The iPhone index

The government's economic figures have become so distorted by hedonics, heuristics, and other statistical legerdemain that I submit what I think might actually be a reliable indicator of U.S. economic health — or at least consumer sentiment.

We're now ten days away from Apple's much-ballyhooed launch of the iPhone.  The cheapest model, with the same amount of storage space as a middle-of-the-line iPod nano, will be $500.  And that's with a two-year commitment to AT&T.

How many people will want a $500 phone in the current economic environment?  Even if they can integrate their phone and their music and the device is the coolest thing since, well, the iPod?  One variable is reported in today's Wall Street Journal — whether the iPhone will be compatible with corporate email systems.  Right now it's not (not much anyway), but Apple may be working on some last-minute fixes.  The most intriguing speculation in the article:

Incompatible technology has become an increasing problem for businesses as hand-held email and phone devices are evolving into minicomputers that can do such things as download music, take pictures and surf the Web. In the past, businesses have been unwilling to support certain devices, like those with cameras, for instance, because of concerns employees could use them to document company secrets.

But these tensions would be magnified if the iPhone is as popular as Apple is hoping and some analysts expect. The public's broad acceptance of the iPod, more than 100 million of which have been sold, has given Apple a hip currency among many professionals, including business travelers for whom iPods are ubiquitous gadgets on the go. That, in turn, could translate into strong demand for the iPhone among business users.

Bottom line:  If this scenario does not pan out, and more broadly, if iPhone sales disappoint, perhaps it's then safe to say the economy is going into the tank.

By the way: A bigger obstacle to business use, not pointed out in the article, is the iPhone's inability to handle Word or Excel documents.  Wait till folks discover that after plunking down their $500.