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IPhone 4 Makes Video Call, How About Voice?: Rich Jaroslovsky

For better or worse, the announcement of a new Apple Inc. gadget has passed into the realm of cultural phenomena: the rumors, the air of expectation, the controversies. A century ago, the equivalent might have been the premiere of “The Rite of Spring,” with Stravinsky in the Steve Jobs role. Not counting the opening-night riot, of course.

At Apple’s product-unveiling extravaganzas, what isn’t said is sometimes as interesting as what is. Yesterday’s iPhone 4 debut, at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, proved no exception. While it provided much that was new, it also left a number of key questions for us to puzzle over in the weeks and months to come.

While a proper review of the new phone will have to wait until closer to its June 24 release, I was able to spend a little while playing with it after yesterday’s announcement. On first impression, it is, not surprisingly, beautiful. By now, Apple knows how to design these things, and design them well.

The iPhone 4 is ever-so-slightly longer and ever-so-slightly heavier than the current top-of-the-line model, the 3GS. But it is by no means heavy or awkward, and, at 24 percent thinner, feels great in the hand. The rounded edges of the current design give way to a more squared-off stainless steel frame that, Jobs said, will also aid in wireless reception.

Dropped Calls

That raises one of those interesting unanswered questions: Will the new design help remedy the iPhone’s biggest shortcoming, dropped calls?

The device has always been miserable at a telephone’s most basic function, especially in such critical markets as New York and San Francisco. It’s never been entirely clear how much of the blame belongs to AT&T Inc.’s overstretched network, and how much to the fact that the iPhone was engineered by a computer company with no previous cell-phone experience.

The Apple representatives who demonstrated the phone for journalists yesterday were primed to say as little as possible on the subject. The new design may help increase signal strength a bit, they said, but they made no claims for improvement in the ability to complete or maintain a voice connection.

Improving the iPhone’s performance as a phone may be the most important step Apple could take to sell more of them, short of making it available on the more robust Verizon Wireless network -- which was another of those things left unsaid at yesterday’s event. While rumors of an Apple-Verizon deal have been swirling for months, there was nary a word about it.

Sharing the Load

I’ve long had a pet theory that AT&T would be better off if a second U.S. carrier also offered the Apple handset; it might then be able to share the burden of satisfying iPhone users’ insatiable hunger for bandwidth-intensive data services. There’s no sign, though, that AT&T agrees with me. For now, the company remains the exclusive U.S. carrier for the iPhone and iPad, and I bet that if the iPhone does eventually show up on Verizon --or the smaller T-Mobile or Sprint networks, for that matter --it won’t be any time soon.

Speaking of data-intensive applications, the buzziest feature Jobs disclosed for the iPhone 4 was video telephony, making use of a new, front-facing camera. Cool, yes, but there will be some important limitations on it. Not only must both parties be on iPhone 4s, they also must be on Wi-Fi connections; AT&T and its wireless-carrier brethren at least initially won’t allow the service over their networks. Will they ever? If so, when? Again, the event provided no clue.

Late Nights at Skype?

On the other hand, if I worked for Skype, I’d have been up late last night analyzing the impact of Apple’s new service, which it calls FaceTime, on my business model. My guess is that Skype can join Cisco Systems Inc.’s Flip unit on the list of companies with oxen being gored by the iPhone 4.

Flip’s new $279.99 SlideHD is a digital camcorder with a wide, bright screen that fits in a shirt pocket and comes with easy-to-use tools for editing and sharing videos. The iPhone 4 is $199 (on a two-year AT&T contract for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage, $299 for 32 gigabytes), and Apple’s new $4.99 iMovie iPhone app promises to also provide easy editing and sharing tools. And, oh yeah, it makes phone calls too. Sometimes, at least.

The event left a number of other unanswered questions as well. Will the iPhone 4 deliver its promised improvement in battery life? I have my hopes, based in part on the iPad’s terrific power management; the iPhone 4 is built around the same A4 chip. And how much will the improvements in screen technology Jobs spent so much time touting yesterday matter? To me, the new display seemed only an incremental improvement, though in fairness I am among the optically challenged.

Perhaps the biggest unspoken question at yesterday’s event, for investors as much as consumers, was, “How’s Steve?” Now more than ever, it’s clear that Jobs is the auteur of Apple, and his health and the company’s future remain inextricably intertwined.

To that question, at least, we got something of an answer. The Apple chief executive, wearing his trademark black turtleneck, commanded the stage for two hours, by all appearances loving every minute of it. No vitamin shot could provide a bigger boost.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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