So I got an iPhone last week, after having read enough reports of successful unlocks and an increasingly long list of custom applications. I saw one in person for the first time just prior, and was basically sold. My current smartphone is an HTC Mogul, known in Canada as the P4000 from Telus. I evaluated the uses I put it to and set my criteria for the iPhone as simply as follows: Can I get it to do the same things? The list:
- Casual web browsing (news sites)
- Instant Messaging
- Calendar sync (preferably over the Internet)
- Contacts sync
- Note taking
Along with random poking around. Out Of The Box Impressions Out of the box, I had to run an activation crack (which I won’t describe here, sorry folks) to get it to do anything other than insist that I connect it to iTunes. Once this was done, the iPhone accomplished #1 and 2, and 4-6 with its built-in Safari, Mail, Calendar and embedded contacts storage. There’s no support to sync calendar and contacts wirelessly, but no standard exists for this and it’s therefore not surprising. The closest extant standard is Microsoft ActiveSync, which isn’t available. For now, I’ll have to go back to syncing those items through my laptop as I had done before Windows Mobile and Exchange Server. Hopefully either Apple or a third party will develop support for this. Aside from that one setback, the phone blows away my previous handsets. Setup was very slick. Upon syncing with iTunes, not only did it suck in my calendar, contacts, e-mail, podcasts, videos and music, it also configured the iPhone to be able to check my email accounts and imported my Safari bookmarks. The user interface is every bit as slick as the press reports - clearly a huge amount of effort was devoted to designing a user interface that would make a mobile device an easy, almost instinctive process. Like MacOS on Apple’s desktop computers, metaphors are preserved across all applications. Flick to scroll, pinch to zoom, double tap to overview, and so on. Consistency in a user interface is as key as attractiveness, and the phone doesn’t let you down there. The selection of third-party applications, which are developed with no support or documentation from Apple, are beautiful as they use the functionality exposed by the phone to the programmers doing this work. That means, both the apps that come with the phone and the third party ones are all of exceptionally high quality. I was able to install:
- Multi Protocol IM
- IRC Chat
- RSS Feed Reader
- File Manager
- Wireless Network Scanner
- VNC Client
- eBook Reader
- UNIX Utilities and a Shell
- OpenSSH for remote access
And this is just a subset of the selection of apps that are available for it already. The experience of using the device is far better than fumbling around with the blackberry wheel/ball or dealing with the widget-of-the-week, “oh crap it’s been a day I have to reset it” experience of using a Windows Mobile device, and Palm is basically out of the game as far as innovation goes. Sound quality on calls is good. I haven’t tried it in high wind yet, that’s usually my benchmark for “really good”.
Picking Away Criticisms
A fair number of techies criticize the iPhone for perceived shortcomings. Many of the criticisms I’ve read and heard seem to stem from a lack of understanding of practical value, for example:
A common critique concerns the 2MP camera in the iPhone. 2 MegaPixels (1280x720 resolution) is a good quality camera for a phone to have, and while many naysayers point out 3.5MP cameras in competing phones, these are fresh, new additions to the market. Additionally, phone cameras remain a suboptimal method for serious photography. You won’t be capturing family memories on a mobile phone even if it had a 6MP camera. It just won’t have the capabilities of a nice dedicated Nikon.
DiVX and Windows Media support seem to be in huge demand, and the belief exists among many that MPEG-4 and H.264 are somehow proprietary Apple formats. Quite the opposite. DiVX and Windows Media is a proprietary version of the MPEG-4 video codecs available in the early 2000’s, while MPEG-4 and H.264 themselves are the current worldwide standards for broadcast and digital video. These are well established technologies that quite frankly walk all over DiVX, XViD and the like in terms of quality. People should be looking at such forward looking format support and wondering why the competition doesn’t play H.264 as readily (does the Zune play H.264? I know the Xbox360 has adopted it, and the PSP has as well, how about other digital jukeboxes and smartphones though? Fragmented market at best). And can you really tell me people demand Windows Media format support? I’ve only read about that particular critique from Microsoft sponsored publications.
No smartphone has a decent flash plugin. I don’t even know why people moan about this.
No Stylus or Keyboard
The design of the user interface doesn’t require a stylus (and a stylus would slow you down anyway, as the phone expects to be used by multiple fingers, hence “multi-touch”), and the keyboard is surprisingly good. I’ve handed the phone to long-time Palm and Windows Mobile users in the past few days and they’ve been able to type on the thing so quickly it surprised them. Everyone’s different though, so your mileage may vary.
A common criticism of the iPhone by the tech press and as a result the consumer base at large is the lack of 3G support. As a north American I can’t say this bothers me, as our 3G coverage is pretty poor as compared to other standards – although a handset like this would have gone far to promote 3G wireless. Now that iPhone is out in Europe that’s something they’ll need to resolve in that market.
Customizability and Provider Lock-In
This I think is the most grave concern. All competing smartphones (and let’s be clear, the iPhone is a smartphone, in the same category with BlackBerry, Palm and Windows Mobile whether the competition admits it or not) are customizable to a greater or lesser extent. This is in contrast with competing MP3 / Media jukebox players, which are typically less customizable and require a full OS replacement if one wants to change the way it works. However, Apple are taking the Media Jukebox route with the iPhone and have demonstrated a fair degree of disinterest in allowing third party software to run on the device. This may work for the iPod, which does 2 or 3 things well, but the iPhone is in a class of devices that customers expect can be made to do anything. Apple must change their point of view on this, and not only sanction existing third party applications without the constant threat of removal, but provide better developer tools to developers and companies who could take the iPhone to new heights.
An iPhone with ActiveSync support, even from a third party, would walk all over Research in Motion’s best BlackBerry model for business use. All this may stem from vendor Lock-In - Apple has aligned itself with AT&T, which may well have made many stipulations in their contract regarding end-user functionality in the device. The fear may have been that the network would be overrun by high-end bandwidth usage, or something to that effect. Or, maybe AT&T’s always wanted a handset maker to bow to their demand to provide a locked down device, and maybe Apple were naive enough to have thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. It is. I can say with confidence that the iPhone would not be a useful device to me if I were not able to install my own applications on it, and enhance it to suit my purposes. If Apple chooses to force me to remove these applications, the iPhone will cease to be useful to me. I and other Canadians can’t even officially buy an iPhone, as no deal has been made with a Canadian wireless provider (only one exists that supports the GSM technology used in the iPhone - our other major provider uses the older CDMA). This means I had to import the device and subsequently flash its transceiver in order to force it to allow me to use it here. I believe this is a mistake. Selling the iPhone as an unlocked device you can pop a SIM card into and get to work would have been terrific. BlackBerry has had great success selling their device through numerous providers. There was no reason to lock in with AT&T. This can’t be changed for the next few years, but I hope Apple takes this time to take heed and free the device subsequently.
The iPhone is a great device for me. It does everything I need and have gotten used to from previous PDA’s and smartphones. The interactive, tactile experience of using it is discoverable even for someone who’s never used a cellphone before, and certainly easier to figure out than a MOTORAZR, BlackBerry or Pocket PC for a new user. The iPhone is geared to the consumer market, and not really the techie or the businessman. Even so, its popularity is huge; everyone knows about them, and most people want one - not because it’s a hyped up fad, but because it does things no other device previous or contemporary has done for them. Worked simply, worked well, and surpassed expectations for functionality. This is a message to Apple Inc.: It doesn’t have to stop here. iPhone has potential for a dramatic upsurge in its already impressive popularity in two areas; availability on multiple cellular networks, and official sanction for third party apps. If these two things changed, iPhone would quickly dominate the cellphone/smartphone field as the iPod dominated MP3 players before it.