It will take a lot more than hype for iPhone to stay a hit

The iPhone hype, one of the wonders of recent marketing and PR, is subsiding a bit. It will subside more, soon enough, as reality intrudes on the dreams.

The iPhone hype, one of the wonders of recent marketing and PR, is subsiding a bit. It will subside more, soon enough, as reality intrudes on the dreams.

It's incredible, nonetheless, to see how a clever company can turn normally skeptical media people, not to mention consumers, into marketing volunteers. That feat is all the more amazing given that they helped hype a product as flawed in some ways as the iPhone.

Credit this partly to the Steve Jobs effect. Apple's Svengali-like CEO's famed "reality distortion field" can turn usually sharp minds to mush, at least for a bit. But even Jobs can't sell junk. What Apple sells, above all, is innovation. And, in a way, hope.

This is why the iPhone has inspired such pre-sale devotion, marked most notably by customers creating lines around the block the day it went on sale. Indeed, the device's positive qualities are tantalizing, in large part because most people who buy "smart phones" find themselves furious with the devices at times.

The iPhone's promise of ease-of-use combined with powerful features has been a major wake-up call in the smart-phone world. So for months leading up to the launch, Apple had everyone talking about what was coming, not what existed.

The last time I can recall something like this was Windows 95. Microsoft played the promise for all it was worth. Like the iPhone, Windows 95 was more evolutionary than revolutionary, though in key ways it was a distinct improvement over what came before. When people realized that Windows 95 was almost as unstable as its predecessor, the bloom was off the rose.

Today, the pre-sale devotion for the iPhone has hit real-life speed bumps. For one thing, the product has various problems. Most will surely be fixed with software upgrades, but they're still annoying. Then come the hardware flaws, including the inability to operate with 3G networks and a non-removable battery.

More problematic in every way is Apple's questionable choice of an initial business partner as its sole US mobile access provider. That, of course, is the recently reconstituted AT&T, a telecommunications giant with image woes that threaten Apple's bank of goodwill.

The main reason people don't like their mobile phones isn't because the devices are so bad. It's because the carriers are so difficult to deal with and because the service they offer is so often crummy.

AT&T's reputation for quality and customer service, as measured by Consumer Reports, is not great, to put it mildly. So when AT&T couldn't handle all of the iPhone product activations - the iPhone didn't work at all until activated via Apple's iTunes software contacting AT&T's computers - in a timely way, no one should have been shocked.

Could AT&T unravel the iPhone's initial PR windfall? When hackers found a way to make the device's non-phone features work without a service activation, an AT&T spokesman made ominous comments about how the company would deal sternly with such things.

Sooner or later, the iPhone's shine will tarnish. Apple's choices ensured that.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. He's also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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