Sunday, July 20, 2008

The iPhone 3G: A thing of dazzling lights and shimmering beauty

At a party once I had a conversation with fellow technology journalist Karlin Lillington about the role of technology journalists, bloggers and the world at large. We both agreed that we have been privileged to witness first hand the greatest cultural revolution since the invention of the printing press. Perhaps Karlin more than I since she grew up in and around Silicon Valley.

But the last 15 years of my life have been spectacular and breath-taking. I’ve met fantastic and interesting people in the industry – including Craig Barrett and Vint Cerf – and attended at least three addresses by Microsoft’s Bill Gates and one by Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page. I’ve been to all ends of the world, from Singapore to Seattle, and even got mild frost bite on a mountain near Salt Lake City. Standing on the Grand Canal in Venice on a hot day sipping chilled white wine or boogying to James Brown in Dublin have more than compensated.

When I began in journalism it was very hard to get a start in any form of paid work in the craft. In 1994 after stints of court reporting for the Irish Independent, I eventually got my break – a chance to edit and develop an electronics magazine called Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMT) and a sister publication called Irish Chemical Journal before graduating to Irish Computer and then becoming tech editor for Business & Finance and witnessing – and partaking in – the excesses of the era. The onset of and chronicling the tech landscape for the general public through E-Thursday and Digital Ireland have only added to and steadied my perspective on the technology or, should I say, digital revolution.

In the early 1990s, because I had no academic background in technology I made it my mission to go and visit electronics plants the length and breadth of Ireland that were the pre-cursor to the Celtic Tiger boom, ranging from Nortel in Galway to Seagate in Clonmel, Motorola in Swords, ALPS in Cork and Apple Computer, which conducted a major amount of manufacturing in Cork city.

On that visit in 1995 I met current country sales manager Liam Donohoe and got to witness the relentless rhythm of chips being hammered and glued onto printed circuit boards in the manufacture of notebook computers destined for the four corners of Earth. I began to see every single one of these plants as integral to a vast supply chain in which Ireland was playing a small but worthy role. At the time, if I said “technology journalist” to anyone they would have looked at me as if I had two heads. The vast potential of technology in shaping the world and entertaining and informing our lives was beyond me at that point, as it was most people in a country where PC penetration was lacklustre.

The point I want to make in this post is I believe technology and its coverage has come full circle to a point where its overall potential is being only now being realised by devices like the Xbox 360 and yes, of course (I’m getting to it) the Apple 3G iPhone. The vast implications again are beyond us and we are on the brink once more of an exciting new time.

When I received my first text message on a rainy November evening in Dublin from veteran tech writer Ray Okonski, letting me know his copy for a magazine I edited called Communications Today was filed, it was an epiphany.

On a Sunday afternoon as the iPhone 3G buzzes in my hand to let me know a new email has arrived, interrupting my leisurely look at Top Ten alternative rock albums on iTunesColdplay’s Viva la Vida is number one – I realise once more the potent forces about to be unleashed.

The iPhone 3G is an elegant piece of technology that should send tremors of terror through established players like Motorola and Nokia, and that linear menus and half-way houses of touch screens and buttons are on the out. Nokia’s N95 is a brave and beautiful effort, while Samsung’s Tocco – what I consider a mini-iPhone including As Gaeilge – is the only thing that currently comes close.

The things that have amazed me the most about the iPhone 3G – an 8GB version – are the simple to use Safari web browser (turn it on its side and you get full screen internet), the iPod functionality and the wonderful picture album. To get a close up of the image on your screen you simple spread your fingers to expand and to contract just pinch your fingers.

Sifting through photographs is again, quick and easy. Just flick with a finger and a carousel of your favourite shots just flick by.

The mapping function is surprisingly quick, calculating the fastest route to get from A to B, and the writing function for texts, web addresses and notes is a massive step forward. I have to admit the 3G coverage – poor where I live – has underwhelmed me, but thanks to a Wi-Fi network in my house I can appreciate the device’s full potential.

But ultimately it’s the elegance of the operating system that wins it for me. Nothing the established mobile industry has put together thus far comes near in terms of simplicity and ease of use. You’d think they’d learn. Well, they will. Just like the Japanese at Pearl Harbour did for the Americans, Apple has awakened a sleeping giant … an alarmingly complacent mobile industry … from its slumber.

Apple deserves the success it will derive from the iPhone. It did its homework and painstakingly realised its vision. And of course thanks to Steve Jobs’ hype machine and savvy marketing organisation.

It also deserves the kudos for bringing the mobile revolution back from an unannounced four year holiday. Expect a new revolution in entertainment, business and our working lives to come our way as the technology industry is once again imbued with purpose.

It is just one element of a vast movement underway, such as two-way digital television that electronics giants such as Intel are working on, according to the company’s home entertainment VP Eric Kim, and that should debut at the next Consumer Electronics Show.

The world’s too vast for us now …. Seeya!