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Five evolution paths for the iPhone


1. iPhone’s future as a music device

We know all about the current iPhone: The iPhone 3GS, with its faster processor and video features, backed up by the iPhone 3.0 software update. Both provide justifiable reasons for excitement.

What about the iPhone’s future? Apple has truly shaken up the mobile handset market over the first three generations of its smartphone, but with the company in it for the long haul, it’s tempting to speculate about its intentions for the coming years.

So we have. Here are five key factors that should affect the way iPhone evolves.

Currently, Apple has a transparent policy when it comes to iPhone music apps: you’re okay as long as you don’t compete with the iTunes Store. Streaming apps like Last.fm and Imeem with links to buy from iTunes are fine, but no Amazon MP3, eMusic or Rhapsody.

The problem for Apple, though, is that, increasingly, streaming apps will be the competition to iTunes, in that people will be happier to stream music rather than buy it. The buzz around Spotify’s plans for a streaming iPhone app that caches music so you can listen when offline reflects this trend.

Apple must decide how it fits into this beyond simply supplying the hardware. It could launch its own streaming service based on iTunes – a long-rumoured move – or it could employ a Nokia-style Comes With iTunes pricing model, letting iPhone users download unlimited tracks from the iTunes Store.

Either of these would be a logical step forward. While Apple could decide to leave the streaming apps to forge a new path for music consumption, we think this is the most unlikely option of the lot.

2. Functioning in the lounge

Forget clichés about surfing on the bus: millions of people are using Apple’s handset to browse, email or play games from their sofas, leaving their laptops gathering dust in the corner. iPhone is already a living room device, in that sense.

But Apple’s Remote application should be seen as an early indication of iPhone developing into more than that: becoming the controller at the centre of your home media network.

You might use it to control streams of music, movies and other stuff from your computer (or Apple TV) to various screens and speakers around the house. But you also might use it as your remote interface with your digital TV box – BSkyB’s Sky+ app that lets you set programmes to record from wherever you are is an early example of that particular functionality.

iPhone is by definition a mobile device, of course. But its role within the home will be a key influence on its future development. Especially if the rumours are true about that tablet-sized device running the iPhone OS…

3. Making sense of the App Store clutter

Apple clearly sees 50,000 applications on the App Store as a big selling point for iPhone and iPod touch. It certainly offers plenty of choice, but while the biggest and best apps manage to cut through the clutter, a lot of gems get buried in the murk.

With Apple’s iPhone marketing placing huge emphasis on the App Store – ‘There’s an app for that!’ – the company must develop new and better ways to sort through the tens of thousands of available applications.

That doesn’t just mean recommending the best apps to iPhone users, it means recommending the apps that they might like best: personalisation. Nokia has already grasped the nettle, promising to offer recommendations based on social location to users of its Ovi Store – although the reliability of its system has yet to be proven.

Apple’s Genius recommendation tool for music shows its existing interest in this area, but the company needs to develop something similar for iPhone apps to ensure developers maintain their interest in its device.

4. Getting more deeply into services

Right now, Apple only publishes three iPhone applications: Remote, Keynote Remote, and Texas Hold’em. Other than that, it simply provides the platform for third-party developers’ apps and services. As long as they don’t compete directly with iTunes or flout the sometimes-hazy submission guidelines, they’re fine.

What if this changes? For example, there’s widespread speculation around Apple’s intentions for iPhone games. The company recently poached Microsoft’s Xbox strategy boss and also snapped up Graeme Devine, the lead designer of Halo Wars.

Apple may be evolving its Apple TV into a games console – another rumour that’s picked up steam recently – but these moves could also be focused on the iPhone. Launching an Xbox Live-style iPhone gaming community would benefit players and developers alike, for example. Making more games internally may be a concern for the latter.

But Apple may also launch its own social network for iPhone owners, take on YouTube with a more focused video site built out of its MobileMe service, or as we’ve suggested earlier, take iTunes down the streaming music path to give Spotify a pasting.

Would any of these be good ideas, though? Right now, Apple says its role is to provide the platform for developers to do all this stuff. Changing that policy will require careful thought beforehand.

5. Ruling the world

Among early adopters – particularly tech journalists – it’s easy to believe that everyone has an iPhone or is planning to get one. Head to Silicon Valley, and the feeling is even more pronounced. But to some extent, this is a bubble.

The iPhone is busily conquering the mobile-savvy Western world, but what about India, China, Africa and other emerging frontiers for mobile technology?

Despite analyst speculation beforehand, WWDC didn’t see any announcements about cheaper, feature-light iPhones for these markets. Apple is making plenty of money from selling the handsets to people in richer Western countries, after all.

However, the company should set its sights wider in the future. Industry analyst Juniper Research reckons that by 2014, sales of low-cost handsets in emerging markets will have climbed to 700 million. How many of them will be iPhones?

Nokia already has its sights trained on these countries. Apple has already conquered the hipster crowd with iPhone: the next step should be finding similar success with farmers in India and China.

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