So you've probably read 30 times already (like I have) that Apple released version 1.0.2 of the iPhone firmware yesterday which fixed some bugs or security issues or something. It's not really that exciting of a release really... Which is why it's so significant.
I've got dozens of gadgets here in my house. Every type of portable consumer electronics you can imagine - some have had zero updates since the launch, some have had a few manual ones (like my Nokia 770 - which continues to be an incredible device) and my Nokia e61. But almost none have had such easy updates, and none that I can remember have had two updates to their firmware in less than as many months. In fact, firmware upgrades are usually considered a pretty scary thing to do, as any interruption during the process will usually leave the device dead as a doornail. The ease at which Apple has distributed the updates, and automated the firmware upgrade process is without doubt, an incredible competitive advantage for them. This is an "empirical" advantage in my opinion, not a "I like this GUI better than some other one" type. It means they can respond to both problems and the market in general much quicker, and it will extend the life of the iPhone way beyond the normal lifetime of a normal mobile phone.
Let me dive into that last statement a bit more: Think of the iPhone like a consumer video game console. As time goes on, more and more functionality is able to be squeezed out of the older hardware. Games that came out for the PS2 in the past year are so much better than the ones that came out in 2000, despite the fact they're running on virtually identical systems. Having the ability to automatically update their hardware also gives Apple the ability to keep the iPhone on the market for x amount of time longer than a competitor. And even if the First Generation iPhone is quickly outdated (it needs a 3G upgrade without any question), future iPhones will still have this advantage.
The question in my mind when I first bought the iPhone was, "is Apple going to take advantage of this?" and the answer is, with two releases in quick succession, a definite yes. Even if these releases are "minor", they're still overwriting the entire firmware of the device, so the changes may be small, but the process is the same as a major update.
The ability to sync so easily and get upgrades from the mothership has been the hallmark of another popular device here in the U.S. - the Danger HipTop (the gadget I was thinking about above when I said "almost none" have auto-updates). Two things made it unique among devices: Instant upgrades to the OS and/or applications (over the air no less) and the fact that if you lost your HipTop, you could get another one, sign in, and your phone was immediately restored to its previous state since everything was always synced back to Danger. Apple has done the same sort of thing with the iPhone and iTunes. I've already seen this happen first hand, getting a replacement iPhone is as easy as walking into an Apple Store and getting a new device, syncing it to your PC and you're done.
The other interesting thing about the 1.0.2 update is that Apple didn't try to prevent the hacks that are out there. This is still up in the air, IMHO, in terms of whether it will continue or not. It's a losing battle, Apple knows this, and the hackers know it, but the carriers are dumb as dirt and AT&T or their next mobile partner (whoever that may be) may insist on some sort of effort on Apple's part to crack down on the hackers. If we see 1.0.3 and 1.1 and 1.2, etc. and there's still no attempt to thwart the hackers? Then we'll know for sure, still... one would have assumed that Apple would have done *something* in this release as a sort of "shot across the bow" but they didn't, which bodes well for a future, more open platform.
The ease of updates goes beyond just features and bug fixes. It also means that Apple can also launch more *peripherals* for the iPhone as well. I've been waiting for a car-based GPS hands-free kit from Apple, where you pop in your iPhone and it becomes a Garmin like device for maps and directions (using Google Maps of course). In order to do this, it could need to have improvements to the Bluetooth, or to the Maps app itself, or another completely different protocol all together. The ease to which Apple can mess with the iPhone's OS means that they have the ability to tweak it as needed as they continue to develop an electronics ecosystem around the device, making sure they keep everything working seamlessly as they've become famous for.
In addition to the OS updates, Apple has already shown that they're willing to start adding applications to the iPhone, starting with the dotMac album they launched during the iMac press conference. Suddenly that day, dotMac subscribers had a new menu option in the Pictures app to upload their photos to an online storage. I'm sure there are whiteboards at Apple filled with apps to be rolled out in the coming months.
Off the top of my head, here's a few no-brainer apps for the iPhone, beyond the obvious improvements
- Games of some sort - via iTunes, similar to the iPod example.
- "Real" widgets - all that space on the bottom of the main menu has to be for something.
- Document Reader (think iWork Mobile - spreadsheets, presentations, docs).
- More integration with dot Mac: Document storage (wth above service), syncing, online address book, etc.
- A Social Network of some sort (even Apple can't resist this one).
Does all this mean that Apple is going to overtake Nokia because they're so cool? No, I'm not a fanboy. In fact I don't even use my iPhone on a daily basis - preferring my HSDPA LG CU500 instead. But what it means to me is that Apple is definitely not going to be a niche player in the business either. Just like they now sell one out of every 5 notebook computers sold, I would predict that if they continue to "do the right things" and take advantage of these inherent capabilities of their platform and infrastructure, Apple will soon be selling one out of every 5 mobile phones. And that is not insignificant.