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It’s unfair to say that other phone companies have copied the iPhone per se. It’s more accurate to note that they’ve wisely allowed Apple to do millions of dollars’ worth of free market research for them. The market has emphatically stated that it wants iPhone-like devices, and now, the damned things are everywhere.

Samsung has an Instinct and a Glyde. HTC has a Touch. Probably the worst possible news for Apple is that Blackberry Thunder is not the title of a 1972 Pam Grier action film (as it should be) but a new Blackberry device with a touch interface.

You are wise and insightful, dear reader; so much so that even my firewall cannot stop your intellect from reaching back through the web browser here to my MacBook screen. None of these are as well-executed as an iPhone. The HTC phone in particular is a hard one to review because you waste most of your time coming up with unkind jokes that play off of the name: (Let me start you off with one: “The sort of Touch that leaves your fingers feeling warm and sticky for hours later, no matter how violently you scrub.” I leave the remainder to you as an exercise.)

But the Samsung models aren’t half bad, and though details on the Thunder are still sketchy, I can predict that it will have the name “Blackberry” silkscreened on it prominently. And for a great many folks, that’s all they need to see.

And many of these phones come with features that the iPhone lacks: a slide-out keyboard, the ability to work with networks other than AT&T and Apple’s other wireless partners, on board memory cards; oh, yes, and the ability to do jack squat (or better) with them without getting permission from Apple via iTunes.

Itchiest of all: It’s nice that something works breathtakingly well, but most users simply aren’t in the “breathtakingly well” market.

Whenever I find myself tempted to wax philosophical about the absolutely vital importance of the tiny details of new technology, I think about the seven-year-old car currently shedding molecules in my driveway, and the BMW that a pal of mine owns. He’s such a fanatic about performance that he’s constantly swapping chips in and out of black boxes to make his vehicle the best that it can possibly be. He sees a layer of dirt on the hood not in terms of grunge, but in terms of drag coefficient.

Me? I pour gas into this hole right here. I check the oil regularly and get it changed every 3,000 miles. I try not to lock the keys in. I bought a new cupholder when I broke the old one. The gas meter is a bit creative so I keep an eye on the trip odometer.

It’s not a lovingly-tuned BMW. But so long as it starts when I turn the key, I really don’t think about how much better a car could be. I just want to avoid walking 52 miles to my parents’ house and back again.

During Steve Jobs’ big WWDC keynote this week, we’re getting an answer to a question that’s been up there on the whiteboard since the iPhone became a runaway success a year ago. Not “How is Apple going to follow this up?” but “did the marketplace go gaga for the iPhone, or are they willing to buy any iPhone-shaped object with the same basic features?”

Yup, here’s where the iPhone finally earns it. It keeps none of the points it won in 2007. From this point onward, either the iPhone is an exciting new platform that creates an entire new paradigm for computing, or else it’s just another touch-based phone with a great browser and a great media player.

It’s going to take much more than 3G data speeds to keep the hearts and minds of the people who drove in to hear the keynote in an 1998 Toyota Camry. ®

Andy Ihnatko is the author of iPhone Fully Loaded, available here from Amazon.

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