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Salling Clicker lets a phone be used to control a computer: The software started as a Mac-only product that worked with Bluetooth to handle presentation advances and a few other limited options. The product has gradually become richer and richer, and long ago added Windows support. The latest release extends Wi-Fi support for smartphones that include Wi-Fi, and uses auto-discovery with Symbian and Windows Mobile 3.5 to allow computers to find all Salling Clicker-enabled phones.
Strip away the high-pitch, touch-screen display, and what makes an iPhone unique? I spent the week at Macworld Expo in San Francisco talking to colleagues and others about the iPhone, announced by CEO Steve Jobs on Tuesday morning, and not shipping until June. The consensus is that while it is one of the coolest pieces of technology on the planet--even though you can't get one--it's not that tremendous of a phone as such.
It's more that it's a great packaging of several technologies in what appears to be a seamless, consistent platform. It should be easier to use than any existing smartphone or cell phone, handle music and video and photo display infinitely better than any such phone, and be a better Internet-connected device for browsing, and perhaps for email. (It has a rich HTML email client.)
But let's face it: the phone features are rather dull, with the exception of so-called random-access voicemail, when compared to the music and Internet access features. You can use an attractive address book to place calls, your SMS messages are organized into an iChat-like display (without actually being an instant messaging client), and you can send email and carry out other tasks while you're making phone calls. Random access voicemail lets you see a visual display of messages by caller (if they provided Caller ID and are in your address book, ostensibly), and then click to listen to any message without having to skip through others. That's rather cool, and it's more efficient than today's system by a few orders of magnitude.
Where I think the iPhone has the potential to change the face of telephony isn't on the side of usability. It may. If successful, it may force interface and feature redesigns by platform developers and handset makers. But it's big impact could be on converged calling, in which Wi-Fi and cell networks are used interchangeably, to the benefit of consumers and cell operators. This is commonly called unlicensed mobile access (UMA), a name that describes a particular technology rather than the concept, but UMA is the only such approach currently deployed. T-Mobile offers it in Washington State in the U.S.; BT just rolled it out over Wi-Fi--they previously had a Bluetooth-only offering--to its broadband subscribers in the UK.
A couple of colleagues reading my earlier post on the iPhone wanted me to clarify this point. The iPhone, as described by Jobs, will seamlessly roam data connections among EDGE and Wi-Fi networks. But it cannot make phone calls over Wi-Fi, and it's a closed platform that may require a process in which software gets approved for installation--meaning that Skype and Vonage could be out of luck. (The other five smartphone platforms, counting many different versions of Linux as one platform, allow developers to write and offer software for installation, although not all software can access all phone and cell network features.)
The iPhone would be Cingular's first smartphone that incorporates Wi-Fi in a deep and meaningful way. There are a number of smartphones in the US and worldwide that offer Wi-Fi, but typically only for certain subsets of tasks and only UMA offerings allow calls over Wi-Fi without the involvement of third party software. And those third-party programs can't tie into the cell network.
Back when AT&T was SBC, they were already talking about Cingular offering some kind of Wi-Fi calling. One statement in 2004 pegged a rollout for early 2006. Didn't happen, of course. But now the combined AT&T owns 100 percent of what will now be called the wireless division of AT&T--the Cingular name starts to die Monday. And the combined AT&T also has tens of millions of DSL customers across its territory. They also have thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots which they resell for cheap access to their DSL subscribers ($2 per month). This gives them the perfect audience to sell converged calling to using the iPhone as part of the bait. "Get the coolest phone in the world, and unlimited calls over Wi-Fi along with television and broadband!" Something like that. Offloading cell minutes to Wi-Fi cuts the cost enormously of fulfilling voice service.
The reason that DSL plus converged calling makes sense is that the fixed-line operator can provision VoIP on both sides of the DSL connection. On the home side, they sell you a Wi-Fi router with voice prioritization (Quality of Service via the Wi-Fi Multimedia or WMM extension), and have you put that router as the first device on your network, plugged into your DSL modem. (This is how T-Mobile offers UMA today in Washington State--they suggest you buy the router for best Wi-Fi and network performance; their router also preserves battery life through WMM Power Save.)
On the central office side, where the DSL line from your house terminates, the broadband operator can transport voice packets off to the voice network rather than transit them over the public Internet. A provider like BT or AT&T--or even a competitive DSL carrier like Speakeasy Networks, which I use for VoIP at home and work--can offer something very close to a circuit-switched voice line, rather than something like Skype or Vonage. It's not Internet telephony, it's provisioned VoIP.
The iPhone is just a portent, and Cingular could just as easily offer the same Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola GSM-based UMA phones that BT and T-Mobile have. But I was frustrated when I tested the Nokia 6136 with T-Mobile's UMA plan. It has Wi-Fi, but it has no browser (not even a crummy one), and makes no real use of Wi-Fi. The iPhone can richly employ Wi-Fi and cell data networks by having essentially a desktop operating system with desktop-class applications. Combine that with seamless, best-available calling, and unlimited calling over Wi-Fi, whether at home, office, or at a hotspot and you've got a plan that could attract those interested in far more than the cool factor.