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Originally published May 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 28, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Leading the charge on iPhone

Brace yourself for another tsunami of hype. May's craze was "American Idol. " June's will be the Apple iPhone, which is going on sale in...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Brace yourself for another tsunami of hype.

May's craze was "American Idol." June's will be the Apple iPhone, which is going on sale in a few weeks. As with "Idol," the iPhone show has lots of Seattle connections.

The season begins Wednesday when Apple boss Steve Jobs is expected to talk up the device at a Wall Street Journal tech conference in California.

Playing the foil on stage with Jobs will be the Simon Cowell of the software world, Bill Gates.

Behind the scenes, AT&T engineers in Redmond are busy working with the iPhone to be sure it works well on the wireless network. The team is a vestige of the company's roots as Cingular Wireless, AT&T Wireless and, before that, McCaw Cellular Communications.

But the biggest local player may be Glenn Lurie, AT&T's point man on the iPhone project.

Lurie, 41, grew up in Portland, graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 1987 and married into a Bellingham family.

His first job out of college was selling tickets and suites for the Sonics, but after six weeks he was recruited to play pro soccer.

In 1990, he was back in Portland, trying to decide whether to coach at soccer camps. Instead he became a sales rep for McCaw's Cellular One.

As the company surged and merged, Lurie charged up the corporate ladder. Within a few years, he was head of marketing to suburban Oregon. Then he was tapped to lead McCaw's Arizona debut.

"One of the beautiful things about the wireless business is that if you performed, the business grew so fast, you could grow with it," he said last week in Seattle.

After McCaw sold to AT&T and became AT&T Wireless, Lurie transferred to Los Angeles and later became regional president for the West.

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(AT&T Wireless was acquired by Cingular, which recently changed its name to AT&T.)

Now Lurie is president of national distribution, based in Atlanta.

The job put him in the room with the chief executive and chief operating officer during their first meeting with Jobs. Then he worked on contracts leading to an exclusive, five-year iPhone partnership.

They knew it was a big chance, but they didn't realize how big, Lurie said.

"The anticipation that we're seeing, the buzz we're seeing, at least for me, has far exceeded our expectations of how important this would be to the business and us," he said.

Lurie is using an iPhone, but he wouldn't take it out for a photo last week. "Can't do that," he said.

He was more than happy to show off the Samsung BlackJack on his hip, though. AT&T is selling the Microsoft-powered phone for less than $100. That's about a fifth the price of an iPhone, which is being priced $499 for a 4-gigabyte model and $599 for 8 gigabytes.

That price gap is why I've been skeptical about the iPhone's prospects.

The device will undoubtedly push phone makers to improve their software and add features. It may force wireless companies to let more users have full browsers and PC-like music players on their phones.

But how many people are going to pay nearly $600 for a phone?

That's partly why I wanted to meet Lurie and to get a better idea of what to expect from America's next diversion.

Here's an edited version of our chat:

Q: One point of skepticism is the price. That BlackJack is pretty nice, and it costs $500 less than an iPhone ...

A: Here's how I'd explain it. The most popular iPod, a 4-gigabyte Nano, costs $200. If you've got a RIM BlackBerry or Palm Treo, you probably paid $200 minimum. Then you've got a phone that you got for free or paid maybe $50.

You're at $450 or $500. The question you've got to be able to ask yourself is, is this device going to be able to replace those three, so you carry one? That's the question.

I think when people get their hands on it and really experience it — the touch screen is phenomenal, this touch screen is like nothing you've ever used — to experience that, the skepticism, I think, around some of those things will go away.

There are other things — you have the widgets, some of the Google applications that are coming — there are just so many things here that the price will not be an issue.

Q: So you don't think you'll have to subsidize the phone's price?

A: We're not talking about that.

Q: What's your impression of Apple?

A: It's a great company. I know there are lots of interesting thoughts out there about how Steve and his team have done so many things, but they have been such innovators. If you look at the music side, it's hard to argue that they aren't driving a lot of things.

Q: What's your favorite iPhone feature?

A: I don't know if I can answer that. It's a pretty incredible browsing environment. That's the first part that I think will blow people away. It's the first widescreen iPod they've ever done; it is very, very good, works extremely well.

I think the other thing people haven't really thought through is that Apple's so good at simplifying things. That's just what they're known for; they've really simplified the phone. The standard phone applications are really intuitive, whether it's receiving a phone call, putting that person on hold, adding another party and bringing a conference call together.

Q: Won't the full-powered browser hurt AT&T? People won't need to use its services as much — they'll just pull things from the Web, instead of calling directory assistance, for example.

A: No, actually it won't. I think it will be great for us, and here's why. One of the things with this device — people are going to be asked to have an unlimited package — people are going to have to have a package with us to browse. That's one good thing for everybody.

I think this is going to create a new way people use handheld devices because the browsing experience is as good as the PC browsing experience. So I think it's not going to hurt us at all. I'm excited about what it will do for the industry in terms of how people view mobile browsing.

Q: What's the risk in your deal with Apple? Are there downsides or concerns?

A: Not that I can see. The thing I get asked about a lot is, obviously, that our companies are different cultures. But they have been incredible to work with.

The one thing we found as commonality is our pursuit of customer experience. Whenever we got into discussions, the thing we kept coming back to was this unwavering "what's the customer experience going to be?" That's gotten us over the hump every single time.

Q: What do you think of Jobs?

A: He's a great guy. I've been dealing with Steve a lot. I think my prior comments fit: He is all about the customer, the customer experience, making sure that what customers get meets expectations. That's what my mesh has been.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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