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How Apple's Steve Jobs Whipped Us Into an iPhone Frenzy


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This is one they'll be teaching in business schools for years to come.


The Apple (AAPL) iPhone, set to go on sale Friday at 6 p.m., is a case study on several levels.


Physically, it's an electronic device that combines three of today's most popular technologies -- cellular communications, portable digital music and access to e-mail and the World Wide Web -- in one slick high-tech package.



It's also a showcase for the kind of simple, user-friendly software design that Apple pioneered, first with the Macintosh line of computers, then with iTunes and the iPod.


And it' may be the most impressive demonstration to date of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' legendary mastery of the art of media manipulation.


Through clever stagecraft, massive advertising buys, carefully calibrated releases of information (and on occasion misinformation), and the coddling of a handful of influential reporters, Jobs has created level of consumer interest and anticipation never before seen for an electronic device.


For sheer news value, the arrival of the iPhone this Friday could rival the maiden launch of the Space Shuttle and Charles Lindberg's cross-Atlantic solo flight.



The basic facts of the iPhone can be swiftly summarized.


It comes in two models: a 4-gigabyte version that costs $499 and an 8-gigabyte model for $599. It requires a two-year contract with AT&T Wireless (formerly Cingular) that comes at three price points: $60, $80 and $100 per month, depending on the number of minutes of voice time. Internet time is unlimited and 200 text messages per month are free.



The device has a high-resolution color screen that senses when it's tipped one way or the other and when it's close to your ear. It leans heavily on so-called multi-touch screen technology to simplify some cell-phone and computer functions (and complicate others: typing is tricky and making a call can take as many as six steps). As the early reviews make clear, it has dozens of elegant touches -- from colored pins that fly into online maps to album covers that seem to obey the rules of their own physics as they fly across the screen. There are also dozens of features that are missing or not quite up to snuff (see Apple iPhones Missing Pieces).



But the bottom line is this: unlike most devices that combine several functions and do none of them well, the iPhone puts together three must-have functions and does at least two of them better than they have ever been done before.



Tracing precisely how the coming of the iPhone became a national obsession rivaling OJ Simpson's murder trial or Paris Hilton's incarceration is a little trickier.


It started in January at MacWorld, where Steve Jobs gave a iPhone demonstration that made the gadget seem almost magical. The audience -- first the thousands of faithful in the auditorium, then the millions who watched the keynote online -- was mesmerized.



Then Jobs stopped talking.


The MacWorld keynote speech raised dozens of questions -- from the price of the phone plan to the specs of the cellular network it would be using -- none of which Apple answered.


And in that silence, the press and blogosphere speculated. Endlesslessly and at great length. The less Jobs said about his new machine, the more people talked about it.


And if the buzz ever slowed down, Jobs only had to release a dollop of information to start it up again.


Case in point: the battery life.


In its initial press release, Apple said the the iPhone battery would deliver as much as five hours of cellphone use. In May, a prominent Apple critic reported that the battery life was in fact far, far shorter -- that the iPhone went dead after only 40 minutes of talk time.


The report was almost surely false. But Jobs let it sit out there, unchallenged, for all of May and most of June. Then on June 18, eleven days before the device was to go on sale, Apple issued a press release saying that the iPhone actually delivered far more talk time than originally estimated -- up to eight hours. The buzz took a quantum leap -- and so did Apple's stock price.


But according to a source close to Apple, nothing in the device -- neither the battery technology, nor the power management system -- had actually changed. The whole episode seems to have been a ruse to lower expectations so that they could raised at the last minute.


It's a pattern we can expect to be repeated again and again, even after the device goes on sale.


In its initial configuration, the iPhone lacks at least a dozen features that could be added without altering the physical device, among them instant messaging, voice dialing, access to the iTunes Music Store, a way to search for an address, a way to turn iPod songs into ring tones.


If past behavior is any guide, Jobs is likely to start filling in those missing pieces, one at a time, in a series of press releases and software updates carefully timed to garner maximum publicity and drive further sales. Look at the flurry of iPhone news in the weeks and days before the launch: YouTube videos, that "improved" battery life, a 25 minute tutorial, the cheapest wireless plan on the market and generous reviews from hand-picked journalists timed for simultaneous release three days before the device goes on the market.


Because he owns the whole box -- hardware and software -- and he can count on a few hundred reporters and bloggers to broadcast every minutia of iPhone news, Jobs can send new goodies down the pipeline whenever he feels his baby needs another jolt of media buzz.

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