By John Gruber
Journey across Bhutan with Gray Langur. October 16-29, limited availability.
Along the lines of can’t-really-be-answered-but-gosh-they’re-fun-to-ponder questions like, say, “Who’d win in a fight, Batman or Spider-Man?” or “Star Destroyer vs. U.S.S. Enterprise?”,1 here’s one regarding the iPhone: What historical Mac is a current iPhone most analogous to, spec-wise? I.e, complete this sentence: “An iPhone is like having a tiny ____ in your pocket?”
Now of course the comparison can’t be precise. Different software, different use cases, different purposes. But there’s no denying that an iPhone is a computer. And unless you’re really young, it’s faster — a lot faster — than the computers you owned not so long ago. So, seriously, stop here for a moment and think about it.
My first answer, pulled simply from recollection of how fast machines felt to use, was the original iMac. But that machine — announced 10 years ago this week — had a 233 MHz G3 and, by default, a paltry 32 MB of RAM. Apple has never officially released the CPU specs of the iPhone, but Craig Hockenberry poked around with undocumented system APIs which indicated the iPhone’s CPU runs at 400 MHz with a bus speed of 100 MHz, and that there’s 128 MB of RAM.
As we all recall from the PowerPC era, MHz is not a precise metric for comparing the performance of CPUs across different architectures; I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to find out that a 400 MHz PowerPC G3 is a faster chip than the 400 MHz ARMwhatever that’s in the iPhone, if only because of the power constraints. But, still, it’s something.
So, my answer to the question: the original “Pismo” G3 PowerBook. The numbers match up pretty closely: 400 MHz CPU, 100 MHz bus speed, 64 MB of RAM. (The higher-end Pismo had a 500 MHz CPU and 128 MB of RAM.) Even storage sizes are similar: hard drive options for the Pismo were 6, 12, or 18 GB. Another possible answer: the original blue-and-white Power Mac G3 — again, 400 MHz CPU, 100 MHz bus speed, 64-128 MB of RAM, and 6-12 GB hard drives. Think about that — in just nine years, the specs that then described Apple’s top-of-the-line desktop computer now describe their phone.
One thing that makes this comparison hard is that there’s not much software in common. You can’t use most of the real-world tasks commonly used for ballpark benchmarking, like, say, Photoshop image processing or ripping MP3s from AIFFs, because the iPhone doesn’t do them. But there is one processor intensive task we can compare: web page rendering. In the early days of the web, it took a while for even moderately large web pages to render in a browser, even when you were loading them from HTML files right on your hard drive. If you were to plop yourself down in front of one of these vintage 1999-2000 Macs for an afternoon of web browsing, even with a decent Ethernet connection to the Internet you’d find the experience pretty damn slow by current standards.
For all the incessant chatter about the demand for and purported certainty of 3G wireless networking in the next generation of iPhone hardware, the truth is that current iPhones are held back, web-surfing-wise, by more than just the speed of EDGE (which admittedly, is indeed pretty slow). Recall this video pitting a 3G Nokia E61i against an iPhone on EDGE — total rendering time was more or less the same, and in a few cases, the iPhone came out ahead.
You can see that browsing speed — which is what matters — depends on more than just networking speed simply by comparing how long it takes to render a web page on the iPhone using Wi-Fi: a lot longer than it takes to load the same page using Safari on a Mac. For example, it takes about two or three seconds for Safari to load the Daring Fireball home page on my new MacBook Pro. Using the same Wi-Fi network, it takes my iPhone about 15 seconds. (Using EDGE, it takes about 60 seconds to completely load, although you can start reading much sooner than that.) Point being that even if 3G wireless networking were as fast as Wi-Fi — which it’s not — browsing on an iPhone would still be pretty slow compared to browsing on a modern desktop or laptop. If you frequently use Wi-Fi on your iPhone, a faster processor in the next-generation hardware would make a bigger difference to the overall experience than faster phone-carrier networking.
And so here’s the point I’m driving at. If a 2007 iPhone is loosely equivalent in terms of computing power to a 2000 PowerBook or 1999 Power Mac, that puts the spread at around seven or eight years. Extrapolate forward, and it’s therefore not at all unreasonable to think that a 2014 iPhone will pack the computing power of today’s MacBook Pro. Or, nearer term, that an iPhone introduced two years from now might pack the punch of a 2003 Aluminum PowerBook G4 — quite a difference from the Pismo.
Even if your estimate of the iPhone’s equivalent-horsepower Mac is further back in time than mine, there’s no denying that Moore’s Law applies to handhelds, too. Eventually there will be a computer that fits in your pocket that is more powerful than today’s Mac Pros. But the path from here to there is riddled with difficult engineering problems — heat dissipation, battery life, and OS integration chief among them.
There is marketing. There most certainly is design. But at the core of this market — by which I mean the market for handheld multitasking web-surfing networked-everywhere “phones” which are really computers — is engineering.
Apple is the best handheld computer engineering company in the world today, hands down. They’re also the best handheld computer user experience design company. And they’re not sharing.
When the iPhone was announced, I saw Apple as staking out ground far afield from the territory RIM occupies with the BlackBerry. Last year, I didn’t see Apple implementing Exchange support in the iPhone OS, and clearly that was, well, completely wrong. The “enterprise” features Apple has announced for the imminent 2.0 release of the iPhone OS — remote wipe, push email, automatic calendar and contact synching — pretty much encompass every single feature that’s been held up as a reason the iPhone wouldn’t sell to enterprise users.
It remains to be seen how well these new iPhone features will actually work, but if the answer is “as well as promised”, and if the iPhone’s Mail app is improved in ways targeting people who receive a high number of messages, it’s hard to see a single software advantage in the BlackBerry’s favor. Which leaves hardware, which leaves the keyboard.
Two Sundays ago, the New York Times ran a lengthy business-section piece by Brad Stone, titled “BlackBerry’s Quest: Fend Off the iPhone”. Regarding the upcoming BlackBerry 9000, the focus turned to the keyboard:
Photographs of the device, leaked to gadget news sites, also indicate that the new BlackBerry will have elegant curves suggestive of the iPhone. It will also have a physical keyboard like previous R.I.M. devices, as opposed to the glass touch screen found on the iPhone.
There’s a reason that R.I.M. is averse to the iPhone’s glass pad. “I couldn’t type on it and I still can’t type on it, and a lot of my friends can’t type on it,” says Mike Lazaridis, R.I.M.’s co-chief executive and technological visionary. “It’s hard to type on a piece of glass.”
Mr. Lazaridis thinks that e-mail-dependent BlackBerry owners demand the reliability and tactile feedback of a keyboard. But, despite his critique of the iPhone, he does not dismiss the possibility that R.I.M. may itself one day sell a touch-screen phone, aimed specifically at consumers without the e-mail demands of BlackBerry’s core users.
Translation: “We’ll emphasize the physical keyboard as a differentiating factor as long as it seems to work, at which point we’ll try a touch-screen keyboard too.”
The only other angle RIM seems to be hanging its hat on is “security”:
RIM is also betting on security, which hinges on the fact that its handsets and e-mail systems are relatively impervious to hackers. Mr. Lazaridis predicts that corporations will not give iPhones to their workers because they have already proved vulnerable to hackers eager to pry iPhones off AT&T’s system and make them work on other wireless networks. “It’s not that simple for an I.T. manager to give up security,” he said.
The idea that iPhone carrier unlocking is a “security problem” is a conflation between what an attacker can do to your phone, against your will and/or unbeknownst to you, versus what a phone’s owner can do to their own phone. It’s not like these “hackers” are attacking happy AT&T-subscribed iPhone owners and switching them over to T-Mobile against their will.
To understand why Apple is making a concerted effort to appeal to BlackBerry users, consider an analogy to the board game Risk. RIM has a large army (read: users), but they’re all massed together in one spot on the map. They care about email, they care about exactly the sort of enterprise features Apple has announced for the iPhone, and they are known to be willing to pay several hundred dollars for a handset. A lucrative target that can be attacked all at once. And the BlackBerry is weakest where the iPhone is strongest: web browsing, music, and video.
Compare and contrast with, say, a software platform like Windows Mobile, or a hardware maker like Nokia — their users are spread across a wide variety of phones and platforms. It was far easier to turn the iPhone into something almost every BlackBerry customer might at least consider than it would have been to make a lineup of iPhones that appeal to every Nokia customer.
RIM doesn’t really have any lock-in other than user habits. The BlackBerry gimmick is that it works with the email system your company bought from Microsoft. Replace a BlackBerry with an iPhone (2.0) and the messages, contacts, and calendar events that sync over the network will be the same as the ones on the BlackBerry you just tossed into a desk drawer.
In broad terms, BlackBerrys are optimized first for email; the iPhone for the web. What’s more important, an email client or a web browser? For most people, and perhaps even most current BlackBerry users, the answer is clearly the web. Many people in fact read their email entirely through the web. Unless you’re Richard Stallman, you probably don’t read the web through your email client.
The iPhone would be a credible, useful device with just two apps: Phone and Safari. But it doesn’t just have those two apps. It has a slew, and they’re all better on the iPhone than the BlackBerry and the difference with regard to anything other than email is only going to get more stark once the iTunes App Store opens its doors. If nothing else, consider games, games, and games. As I wrote when the iPhone’s upcoming enterprise features were announced, the iPhone can do more BlackBerry-ish things than the BlackBerry can do iPhone-ish things.
Apple doesn’t wait for someone else to knock one of their hit products off its throne or slowly run it into the ground (cf. the Motorola Razr) — they do it themselves. For six years pundits have been declaring that competitors would “soon” catch up to the iPod, but the iPod has never been a static target — over the same six years Apple has released significant new iPods every year.
There are no signs that RIM has the engineering chops on either side of the ball — hardware or software — to compete with where the iPhone is now, let alone where it’s going to be. We know that Apple has an OS that can scale to take advantage of faster (and multi-core) processors, because OS X is doing that already. If a two-years-away 2010 iPhone might be like having a 2003 PowerBook G4 in your pocket, for RIM’s sake a 2010 BlackBerry had better be something more than a BlackBerry with a brighter screen.
Correct answers: Batman, Star Destroyer. ↩︎