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Don't join stampede for iPhone just yet

The Baltimore Sun

In just eight days, armies of breathless Apple fanatics will queue up at company stores around the nation, their pockets heavy with cash and plastic.

When CEO-for-life Steve Jobs gives the word, the digital version of the Oklahoma land rush will begin, a stampede by the faithful for the coveted opportunity to part with $500 or more to buy what they already own - an iPod and a cell phone.

OK, they're not just any iPod and cell phone. They're wrapped in an elegant package called an iPhone, with other nifty features, including a full touch-screen control panel and slick software that turns the device into an animated Web browser and e-mail appliance with Wi-Fi capability.

Although true Macolytes won't be able to contain themselves when the gadget-to-end-all-gadgets goes on sale June 29, heathens might think twice. At this point, no matter how insanely great the iPhone appears, there are good reasons to wait before buying one, or deciding not to.

Reason one: Do you want a single gadget to manage all the loose ends of your life?

This is a philosophical question that applies to any multipurpose device, especially one that mixes pleasure with business. If an iPhone breaks or someone steals it (and they will be magnets for pickpockets), you'll lose use of your phone, your music player and portable access to your e-mail and the Web. Carrying an iPod, a cell phone and PDA may mean more juggling, but it also means there's no single point of failure in your digital life.

Reason two: If you're a music buff, you'll still need your old iPod.

The basic $500 iPhone has 4 gigabytes of flash memory, while the upmarket, $600 model has 8 gigs. That's in the range of an iPod Nano - enough for 1,000 to 2,000 tunes, but a mere fraction of serious music collections. Downloaded videos will eat up even more memory. Full-scale iPods have hard drives that store up to 80 gigs of music and video - and plenty of audiophiles fill them up. From a music standpoint, the iPhone is really an iPod Lite.

Reason three: Too much new technology at once.

The iPhone is chock-full of innovations, which are fun in a toy but not always wise in a device you depend on. The gorgeous touch screen and the software beneath it are newcomers to the rough-and-tumble world of cell phones.

Ask around - or have your kids check - and see how many friends have an iPod that broke. Then ask your friends the same question about their cell phones. Apple's computers score well in reliability, but the standard for everyday communication equipment is much higher.

Reason four: Money.

The iPhone is priced at the high end for these multipurpose gadgets, but the purchase price may be only part of the deal. If you're not a Cingular/AT&T; customer, you might have to pay your carrier a termination fee to abandon your current phone before the contract is up. These can run up to $175.

Then there's the cost of Internet service. If you don't currently have a mobile phone or PDA with Web browsing capability, you're in for a shock. Phone companies charge extra. No one knows what packages AT&T; will offer iPhone customers, but most carriers charge $20 to $60 a month on top of their calling plans, depending on volume.

Reason five: Will your call go through?

Apple has a two-year, exclusive deal with AT&T; wireless, which is not great news for potential iPhone customers, especially in these parts. Although AT&T; is arguably the nation's largest wireless operator, it isn't your grandfather's AT&T.; Nor did it get to its current size by keeping customers satisfied.

This AT&T; is a rebranding of the former Cingular Wireless, which was formed when SBC Communications and BellSouth merged their cell phone operations in 2000.

The original AT&T; Wireless had legendary trouble holding onto customers, and Cingular has occupied a permanent niche at or near the bottom of Consumer Reports' service ratings in most metropolitan areas.

Knowing this, why would Apple partner with AT&T;? It could be that AT&T; offered Apple a good deal for its exclusive business. There are lots of Macolytes out there for whom the thrill of owning one of these gadgets outweighs any downside from dropped calls or dead zones.

AT&T; chief executive Randall Stephenson told an industry group this week that of more than 1 million people who got iPhone information from AT&T;'s Web site, 40 percent weren't AT&T; subscribers. That represents a huge inflow of potential new customers.

Also, AT&T; uses GSM cell phone technology, which is compatible with phone systems in Europe and many other overseas locations. So Apple won't have to make a second phone for international markets. But it's also a technology that makes the iPhone basically incompatible with the other big American wireless giants. To make a Verizon or Sprint version of the iPhone, Apple would have to fundamentally change the technology.

If your cell phone is your only phone - or you depend on it for your livelihood - think twice before you switch carriers just to use an iPhone. Especially when there's a two-year minimum contract.

First, look at AT&Ts; own coverage map ( Use its zoom feature to find the areas where you live, work and travel. I found quite a few spots in the Baltimore region where the service level was listed as only moderate (outdoors only) or nonexistent. My own home, less than a mile outside the Baltimore Beltway in Pikesville, appears to be a complete shadow area.

Then find AT&T;/Cingular customers in your area and ask them about their experiences. They may be perfectly happy. But if you have trouble finding happy customers, or any AT&T;/Cingular customers, there's probably a good reason.

There will come a time when the company makes a deal with other wireless carriers. Apple also has a history of making cool hardware, but its second generation is always better than the first.

Bottom line: If you want to avoid the potential arrows that come with being a pioneer, see how the Macolytes fare with their new gadgets and wait for iPhone 2.0.

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