8 surprises at Apple's iPhone 4 announcement

Apple managed to spring a few surprises on fans, even though the major news from this week's iPhone 4 announcement had already been leaked.

Mobile operating systems are blowing the doors off desktops.

Steve Jobs said there will be 100 million installations of Apple's mobile OS around the world by the end of the month, including the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. "That's triple the number of Mac OS installations," Technology Business Research analyst Ezra Gottheil told my colleague Gregg Keizer. Gartner Research analyst Ken Dulaney said, "Not everyone owns a [personal computer], but everyone owns a phone.... [Mobile] is the browsing engine in the world, not computers." Industry watchers have been saying for years that mobile devices like smartphones are becoming more popular than PCs, but it's still striking to see evidence that it's actually happening.

FaceTime video chat has training wheels.

It only works with other iPhone 4 units, and only over Wi-Fi. My guess is this is an example of a classic Apple technique for introducing new technology: Apple likes to keep it simple and limit functionality to make sure all the bugs are worked out, before releasing the technology more broadly. I expect that we'll see FaceTime compatible with other software and devices, and 3G and other wireless networks, as the technology gets more foolproof.

AT&T relaxes upgrade schedules.

AT&T played Santa this week, telling customers that anybody who would have been eligible to upgrade to the new iPhone this year can upgrade immediately, without waiting. That's after AT&T played Scrooge last week, ending new signups for unlimited data plans -- data plans will now be capped at $15 per month for up to 200 MB of data, and $25 per month for up to 2 GB, with additional fees for users who go over the cap.

AT&T's early upgrades may not have been entirely altruistic. It's been rumored for years that Apple will end its exclusive relationship with AT&T as a U.S. carrier. I think it's inevitable that will happen sometime. Maybe AT&T is trying to lock in iPhone customers for another two years before those customers have somewhere else to go? (Disclaimer: The preceding is just speculation.)

The Internet is all used up.

During Jobs's presentation, he was unable to complete a Web demo, and he asked the audience to get off Wi-Fi so he could get more bandwidth. My colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols notes that this isn't an isolated problem, Google had similar obstacles at a presentation a couple of weeks ago. Our infrastructure isn't keeping up with bandwidth demand, he says.

I remember a decade ago it was a cliche for technology marketers to say that in the near future, bandwidth would be infinite and free. I have plenty of time to remember that while I sit and wait for Internet videos to buffer.

iMovie for the iPhone

Apple plans to release a $5 video editing app for the iPhone 4, to complement the device's spiffy new high-def camera. The package will satisfy people's demand to edit video right away and post to Facebook or Twitter immediately, writes NewTeeVee's Janko Roettgers. Cisco, which sells the pioneering point-and-shoot Flip video camera, has gotta be running scared, Roettgers says.

But the Flip still has legs, writes ZDNet's Andrew Nusca. It's half the price of an iPhone, and will be a popular purchase for the vast numbers of people who don't have iPhones. Still, when smartphones become ubiquitous, the Flip will be in trouble.

FarmVille and Netflix are coming to the iPhone.

Productivity collapses.

But the biggest surprise is no surprises.

We saw the usual batch of rumors leading up to the conference; my colleague Richi Jennings has a good after-the-fact roundup of Apple rumors, including $99 Apple TV, iTunes in the cloud, free MobileMe, and more. Prior to the conference, I wondered if we might see a big cloud announcement.

I would have been surprised if all of those things happened -- but I'm equally surprised that none of them did. Instead, we got a focused announcement, and the big news, the new iPhone, had already been leaked.

What a difference a year makes.

Daring Fireball's John Gruber looks at the past year since the June 2009 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC):

The iPad was a distant rumor, and Steve Jobs was on medical leave, two months out from a life-saving liver transplant. Now here we are, and the iPad is an amazing industry-changing smash hit (I’m writing these words using one), Apple’s market cap has surpassed Microsoft’s, and Steve Jobs is getting ready to take the stage, in his prime and at the top of his game.

It’s been one hell of a year.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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