old saw, "Buy the hype, sell the news." Will it sell up to expectations? Probably not. Will it kill RIM? Definitely not – they are two completely different markets.

But I do think the iPhone will raise the bar on what devices can do for the communications market, and push folks like RIM, Palm Inc. , and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) to further innovate on the device front. It will also drive service providers to step up the deployment of mobile broadband. It's a good thing for the communications markets. And driving on the freeway will be more dangerous than ever before.

— R. Scott Raynovich, Editor in Chief, Light Reading

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