8 Unanswered Questions About Apple's 3G iPhone

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Apple iPhone 3G.
If you expected startling news to come out of Monday's keynote for Apple's World-Wide Developers Conference (WWDC)--headlined, of course, by Steve Jobs--you went away unstartled and disappointed.

This event was mostly about confirming widely reported rumors: The high-speed iPhone 3G is indeed arriving shortly (on July 11), it's half the price of its predecessor ($199 for an 8GB model with a two-year contract), and it has GPS. Otherwise, much of the keynote was devoted to recapping stuff announced back in March regarding the iPhone's SDK for third-party applications and its support for Microsoft's Exchange e-mail platform.

As the day progressed, information emerged about certain things that Jobs and company hadn't mentioned, such as the fact that AT&T remains the exclusive U.S. carrier and will charge $30 a month for all-you-can-eat data. Gizmodo reports that the iPhone 3G must be activated in person at an Apple or AT&T store--a major step backward from the slick at-home iTunes activation of the original version.

In short, we're awash in answers. But as usual, I'm wrapping up the day of a major Apple announcement in connection with an extremely promising product still curious about a bunch of things. Things that--as far as I know--remain mysteries. Such as...

1. What's with the plastic back?

The 3G iPhone's plastic back (black version).
As Jobs ticked off the design achievements of the iPhone 3G at the WWDC keynote, he mentioned its "full plastic back." I think that this change may indeed be a virtue--the shiny metallic backs sported by first-generation iPhones and most varieties of iPods are maddeningly effective magnets for scratches, fingerprints, and grime. But Apple usually upgrades its products by replacing plastic with metal; it's hard to imagine the company going the other direction unless it had a motive unrelated to aesthetics. Was it able to shave a millimeter or three off the required thickness by using plastic? (Cramming everything in was clearly a challenge. Despite Jobs' pollyanna-ish statement that the new iPhone is "even thinner" at the edges than its predecessor, Apple's official depth spec for the iPhone 3G is 11.6mm, versus 12.3mm for the original iPhone.) Maybe the metal would have interfered with GPS reception? Or did Apple simply have to go with cheaper materials when it cut the cost of the iPhone in half?

2. When will we get 32GB and 64GB iPhones?

For some of us, an iPhone can't function as a first-class iPod until it has enough memory to hold every song and video in a fairly large media collection. It's safe to assume that Apple will boost the phone's memory as soon as it can cram enough storage into its case and sell the resulting device at a price that a sane person might spring for. Since the iPhone-like iPod Touch already comes in a $499 32GB version, I'd be surprised if a 32GB iPhone is more than a few months away. But I'd be equally surprised if a 64GB iPhone showed up before mid-2009 or so, given the still-imposing cost for that much flash memory. (Apple charges a $999 premium for a MacBook Air equipped with a 64GB solid-state drive instead of an 80GB traditional drive.)

3. Will we ever be able to use an iPhone as a modem?

As I attended the WWDC keynote at San Francisco's Moscone Center, I was online with my MacBook-- courtesy of my Windows Mobile-based AT&T Tilt phone, which served up high-speed Internet access to the laptop via Bluetooth. Jobs didn't mention similar functionality for the iPhone 3G; if it's on its way, it's likely to cost more than the $30 a month that AT&T says it'll charge for an iPhone 3G data plan. But modem use is so handy that I'd happily pay more for it if it becomes available in some official form. (You can use an original iPhone as a modem, but only through scary, unauthorized techniques.) 

4. How about turn-by-turn driving directions?

GPS capabilites on the Apple iPhone 3G.
The iPhone 3G's GPS capability is nearly as exciting as the 3G itself. But the examples shown at the keynote ranged from the slightly alarming (Loopt's location-based social networking, which lets your friends determine exactly where you are) to the somewhat frivolous (Jobs's demo of "tracking," showing a car zig-zagging its way down San Francisco's famously crooked Lombard Street). The real killer app for GPS continues to be turn-by-turn driving directions, of the sort that companies such as Tom Tom and TeleNav make possible on other GPS-enabled phones. If Apple were planning to release such an application in July, Jobs would surely have mentioned it. Maybe it'll come in a future iPhone software upgrade, but it would be fine with me if a third-party developer beat Apple to the punch.

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