A patent application filed by Apple has fueled speculation that the company is readying an iPhone. Apple’s application describes a "tube-like" device made using zirconia and alumina that would be "cost effective, smaller, lighter, stronger and aesthetically more pleasing than current designs".

The focus should not merely be design if Apple wants to stand out in this market, however. The company should focus on the other thing they do so well – usability – according to Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart.

"There is defiantly a market opportunity for someone to come out with the usable phone", he told Macworld. "A decent user interface is missing from the mobile-phone market. In terms of a simple easy to use device, Nokia and Sony Ericsson do an OK job, but there are still things that are left out."

"What if you want to lock a phone? You hold one key down, you hold another key down," he joked. "Apple’s put in a physical slide lock on the iPod, an unlock switch."

Distribution in chains

But if Apple is hoping to break in with a phone that is the same as every other phone in the market, "there is no opportunity there", Greengart said, explaining: "It’s not just about building a phone, in certain markets distribution is the critical factor."

The US mobile-phone market is a particularly difficult one to work in. "The carriers are gate keepers and can either distribute and promote your product and heavily subsidise it, or can prevent it from reaching the market at all," Greengart explained. "Apple will have the same issues that every other manufacturer has. Cingular or Sprint will offer to buy the phone, subsidise and sell it. But in order to do that the carriers want to choose what phones they sell, what the phone does, what features it has and how it works. This is an area that Apple’s not likely to accept; Apple wants to dictate the user experience."

"Steve Jobs has a very strong sense of design and notions of what the user experience ought to be like, he wants the dictatorial power to shape those user experiences," Greengart noted.

"The hallmark of the iPod is its simplicity," Greengart added. "Jobs has told me on more than one occasion, that they are as proud of the things they have left out of these products, as the things that they’ve put in."

For this reason it is unlikely that Apple would overcomplicate its phone with a raft of smartphone features, surmised Greengart. However, he concedes: "If Apple were to come out with a phone I would expect to work with iSync and be able to move over my calendar and contacts. There is an unmet need with consumers to synchronise their calendar and contacts, and move all their calendar and contacts over to their phone very easily, you can’t manage that information on mobile phones, they simply weren’t designed for that."

Greengart doesn’t expect Apple to reignite its Newton technologies in a smartphone, however. "Steve Jobs killed the Newton," he noted.

Obviously there is an expectation that Apple will bring music to the table as well, added Greengart. This is another area where Apple's interface design could set it apart. "There are already a number of phones that do iTunes and these work reasonably well, but they don’t have a dedicated media control button and they don’t have the iTunes user interface."

"No one else has an auto-fill button. Moving your music over to you iPod or your iTunes phone is incredibly easy, you push a button and it does it. Sony is doing well with its music phone but it does not have the PC music experience down yet."