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.

Paul Sloan in Business 2.0, April 2005 issue:

Apple fans–and a fair number of nonfans–lust for some sort of Apple phone. The infuriating design and general clunkiness of most mobile phones today cry out for the Apple touch. Jobs has teamed up with Motorola to make a phone that will let users play a handful of songs downloaded from iTunes. But this could be just a prelude to Apple’s entrance into the phone market. With Motorola, Apple has already helped build a prototype of a combination phone/iPod that resembles the iPod in look and feel, according to someone familiar with it.

Scorecard: Correctly argues that Apple could create a superior phone experience; mentions the red-herring scroll wheel and slide-out keyboard ideas, but also says Apple might use “a simple touchpad system on the screen.” Rightly says that Jobs wouldn’t accept the normal manufacturer-carrier relationship but isn’t bold enough to guess he could cut a deal with a major carrier to give Apple an unprecedented degree of control. Overall, not bad!

Harry McCracken (hey, that’s me!) at PC World, March 22nd, 2006:

Australian site Smarthouse is reporting that insiders at [a] Taiwanese manufacturing powerhouse are saying that Apple is definitely working on its own phone. I’ll believe it when Steve Jobs pulls it from his jeans pocket at a keynote and pronounces it incredible, but it does seem like a logical move: I’m not sure if there’s a single phone in the world that’s at good at doing what it does as the iPod is at doing what it does. A terrific music phone could be the kind of game-changing product that’s Apple’s core competency.

Playing devil’s advocate, though, designing wireless phones is no cakewalk–there’s a reason why there aren’t all that many companies in the world that do it. Even with help, it would be a huge step for Apple.

And the swiss-army knife philosophy of today’s phones seems anything but Jobsian. Would the iPhone play music, capture still photos and video, do e-mail and browsing, and be a mobile gaming platform (oh, and let you make phone calls)? Or could Apple get away with introducing an elegant device that did voice, music, and possibly video extremely well–and didn’t even try to do anything else?

Scorecard: I’m smart enough in this PC World post to declare I’m playing devil’s advocate and to toss out questions rather than make definitive statements–a squishy approach that’s hard to fact-check. I do, however, say I think it’s unlike Steve Jobs to make a phone that could play music, capture images, retrieve e-mail, surf the Web, play games, and make phone calls. Wrong!

Mike Hughlett in the Chicago Tribune, May 8th, 2006:

Mark Stahlman, a stock analyst at Caris, said a phone venture would be a “distraction” for Apple. “It’s so different from what they’ve done to date.”

He noted, too, that the wireless industry is known as a particularly competitive business.

The same couldn’t be said for the MP3 business before the iPod took off, he said. Ditto for the computer business when Apple released its first model in the late 1970s.

Once the industry became fiercely competitive, Apple’s market share dropped and today is in the low single digits.

“Apple has done extremely well when it has had no competition,” Stahlman said.

Scorecard: Judge for yourself, but FYI, analyst Stahlman also thought it was unlikely Apple would offer movies for the video-enabled iPod and said that Apple’s Boot Camp would probably lead to a decrease in Mac sales.

Michelle Meyers at Cnet, June 6th, 2006:

Although they agree that the idea of the AppleBerry–a combination iPod/BlackBerry–is enough to send gadget addicts directly into rehab–bloggers just aren’t biting on the iPhone rumor mill’s latest flavor-of-the-month. The concept of the hybrid fruit began to propagate around the Web after analyst Peter Misek of Canaccord Capital suggested Apple Computer and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion might be working on a product together based on the advice of their common partner, Intel. The pairing combines Apple’s design expertise with RIM’s relationships with carriers and handset makers, Misek said.

Scorecard: AppleBerry? AppleBerry?

Jeremy Horwitz at iLounge, September 7th, 2006:

Of course, the new patents sound suspiciously like what YourMacLife suggested was about to be released as the iPod phone. The concept can be summed up simply as a touchscreen-based phone with the ability to switch interfaces – one could be a phone screen, another could be an iPod screen, and yet more could be for any sort of other function imaginable – video playback, game playing, GPS, and so on. All on a single-screened phone. Will any or all of these features be included in an iPod phone? Does Apple envision this as being the next-generation iPod, or a separate device? And will third-party developers be able to create applications for the platform?

Scorecard: It took two generations for the iPhone to get GPS and third-party apps, but otherwise: bingo!

Arnold Kim at MacRumors, September 13th, 2006:

The click-wheel is closer to the bottom of the device with the screen taking a vertical orientation. The click-wheel portion of the device reportedly slides down to reveal a traditional numeric dial-pad underneath. The front is black, while the back is chrome like the current iPod.

Scorecard: The iPhone turned out not to have a click wheel, a sliding case, or a dial pad. But it did have a black front and a metal backside.

James Alan Miller at PDAStreet, October 5th, 2006:

According to ThinkSecret, Apple scaled back its ambitions a bit for the first iPhones: Instead of re-inventing the wheel, the company used some off-the-shelf parts and current iPod technology. In addition to the first model, there may be two or three others rolled out throughout 2007.

The first iPhone is said to feature a 2.2-inch display, 3.3-megapixel camera and an instantly recognizable Apple design, with the company’s usual elegant user interface. There will be iSync support and complete iTunes compatibly, of course. The idea is that people will go for this single device rather than both an iPod and a cell phone.

Unlike the widely panned Motorola ROKR E1 from last year, the first cell phone with iTunes compatibly, the iPhone won’t be limited to a 100 song capacity. The only limit should be the amount of storage available on the device. The same goes for photos.

No word on whether there will be support for video as well. Although one would think that since users should be able to take high quality video with such a high megapixel camera, there will be the capability of downloading movies and TV shows as well.

Reports also say that like the ROKR when it was first released, Cingular Wireless has signed an agreement with Apple to carry the iPhone exclusively for six months; which means other operators won’t be able to offer the device until mid-year.

Scorecard: The iPhone was far closer to a reinvention of the wheel than a modified iPod. 2007 saw only one model. It had a 3.5? screen, not a 2.2? one and a two megapixel camera, not a 3.3 megapixel one. It didn’t let users “take high quality video,” but did offer movie and TV downloads, and offered syncing and iTunes compatibility. Cingular (which later redubbed itself AT&T) got exclusivity for a lot longer than six months, and even AT&T didn’t get the phone until mid-2007.

Katie Dean at TheStreet.com, November 1st 2006:

Reports that wireless carrier Cingular will team up with Napster and Yahoo! go a long way to suggest it doesn’t plan to work with Apple on its music phone offering.

But rather than turn up the competitive heat on Apple, the move by Cingular, which is jointly owned by AT&T and BellSouth, could turn out to be a plus for the digital music king.

ThinkEquity analyst Jonathan Hoopes suggests that Apple might opt with its upcoming iPhone to become a “mobile virtual network operator,” which could be a better deal.

MVNOs, as they’re called, don’t own their own spectrum but enter into deals with carriers to use spectrum for their own brand-named services. Virgin Mobile, for one, is an MVNO.

And it might make sense for Apple to forge ahead on its own, Hoopes says. “If Apple just makes a phone and sells it, the carrier gets the recurring revenue of songs and data,” he says. “If they make the phone and deliver [it] in a MVNO, then they can potentially tap into a recurring revenue stream.”

Scorecard: Do you remember Cingular Music, powered by Napster, Yahoo, XM, and eMusic? Me neither.

Om Malik at GigaOm, November 16th, 2006:

Apple, it is rumored has signed a deal that will allow the Cupertino-based computer company to source 12 million iPod-based phones from a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer. In itself, the news is hardly a surprise for the iPhone has been subject of rampant speculation.

What is surprising the speculation that Apple will sell these phones unlocked, allowing consumers to pop in their SIM cards and use it as a phone. In the US, that would mean getting a SIM card from either the Cingular or T-Mobile. If this is indeed true, and it is not clear if it is so, then Apple will be lending a helping hand to the mobile phone makers.

The introduction of the unlocked iPhone will do two things – it would basically get US buyers savvy to the idea of buying full priced unlocked phones. Secondly, it is going to cause a behavior change – of buying phones instead of freebies.

It won’t be a mass-market phenomenon in the early stages, but eventually (as shown by iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle), Apple will bring the iPhone prices down to a mass-market price point.

Scorecard: The iPhone isn’t an “iPod-based” phone in any real sense and has never been sold unlocked (except in countries where it’s been mandated by law). On the other hand, it did start out at an uncommonly high, unsubsidized price before switching to a lower, more crowd-pleasing subsidy model.

Katie Marsal at AppleInsider, November 20th, 2006:

Apple Computer, which recently released its first mobile handset to manufacturing, is working on a second model that will incorporate messaging capabilities, according to one Wall Street analyst.

“From our understanding, it will leverage off existing iChat software that runs on Macs,” American Technology Research analyst Shaw Wu told clients on Monday. ”We believe it will focus initially on mobile IM as opposed to e-mail.”

Wu said it’s unclear when Apple hopes to deliver the second device to market, as it appears to remain in the development phase. He said this newly uncovered handset is likely the company’s ’smart phone’ and could be branded as “iChat mobile.”

Scorecard: Shaw Wu understood incorrectly; more than three years later, Apple hasn’t shipped a phone that includes built-in instant messaging at all.

Ryan Block at Engadget, December 3rd, 2006:

So apparently last night Kevin Rose, of Digg and Diggnation fame, apparently confirmed information he knew about the iPhone on his eponymous vidcast. According to Kevin, who, to his credit, accurately predicted one of Apple’s most secretive and hyped launches of 2005, the iPod nano, the iPhone will feature the following:

January launch on “all” providers, both CDMA and GSM

Extremely small form factor

Two battery design (with single charger) — one for playing music, the other for phone functions

Flash memory: 4GB for $249, 8GB for $449

“Slide-out keyboard”

Possibly touchscreen

There’s obviously a lot there to process — some new rumor, some old rumor, and some which does and does not jibe with what we’ve heard. According to a trusted source of Engadget’s, whose iPhone information has gone heretofore unpublished, it’s pretty safe to say it won’t have a QWERTY keyboard (although it may be a slider), touchscreen is out, and it’s only going to be GSM with 3G at launch, going with a singular carrier in the US (guess which).

Scorecard: Kevin Rose was wrong about the iPhone launching in January; wrong about it launching on all carriers; wrong about it being available in both CDMA and GSM flavors; wrong about it being extremely small (it was thin, but wide and tall); wrong about the two-battery design; right about the capacities but wrong about their prices; and wrong about the slide-out keyboard. And right about it possibly having a touchscreen. Ryan Block, meanwhile, was right about it not having a QWERTY keyboard, wrong about it not having a touchscreen, right about it being GSM, wrong about it being 3G, and right about it launching on one carrier.

W. David Gardner at InformationWeek, December 8th, 2006:

With Apple Computer’s annual MacWorld Expo in San Francisco just a month away, the rumors are focusing on what Steve Jobs will announce in his keynote address.

It’s not likely to be Apple’s much-anticipated iPhone, according to CIBC World Markets analyst Ittai Kidron, who speculates the phone won’t be announced until after the Jan. 9-12 event in San Francisco.

For weeks now, other Apple watchers — including Web site ThinkSecret.com — have said the ambitious cell phone-music player combo won’t be ready in time for the expo.

Scorecard: Unlikely or not, Steve Jobs did announce the iPhone at Macworld. Which started on January 8th, not the 9th, was called Macworld Expo (not “MacWorld Expo”), and which wasn’t Apple’s show–it was owned and operated by IDG.

Arnold Kim at MacRumors, December 13th, 2006:

Morgan Stanley analyst Rebecca F Runkle has “high conviction” that the iPhone will launch in the first half of 2007. In addition to this, she cites unnamed sources to provide some specs for the unreleased Apple phone:

- $599 for 4GB
- $649 for 8GB
- Wider than the iPod nano
- Thinner than the iPod Video
- Made of Metal
- Multiple colors, but at least including black, white, and silver
- Cingular Wireless is likely carrier in the U.S.
- Update: Clarification: Runkle actually claimed: “full screen LCD; 3.5 inch (28×21)” and approximately 4/10ths of an inch thick. Also incorporates a Virtual Click wheel.

Scorecard: The iPhone debuted at different, lower prices: $499 for the 4GB model and $599 for the 8GB one. It didn’t come in multiple colors, and sported no click wheel of any sort. But it was indeed wider than the iPod Nano and thinner than the video-enabled iPod, and roughly 4/10th of an inch thick (.46?, to be exact). And yes, its screen in fact measured 3.5?.

Brian Lam at Gizmodo, December 17th, 2006:

Cisco rightfully owns the trademark for iPhone. And Apple can’t sue them or bully them into giving it up. The tech world had taken the title for granted, assumed it to be proper, plastered it over magazine covers, and now the name is lost. Which means Apple’s iPhone, if there even is an iPhone, will have to be named something else. It’s a big deal, if you think about what that name meant.

Scorecard: Name not lost. Despite Cisco’s launch of a VoIP phone called the iPhone, Apple called its cell phone the iPhone anyhow. Cisco sued, but the companies settled their differences.

Stéphane Dion at iPhone Freak, December 28th, 2006:

Expected iPhone specifications:

• Slide out keypad.

• Touch screen display.

• Combined MP3 player and phone, coming in two sizes, 4GB costing $249, and 8GB costing $449.

• Two batteries, one for the MP3 player and one for the phone, so you don’t run down your phone while listening to music.

• It going to made from Zirconia, a scratch resistant ceramic material that can be made into a variety of different colours including, white, black, navy blue, light blue, ivory, brown, platinum and gold.

Scorecard: The iPhone did have a touch screen, and did come in 4GB and 8GB varieties. But it didn’t have a slide-out keyboard, or two batteries, or a case made of zirconia. And the two models sold for $499 and $599, not $249 and $449.

Unbylined blogger at FierceCEO on January 1st, 2007:

Here’s what I think: Apple will announce two phones–one will ship immediately and the other will launch later this year. The first will be little more than an iPod Nano with basic phone capabilities while the latter will boast more advanced smartphone functions including real-time IM using Apple’s iChat platform (and by proxy, AOL and Jabber). Both phones will come in a shockingly small and sleek Nano-style case and will operate on a Cingular-run Apple network.

Scorecard: Apple released one phone, not two; it shipped on June 29th, 2007. It didn’t have IM. The iPhone was thin, but didn’t resemble the Nano in dimensions or style. And Apple didn’t launch wireless service under its own nameplate.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball, January 9th, 2007 (the morning of what turned out to be Jobs’ iPhone keynote):

Even just a few days ago, I did not expect to see Apple announce a phone this week. But over the weekend I flip-flopped, and I now think it’s more likely than not. Not a VOIP phone that depends on Wi-Fi or anything like that, but an honest-to-god mobile phone. It seems like there has to be some sort of “Wow, I thought maybe Apple would announce a phone but I didn’t think they’d do it like this!” factor, but damned if anyone knows what it is. My wild unlikely-but-wouldn’t-it-be-cool-as-shit guess: that it’s not an iPod phone, but rather the introduction of a new mobile device OS.

Scorecard: Good flip-flop! Yes, Apple announced a true mobile phone. Yes, it stunned people. And yes, it was not an iPod phone but a phone running a new mobile OS.

So what can we learn from all of the above? Mostly that a high percentage of the things reported about the iPhone turned out to hooey. Which was true because so many iPhone-watchers made similar mistakes:

They instinctively assumed the iPhone would be iPod-like. They therefore leaped to conclusions and envisioned something with a click wheel and iPod-like interface, and an emphasis on music. The iPhone turned out to have surprisingly little in common with the iPod–it had a totally different interface, and its most striking feature was not its music player but its Web browser.

They thought it would have much in common with other cell phones. Most of which had a numeric keypad and a smallish screen. That’s the biggest reason why none of the concept renderings are even vaguely reminiscent of the phone that Apple did design.

They knew that Apple might do something radically different, but few of them came anywhere near guessing correctly about what that radical something might be. There was lots of chatter about Apple sidestepping a traditional carrier relationship in favor of going into the wireless business. Didn’t happen. Surprisingly few Applewatchers guessed that Apple might come up with an utterly new user interface for mobile devices.

They didn’t do a great job of rendering verdicts on the plausibility of various rumors. In retrospect, the idea of Apple becoming a virtual wireless provider doesn’t make a lot of sense, since that business model was already in the process of failing at the time, and wouldn’t have let the company roll out the iPhone around the world. But I can’t find any evidence that anyone said so at the time.

They rehashed a gumbo of “facts” from multiple sources. The stuff that might actually have been leaked by insiders in the know got indiscriminately blended with iffy guesswork and bizarre fantasy, until it was tough to tell the difference. For instance, several stories about the iPhone rightly talked about it having a touchscreen, but nobody figured out that this was (A) true, and (B) one of the phone’s defining features.

Keep all of the above in mind as you read about the “iSlate.” Maybe it’s not just a giant iPhone/iPod Touch; maybe it packs innovations that nobody’s guessing at yet; maybe it’s called the iSlate, and maybe it isn’t. Don’t attach much credibility to rumors or opinions just because they come from a high-powered analyst. And don’t assume that any price points or distribution channels that anyone has thrown out have anything to do with upcoming reality.

Do, however, feel free to share your thoughts about the Apple tablet in the comments on this story. If the prehistory of the iPhone is any indication, you’ve got as good a shot at nailing it as most of the people who have weighed in so far…

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