One year and 11 days ago, our nation was swept by iPhone Mania. TV news coverage was relentless. Hard-core fans camped out to be the first in line. Bloggers referred to Apple's new product as the "Jesus phone."
It was a stunning black slab of glass: a cellphone, a brilliant music and video player and the best pocket Internet terminal the world had ever seen. The huge, bright, touch-sensitive screen made it addictive fun to rotate, page through or magnify your photos, videos and Web pages.
Today, the iPhone is in the hands of six million people. Clumsy touch-screen lookalikes from rival phone makers line the shelves.
And Friday is the iPhone's second coming.
This time, though, when the iPhone 3G goes on sale in AT&T and Apple stores, iPhone Mania will be considerably more muted. That's partly because the mystery is gone, partly because the AT&T service costs more and partly because there aren't many new features in what Apple is calling the iPhone 3G.
The new name hints at the biggest change: this iPhone can bring you the Internet much faster. It can exploit AT&Tís third-generation (3G) cellular network, which brings you Web pages in less than half the time as the old iPhone.
As a handy bonus, 3G means that you can talk on the iPhone and surf the Internet simultaneously, which you couldn't do before.
There is, however, a catch: you don't get that speed or those features unless you're in one of AT&T's 3G network areas -- and there aren't many of them. The 3G coverage map at wireless.att.com/coverageviewer (zoom in and turn on "View 3G/Mobile Broadband Coverage" below the map) reveals that in 16 states, only three cities or fewer are covered; 10 states have no coverage at all. (Tip: Whenever you're outside of a 3G area, turning off the iPhone's 3G feature doubles the battery's talk time, to 10 hours from 5.)
AT&T hastens to note that its 3G coverage will expand, and also that it will get even faster over time. (3G is a much bigger deal in the 70 other countries where the iPhone will soon be available because 3G is much more common.)
The other drastic change is the iPhone's price: $200 for the 8-gigabyte model, $300 for the 16-gig. Those are terrific prices for a machine with so much sophistication, utility and power; a year ago, an 8-gig iPhone would have cost you $600.
But the iPhone 3G is not really, as Apple's Web site puts it, "half the price." The basic AT&T plan -- unlimited Internet and 450 minutes of calling -- now costs $70 a month instead of $60 (plus taxes and fees), and comes with no text messages instead of 200. (Adding text messaging costs at least $5 a month more.)
True, iPhone 3G service now matches the plans for AT&T's other 3G phones; still, by the end of your two-year contract, the iPhone 3G will have cost you more than the old iPhone, not less.
The third improvement is audio quality, which has taken a gigantic step forward. You sound crystal clear to your callers, and they sound crystal clear to you. In fact, few cellphones sound this good.
The other improvements are smaller, but welcome. For example, the new iPhone feels even better in your hand, thanks to a gracefully curved, shiny plastic back. It also has a standard headphone jack - hallelujah! - so no clunky adapter is required for your favorite non-Apple headphones. The power adapter has been shrunk down to a one-inch cube, so it doesnít hog an extra spot on your power strip.
The new iPhone has true G.P.S. now, too, in addition to the fake G.P.S. of its predecessor -- an ingenious system that shows your location on a map by analyzing nearby cellphone towers and Wi-Fi hot spots.