"Leonard Nimoy: Good evening, I'm Leonard Nimoy. The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies, so in the end, isn't that the truth? The answer is 'no.'"
The iPhone is the partial realization of the web-based thin client dream. In typical Apple fashion, though, they've gone just far enough to make money, and not so far that it might actually enable people to communicate more freely. They could have done that, but it would have meant leaving consumers' money on the table.
Apple's recent commercial makes this abundantly clear. In it, a user watches a clip of the Kraken from Pirates II, has a craving for calamari, and rotates his iPhone 90 degrees to search out seafood restaurants in his area.
Aside from the gee-whiz UI tricks that his iPhone enables, he's basically doing a Google Maps search. In fact it looks a lot like screenshots I've seen of Zimbra Zimlets for geo-locating addresses in the Zimbra web client. Nifty stuff. But there's no particular reason that it couldn't (or won't) be done on other phones. Hell, it's probably done on other phones now, if you want to pay for the service.
Which brings me to the Palm Foleo. I hadn't heard of the Foleo before Charlie Stross wrote an analysis explaining just why he didn't think it was such a terrible idea. Basically, after looking at the fact that it's really completely independent of phones in every important way, and can connect to WiFi networks all on its own, he thinks that it was intended to be a Web 2.0 terminal. A thin client, as we used to say back when everybody who thought things through thought that was a bad idea for a business plan. Things have changed, now, though: Broadband really is ubiquitous, if you're willing to pay for the access, and good quality high-resolution displays and mass storage are cheap, and battery technology is improving radically, so that the phone and its proprietary network have to do less and less that's customized.
So the iPhone (and any other post-Blackberry phone that wants to be successful) is really a Web 2.0 Terminal. Sometimes they'll have cached data, but by and large they'll do everything they can through the airwaves. The differentiator will be in the user interface.
Apple understands that, of course. They have a late-mover advantage in this field, in that Nokia, Samsung, Symbian, MS, et al. have been so focused on solving the UI problem under now-outmoded constraints that they're having a hard time getting used to the freedom of new user interaction hardware.
It still comes down to paying for service, of course -- unless you're on WiFi, and can attach to the myriad of free nodes that are finally becoming common in our urban landscape. Like you can with the Foleo, or any one of a half dozen (non-Verizon) smart-phones I looked at earlier this week.
But not on an iPhone. You need the extra service to do that on an iPhone.
If there's one thing Apple never forgets to design in, it's making you pay.