The Payphone and the iPhone

If Barack Obama could be compared to the iPhone, then it might seem that John McCain is the payphone. But before I get any further in this post, I should disclaim that I have yet to decide whom I might vote for this November and I am a huge Apple product fan and love the iPhone. Now for some fun…

Why do people like the iPhone? Lots of reasons. I think we can characterize it as something that feels genuinely new in the already tired category of smart phones. It screams “change!” like no other product in the category. No keyboard, beautiful and elegant user interface, modern base operating system and what looks to be an unlimited potential.

But … it also has it’s short-comings. When you dig deeper, with a level-head, you see a product that not until next month will get 3G, a technology that has been shipping in the rest of the world for years. The camera is nice but lots of phones already have movie capability. Push mail, a hailed new feature of the next iPhone, has been a pervasive standby of Blackberry for years. So while the iPhone is very new, when you look closer at some of it’s most herald features it’s not very new at all.

I will not bore you with all the numbers of the payphone market in the US. Suffice to say, it’s pretty dismal. What was once a common street corner companion now has become an endangered species by the mobile phone. Today there are less than one million operational payphones in the US. A decade ago there were nearly three million. I cannot remember the last time I used one myself. They will soon join the train and horse-drawn buggy as popular modes of transportation in the US.

But wait. There is a resurgence of payphones in the developing world. And not like you might think – imagine GSM-based payphones. I saw a similar phenomenon on my trip to Phnom Phem in 2001. The poor cannot afford their own phone so like the party-lines of the 1940s in the US, small groups of people use one GSM phone as a community phone. Today in China they are installing mobile phones (without the need for wired infrastructure) that include a card reader and change depository.

So when we superficially evaluate the iPhone and payphones we cannot see the full truth. On the one hand, anyone can see payphones are literally an aging idea from a technologically distant past. They are tired and old – much like how many might characterize McCain and his politics. But when you look harder you can see the concept is still very much alive and is of great value to many around world. The iPhone has been celebrated as a change agent in a slow moving industry – much like the moniker of the junior Senator from Illinios. But, as we’ve seen, when you dig deeper much of it really isn’t that new after all and in someways it isn’t much better than other products on the market.

Like I said, I have no idea whom I am going to vote for in November. And analogies aside, I still love the diea of an iPhone. That is, at least for a test drive.