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All that glitters doesn't stay sold

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Mobile data services simply aren't very compelling - and are almost always beaten by "real life". Need directions? No mobile service can compete with a good dedicated GPS - they don't know where you are precisely enough - and you'll typically find it's quicker and more rewarding to ask. The same applies to asking for recommendations for local bars or restaurants. Again, local knowledge beats "virtual" information.

That's not to say mobile data services haven't come a long way. Google Maps and Opera's Mini Browser are two excellent services - Omnifone's forthcoming MusicStation a third - which run on almost any mobile today. They have their place in certain situations. Let's see what they are.

You may be caught alone in a remote location and are anxious to check your stock portfolio, the footie scores, or do a map lookup where you are. They come in useful there. Or, you may suffer from a crippling social condition where it's simply too terrifying to ask someone for directions. Or you may have no friends and simply like playing with toys. Mobile data services all fill a need in these situations.

But they're very peripheral. In short, making some slightly irrelevant, and generally useless data service easier to use is a strange justification for hype.

Now let's compare this to the useful role performed by Apple's original Mac. The Mac UI appeared at a time of character mode interfaces where even getting the simplest job done required considerable investment and study. Computers at the time had several problems with accessibility, interoperability, and general ease-of-use - not to mention getting any kind of print-quality graphics work done - and the Mac provided an elegant interface to them all. By contrast the iPhone, along with so many smartphones, is classic technology "push" - an answer to a problem that doesn't really exist.

(Readers with long memories will recall how even the original Macintosh flopped when it was sold on the basis of its UI: it was Postscript, and the graphics niche, that created an enduring business for the Mac. What's the DTP for the iPhone?).

As the Reality Distortion Field begins to disperse, network operators who are currently locked in negotiations with Apple may take great comfort from this.

The iPhone may yet, as I hoped back in January, give the established manufacturers a long overdue reality check. Both Nokia and Sony Ericsson have made their smartphones overly crufty and complicated as the years go by - while Windows Mobile remains a collection of cracks that defies any plaster. Reg readers long for simplicity.

The iPhone, however, doesn't look like the future of phones. If Apple permits it, the iPhone should make great inroads into the "second phone" market occupied by Windows Mobile and RIM's Blackberry today. But the tablet market is pretty small at the end of the day. And there really isn't much Apple, or anyone else, can do about mobile data services vs real life. Perhaps no one ever will.

Less than a month after the launch we can look back to the hyperbolic ventilations of Apple's Poodle Press - the Pogues, Levys and Mossbergs - and ask ourselves, "what on earth were they thinking??" ®

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