Early iPhone Rumors Give Insight into Apple's 'iSlate'

Remember the very first iPhone–the one that sold for $249, had an iconic click wheel, a cool slide-out keypad, and a unique two-battery design–and which ran on Apple’s very own nationwide wireless network? No, not the iPhone that Steve Jobs unveiled at Macworld Expo San Francisco on January 9th, 2007. It didn’t have any of those features. I’m talking about the one that was an ever-changing figment of the collective imagination of bloggers reporters, analysts, and others who wrote endlessly about the iPhone in the months before anyone outside of Apple knew much of anything–including whether or not the phone existed at all.

I’ve been thinking about that era of blissful ignorance lately. Coverage of Apple’s supposedly-upcoming tablet device (allegedly to be known–maybe–as iSlate) is building to a similar crescendo. Just as with the iPhone, the tablet is already the subject of gazillions of words’ worth of rumors, reporting, guesswork, wishing, and hoping.

Can we learn anything about Apple tablet pre-coverage from the pre-coverage of the first iPhone? I think so. So I revisited much of the early iPhone scuttlebutt for this article. Herewith, choice bits from a bunch of old stories, with summaries of what they got right and wrong…and then some overall thoughts.

The art sprinkled through this story consists of concept iPhones rendered by fans and other interested bystanders prior to the real iPhone’s debut. I’m entertained by them all–but please note that none look even a little bit like the phone that Steve Jobs brandished at Macworld Expo.

Let’s start with a surprisingly early, remarkably prescient iPhone story, shall we?

John Markoff in The New York Times, August 18th, 2002 (almost four years and five months before the iPhone was announced, and less than ten months after the iPod’s debut):

And now come signs that Mr. Jobs means to take Apple back to the land of the handhelds, but this time with a device that would combine elements of a cellphone and a Palm -like personal digital assistant.

Mr. Jobs and Apple decline to confirm those plans. But industry analysts see evidence that Apple is contemplating what inside the company is being called an “iPhone.”

Certainly, Apple’s push into the market for a hand-held communicator would be an abrupt departure for Mr. Jobs, who continues publicly to disavow talk of such a move. But analysts and people close to the company say that the plan is under way and that the evidence is manifest in the features and elements of the new version of the Macintosh operating system

Now, with the release of the newest version of the Macintosh operating system, Mr. Jobs appears intent on taking Apple itself into the hand-held market. The move would play into Apple’s so-called digital hub strategy, in which the Macintosh desktop computer is the center of a web of peripheral devices.

Mr. Jobs continues to be coy. He insists that he still dislikes the idea of the conventional personal digital assistant, saying that the devices are too hard to use and offer little real utility. But a telephone with personal digital assistant features is another matter.

“We decided that between now and next year, the P.D.A. is going to be subsumed by the telephone,” he said last week in an interview. “We think the P.D.A. is going away.”

And even while protesting that the company had no plans to introduce such a device, he grudgingly acknowledged that combining some of Apple’s industrial design and user-interface innovations would be a good idea in a device that performed both phone and computing functions."

Scorecard: This is eerily on-target for a story published so many years before the iPhone appeared. It gets the name right, correctly talks about the phone being based on OS X, treats it as a pocketable computer rather than an iPod that makes calls, and even has Steve Jobs saying it sounds logical. Markoff was so accurate so early in part because he’s a brilliant reporter, not a rumormonger or an idle speculator. Weirdly, though, he also benefited from thinking about the iPhone so far in advance: In 2002, the iPod was not yet a phenomenon, and it was therefore less tempting to immediately assume that an iPhone would be an iPod variant.

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