It’s 1993 all over again. And not just because housing prices are down, foreclosures are up, and a recession is holding wages in place. It was in 1993 that I got my first computer, and hired a graduate student to teach me how to navigate with a mouse. A new freelance writer in that year, I was traveling to the New York Public Library and using a Princeton University library card, purchased at a cost of something like $450 a year, to gain access to research materials.

But then I found three invitations to sign up with Internet providers on my brand new computer, opened up what must have been one of the first AOL accounts — I could have had any user name I wanted — and was thrilled to be able to gain access to a few databases. There were no graphics then and no browsers. But as I paged through the Eric database of education-related articles I began to think that maybe, just maybe, some day I would be able to do research from my home office.

Now, taking advantage of a huge price cut, I have my first iPhone. The first 8 megabyte iPhone sold for $599, a price that was reduced to $399 a year ago. The new iPhone 3G, which is far speedier than the first generation iPhone, sells for $199 with a two-year AT&T contract. The monthly charge for a minimal number of talk minutes and unlimited data is $69. That data charge includes E-mail, but not text messaging, which is available for an extra charge — ranging from $5 to $20 a month.

Unlike every human under the age of 35, I don’t do a whole lot of texting. Interestingly, though, I no longer spend a time talking on the phone, either. With the exception of lengthy conversations with my out-of-town son and daughter-in-law, I have moved almost entirely to E-mail communication, so I can easily get by with a minimum of cellphone minutes.

But what I really rely on is the Internet. My infatuation (bordering on obsession) with the iPhone has everything to do with the fact that it delivers all of the content of the Internet as quickly as it can be accessed from even a souped up home or office broadband connection. What’s more, the iPhone uses can use search engines specifically designed for mobile devices, which means that it takes just a keystroke or two to complete a search.

Looking for book reviews during the what-should-we-read-next discussion at my book club last week, I pulled up several on “Learning to Drive,” a lead contender for our next selection, in seconds. Reviews for “The White Tiger,” this year’s Man Booker Award winner, came up just as fast. As I typed in more titles, they came up even faster, generally as the first in a string of choices presented by Google’s mobile search application. Figuring out that I was hunting for books, it didn’t bother to include zoo websites when I typed in “tiger.” It knew what I was after.

Presented with the name of a website, iPhone users need only give it a light tap with one finger, and it loads. There are no long strings to type, no more http://www.somethingorother.com to memorize or to key in.

Searching in general has become faster on all sorts of devices. The change is so marked that David Pogue, who writes about technology for the New York Times, recently devoted an awe struck column to the subject. Google’s increasingly powerful search ability has “rocked my world,” he wrote in a column dated September 25.

While this is huge for anyone searching from a 30-pound desktop computer or a 6-pound notebook computer, imagine what it has done for the 4-ounce iPhone, and for the clones that so many manufacturers are racing to get to market. (See sidebar, page 6.)

For once a commercial is not hyperbole. Apple’s ad for its new iPhone simply says: “It changes everything.” And it does.

It’s early days yet, but it does not seem to be much of a stretch to say that soon — probably very soon — every man, woman, and child will have a full-function computer, more powerful than the IBM for which I paid $2,500 in 1993, tucked somewhere on his or her person.

This is so because the iPhone and its imitators provide ease of searching, convergence of music, movies, photography, the Internet, and, oh yes, a phone, in one tiny package. But it is more than that. When iPhone 3G came on the market in July all early reviewers mentioned the App store that was loaded onto it. Most were enthusiastic, but many mentioned that there wasn’t all that much available on the App store.

Now, just a few weeks into the iPhone’s first autumn on the market, the App store is exploding. Scores of new applications are posted every day. I downloaded the complete works of Shakespeare in just a minute or two last Thursday evening. There are hundreds of other books available — most at no cost. Already there are enthusiastic reviews from students, saying that they have been able to download a full semester’s worth of reading.

Every day I take walks using the EveryTrail App, which provides a record of each walk — in street grid or satellite view, complete with geopoints, showing my exact speed at every point of the walk. EveryTrail even lets me shoot photos as I walk, which it then turns into a slide show on its website. I just press one “upload to website” button upon completion of a walk, and then check the website to see exactly where I walked, my average speed, my top speed, my speed at any point, and photos of sights along the way. The programs, and many other GPS-based Apps available at the App store, also work for bikers, motorists, and for kayakers, too — if they can figure a way to keep their iPhones dry.

On and on it goes. The New York Times, Bloomberg, the Chicago Tribune, Time magazine, New Jersey Transit, and the Zagat guides, have turned their content into Apps especially designed for viewing on the iPhone — and more companies join the list every day.

A weather App called “Who is Hot?” synchs with phone contact lists to provide detailed weather — complete with radar images — for the home city or town of everyone on the list. AOL radio for iPhone provides so much content that anyone not eager to keep up with Howard Stern could probably cancel a satellite radio subscription and just listen to a full menu of news, sports, talk, and music of every kind via the iPhone from anywhere. There is even a “local” option that picks up stations — delivered strong and clear — as a traveler moves from state to state.

Already there are hundreds of App travel guides, restaurant, gas station, and coffee house guides, most using the phone’s GPS capabilities. The phone knows where its owner is at every moment, and the Apps draw on that location information to provide specific directions, real time traffic conditions, bar and restaurant menus, gas prices, movie times, and museum hours, generally in a snappy format.

There are also games, many taking advantage of the iPhone’s Wii-like sensitivity to motion. This allows a gamer to move his race car, warriors, or virtual pets by tilting the device one way or another, or even by shaking it.

Not all fun, games, and cool tricks, the new iPhone is also finding fans in the professions. Even doctors, a group of notoriously slow adopters when it comes to Internet technology, are reported to be embracing the possibilities. Epocrates, a medical drug reference, was one of first Apps out of the gate. During the first month that it was available, 25,000 doctors downloaded it, according to Digital HealthCare & Productivity.com.

I am willing to predict that within a year there will be too many iPhone Apps to count without going into seven figures. Beyond the innate appeal of the compact programs, there is the fact that Apple is aggressively encouraging software developers to come up with new Apps. There are do-it-yourself instructions on its website, and the company has announced grants to colleges that set up App development courses.

This will be big. With luck, when we think back to 2008 we will not just remember bank bail-outs, mass lay-offs, sinking home prices, and plunging market indexes. We will also think back to the first time that the possibilities inherent in taking all of the information that mankind has compiled so far and stowing it away in a pocket — along with a phone, a camera, a GPS device, a weather station, a radio, and the complete works of Shakespeare — became commonplace.

The Competitors

Apple’s speedy new iPhone has started a global race. The largest phone companies, Internet companies, software developers, and hardware designers are rushing rival pocket computers to market. The most anticipated iPhone competitor, most often referred to as the Google phone, went on sale this Wednesday, October 22. Offered by T-Mobile, which is calling it the G1, the miniature computer is powered by Google’s Android software and is being manufactured by Taiwan-based HTC.

Doug Dixon, a technologist and frequent U.S. 1 contributor, reviews G1 on his website, www.manifest-technology.com. He is enthusiastic, especially because, as he points out, Google has announced that its Android software will be open. Any developer will be able to come up with applications for it.

While Apple is actively encouraging developers to add to its burgeoning App (applications) store, the company does screen the Apps, and has already attracted negative attention for rejecting some that clash with its own products.

Because Google’s Android is open, it is expected that it will soon be incorporated into phones sold by cell providers other than T-Mobile.

In his review of the G1, Walt Mossberg, who writes about tech gadgets for The Wall Street Journal, found the phone inferior to the iPhone in a number of ways. Serious shortcomings include the fact that it can’t synchronize any data directly with a Mac or PC, as the iPhone can. And while Apple has been loudly criticized for exerting strict control over its App store’s content, Mossberg finds a good bit of exclusivity built into G1.

“Another downside for some users,” Mossberg writes in his October 16 review, “The G1 is tightly tied to Google’s online services. While you can use non-Google E-mail and IM services, the only way you can get contacts and calendar items into the phone is to synchronize with Google’s online calendar and contacts services.”

Another negative with G1, Mossberg points out, is that it does not allow users to easily expand any Internet page by pinching and pulling its text, as the iPhone does. Without this feature, which is a lot easier to master than it might sound, the text on most websites is unreadable. With it, website text can be zoomed to any size the reader wants. This is the feature that delivers the entire Internet to the iPhone.

We are at the very beginning of pocket computing, and there is every reason to believe that Apple’s competitors, now in catch-up mode, will get better and better. Verizon is excited about its entrant in the race, the BlackBerry Storm. A big plus with BlackBerry phones is that they include an easily accessible keyboard that manic text messagers really like. I have found it easy to pick up one-finger typing with the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, but long-time texters find the transition difficult.

Smart phones from every company will undoubtedly improve with each new iteration. Each improvement will win new users who will realize that lugging a laptop is not really necessary in most situations. Sure, the screen is bigger, and working with an Excel spreadsheet is substantially easier, but the freedom of traveling about with a powerful four-ounce computer tucked into a jeans pocket is often worth the trade-off.

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