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What Don't We Know About the iPhone 5?

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So much has been written about the iPhone 5 that this author will readily admit that he has little to add. So, think of this as the equivalent to the "odd & ends" or "potpourri" section on Jeopardy -- a grab bag of the hyberbolic and the historic.

First numinous number: The iPhone is poised to be the best-selling electronic product of all time. Its only rivals in terms of global dominance are Harry Potter, the Rubik's cube and Playstation. Since Apple introduced the first iPhone, the company has sold more than 300 million units. Some estimates say Apple could sell as many as ten million iPhone 5's by the end of September -- or about 58 million by year's end.

"This is going to be the best-selling consumer electronics device of all time, bar none," said Carl Howe, an analyst at Boston-based Yankee Group.

A couple of things to qualify with those numbers -- Samsung remains the world's largest overall seller of phones because it introduces several new models a year; and Google's Android operating system is still ahead in that it powers about half the world's smartphones.

2) The iPhone 5 could inject $3.2 billion to the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter: That's a 0.33-percentage-point boost to GDP, according to J.P. Morgan -- which is substantial, given that the bank forecasts a 2% growth rate for the entire U.S. economy. The iPhone math, courtesy of J.P. Morgan's Michael Feroli, goes like this.

"The bank's equity analysts expect around 8 million iPhones will be sold in the fourth quarter in the U.S., even while sales of prior generation iPhones are maintained. Assuming a $600 price tag -- remember, this is for the phone itself, not the retail price minus the subsidy provided by the wireless operator -- and $200 worth of imported goods per phone, sales of the iPhone 5 could boost Q4 GDP by $3.2 billion, or $12.8 billion at an annual rate."

The idea that single products from swashbuckling entrepreneurs can sway an entire economy may seem like the stuff of Objectivist Ayn Rand novels, but it does have (a very few) precedents. One of the only brands with the ubiquity of Apple is Coca-Cola. Coke, it turns out has inordinate clout in the developing world. According to the Guardian newspaper, "The real thing" accounts for as much as 40 percent of Swaziland's gross domestic product (Coke owns a major plant in Swaziland, the lead exporter of the drink in Eastern and Southern Africa, Foreign Policy reports).

3) The iPhone is the most complex consumer product ever invented with more than 200 patents contained in its compact case. That doesn't even include the patents that Apple licenses from other companies in order to bolster the iPhone's capabilities. Its vaunted intellectual property is so closely guarded that Apple pursued a case against Samsung for patent infringement winning a judgment of $1.05 billion.

And now, its adding to its A.I. credentials with a new operating system to hold up its "ecosystem" of digital apps (including Siri), 700,000 of which are now available in its online store, and cloud-based services such as iTunes, which is getting a revamp. As the Economist puts it: "The advantage will be reinforced by the firm's new mobile operating system, iOS 6, which will power the iPhone 5 and a smaller iPad tablet computer Apple is expected to launch later this year. The system includes a new digital-mapping app developed by Apple and a feature that allows users to store things such as digitized airplane boarding passes and movie tickets. These and other offerings can be combined to make mobile commerce more seamless. "The ability to tie digital stuff into the real world is becoming much more important for users," says Ian Fogg, an analyst at IHS.

4) We like the iPhone because it's about "I" In the end, why do we care about a 112-gram brick of metal and glass? Because products that operate like extensions of ourselves always win us over in ways that other objects don't. These prostheses are a little like the amulets we see in comicbooks - Iron Man's suit or Superman's cape. They pull us away from the din and sameness of daily life and make a claim for our independence and freedom. Which is why the closest forerunner of the iPhone in terms of cultural impact wasn't the feature phone or the pager; it was the Sony Walkman which sold almost exactly the same number of units as the iPhone -- 220 million cassette Walkman players globally since the product's July 1979 debut. The Walkman Effect is something that's still studied today because it reordered notions of personal space and human interaction. Here's a study done at the University of Copenhagen:

"The Walkman for the first time provided ordinary people with a cinematic soundtrack for their daily lives. One result was that it brought a kind of spectacle to daily life and made humdrum activities feel cinematic."

You could make the same claim for the iPhone which operates as a music player, television, camera, and satellite-enabled homing device (it's also a phone). Life seems a little more exciting when it's fodder for this broadcast platform.

But there's an opposite effect too about personal devices with this kind of power. And here, perhaps the best comparison is that most iconic of social props -- the cigarette. Just as college kids were sold on smoking because of the glamor and nonchalance of James Dean in Giant or Jean Paul Belmondo in the French new wave film, Breathless, could it be that the iPhone has become the new symbol of urban cool, a shining motif of detachment and social capital? The guy to ask may be Dr. Michael Bull, described by the New York Times as the "the world's leading -- perhaps only -- expert on the social impact of personal stereo devices, "So, for example, music allows people to use their eyes when they're listening in public. I call it nonreciprocal looking. Listening to music lets you look at someone but don't look at them when they look back. The earplugs tell them you're otherwise engaged. It's a great urban strategy for controlling interaction.9

And controlling your place in the world, I might add.

Time will tell where the iPhone 5 lead us.