What if There Had Never Been an iPhone?

By Rob Enderle October 25, 2012

This was the question I asked myself last week while I was traveling in Belize and using a new Samsung flip phone.  What I’d forgotten about these simple phones is they are damn good phones, they can be bought unsubsidized for well under $100 and you can wait up to a week to charge them. In fact in most important ways they are better phones than smartphones are.  With the small iPad launching this week I’m once again wondering if the best solution might have been to keep the phone and the PDA/MP3 player separate and focused. 

Rediscovering the Flip Phone

Remember when we could touch dial while driving, when we could drop our phone by accident and not have a heart attack wondering if we’d broken the screen, or not having to worry daily about the battery being dead? That was my week last week with the flip phone. There were other advantages as well, since I still had my smartphone but was using it on Wi-Fi and as more of a PDA (to avoid high roaming charges) I could look at my calendar and email while I talked on the phone, data charges were potentially far lower (I found I could live off the free Wi-Fi hotspots) and the flip phone was far more comfortable to use.

Now once you separate the phone from the rest of the functions in a smartphone you can make the screen bigger (you never held a PDA to your head), and suddenly a solution like a flip phone plus a 7” tablet makes a ton more sense than an iPhone.

iPhone: Toaster and Refrigerator

Tim Cook, when he looked at the new Windows 8 hybrid products, compared them to the ugly pairing of a toaster and a refrigerator. But in reality they would be more similar to a MacBook Air with a touch screen rather than a huge multi-touch touchpad.  In fact, some of the Windows 8 configurations will basically be Ultrabooks with big touchpads and touchscreens; you just have the option of separating the screen and carrying it like a tablet.  I don’t see that as a huge issue because you can still use the device like a notebook if you want you just have two new options you can choose to use or not.  

But when we put the phone into a PDA/MP3 player we really didn’t do it elegantly because when you use the device as a phone you can’t easily use it in its other functions unless you add a wireless headset and even then, until recently when we got multi-tasking, the device didn’t want to do two things at once.  And the screen size at 3.5”,4” or even 4.5” really wasn’t that great for web viewing, video or pictures with any real detail.  

So might a better solution be a 7” tablet and a flip phone?

Flip Phone+ 7” Tablet

A small tablet typically costs under $300 unsubsidized the data plans are between $25 and $50 a month for the most part (or you can use Wi-Fi), the flip phones are under $100 and the phone plans typically are under $30 with unlimited calling. So it should be a cheaper approach.  If you run the battery down on your tablet the phone still works.  You get a much bigger screen far better for going on the web or enjoying video entertainment and the money you save in the first few months should easily pay for the higher cost of the tablet/phone combination. 

But in the end you get two devices each of which is arguably better than an iPhone is in either mode, the small tablet is far better at things that tablets do and the flip phone is a much better phone.  Granted it would be nice if the two could talk to each other so you could click and call phone numbers which is the one big advantage of an integrated device.  

However if we hadn’t had an iPhone we likely would have vendors like Samsung providing this wireless capability.

Wrapping Up:  iPhone = Worse Solution

So I think the iPhone took the industry down the wrong path and instead of one device that does both things we should have had two devices that speak to each other but are each focused on what they do best.  If we hadn’t had the iPhone I think it is likely we would have gone there, with the iPhone it is unlikely we will ever go there so it seems to me that the vendor that wedded the toaster and refrigerator was Apple and the baby was the iPhone. And since everyone followed Apple, we’re kind of screwed.



President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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