IPhone Specs: Apple's Black Box or a Smoke Screen?

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Earlier this week, Apple told Macworld editorial director Jason Snell that it doesn't want customers looking inside the iPhone's black box. Apple isn't publicly listing or discussing certain hardware details of the new iPhone 3G S, specifically the CPU and system RAM. Jason thinks that Apple is pushing the no-techie-nonsense "it just works" mantra that its products are polished with.

I don't buy it, and I worry that Apple is trying in vain to avoid an App Store backlash from consumers.

The iPhone 3G S is a massive leap forward from its predecessors in terms of performance. In fact, there's so much more power in the new model that some iPhone game makers, like ngmoco, have quelled public fears by committing to not leave previous-generation device owners in the dust--at least, for now. As more developers explore the new capabilities of the 3G S hardware, this may become the first abyss in the iPhone OS's journey that forces many owners to get left behind. Developers are going to want to push the new hardware, but consumers are going to want to continue paying rock-bottom, 99-cent prices for mind-blowing games that work on every generation of the iPhone and iPod touch. Sooner or later, something's gotta give, and this conflict is what Apple seems to be tucking tail and running from.

A visit to the iPhone 3G S specs page on Apple's Web site reveals a wealth of specifications about the next iPhone. Almost everything is here: talk time, display resolution with dpi, supported Wi-Fi protocols, three different motion and proximity sensors, accepted video formats, and maximum bit rates. These are all the same nerdy-nitty-gritty specs that Apple has listed for the iPhone (and iPod touch) since the original phone was released in summer 2007. So why has Apple decided only now to whip out the "it just works" card and withhold the new iPhone's CPU and system RAM specifications?

Before you respond, keep in mind that the attempt proved futile almost immediately anyway, as T-Mobile filled in Apple's blanks. According to the specs posted this week by the carrier, the iPhone 3G S packs a powerful 600MHz Cortex A8 CPU and roomy 256 MB of RAM. This is up from a 412 MHz CPU and 128 MB of RAM in both of the previous iPhones.

In a way, Jason is right when he states that most consumers--the so-called "not-we"--don't care about these numbers. They just want things to be intuitive and work well, which is largely why the iPod and its phone-endowed successor have been such a hit. But owners of current iPhone OS devices will care if they run into the same restrictive brick wall of performance that exists in the rest of the tech industry. They'll have questions, and Apple's iPhone specs page needlessly withholds simple answers.

The major leap of processing and graphic capabilities in the iPhone 3G S presents mouth-watering opportunities for developers. But they also pose many of the same compatibility challenges that exist in good ol' fashioned desktop computing. You can design software and games to take advantage of hardware's constantly advancing capabilities. But sooner or later, owners of older hardware need to get shoved off that performance cliff if you want to keep pushing forward.

The prospect of owning an iPhone and shopping the App Store's ridiculously cheap shelves could become untenable if you don't have the cash to upgrade to a new device every year. Developers will want to keep their roadmaps nimble and streamlined. Even if some can manage to support the old and new iPhone hardware, what happens next year when the iPhone (and iPod touch) receives yet another inevitable makeover and hardware boost? Judging from the crash-course in subsidies that AT&T's customers are getting (for free!), courtesy of the iPhone 3G S, a lot of customers may get burned by this sobering, expensive, and unfortunately dividing reality check.

Apple is using uplifting phrases like "a snappier experience" to describe the new iPhone 3G S. But it's the consumers who may snap when they cannot get any real facts from Apple--ones made of numbers, not vague market-speak--on why their previous-generation devices get systematically excluded from the App Store. It is a simple fact that hardware is constantly getting more powerful. But Apple's attempt to hide this reality may not bode well for current owners as developers follow the path it has laid out with the iPhone 3G S.

This story, "IPhone Specs: Apple's Black Box or a Smoke Screen?" was originally published by Macworld.

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