by Mike Shea on 1 July 2007
Three months ago I wrote my opinion about the iPhone and described how the fault of a convergence device, a device that packs many different functions into a single device, do all of its functions more poorly than dedicated devices. This rule has a balance however. Does a device perform all of its functions /well enough/? The Swiss Army Device is a lousy screw driver, pair of scissors, can opener, cork screw, and magnifying glass; but it performs /well enough/ to make it a popular tool. In the case of the iPhone, surely it won't have as good a keyboard as a desktop PC, the screen will be smaller than my 24" monitor, web pages won't render readably full screen, and it has only 1/10th the storage of other iPods; but does it perform all of its functions /well enough/?
I'm not going to spend the rest of this article pontificating. Every tech journalist on earth, most of them more qualified than I, can give you an account. I recommend Walt Mossberg's iPhone review but there are hundreds of others at this point.
Instead, I am going to talk about my experience spending seven hours in line at the Tyson's Corner Apple Store, my favorite features of the phone, and the things that I don't like about it.
I bet I just lost half my audience with that title.
I had decided last weekend that I wanted to buy an iPhone. Apple's 20 minute iPhone tour pushed me over the edge. This thing looked like something out of Blade Runner or 2001. I can only imagine what Arthur C. Clarke would think if he was screwing around with one. The iPhone is like a piece of science fiction. Maybe we don't all have jetpacks, but we have this.
I took half a day off from work, and Stan, a friend from work, and I spent the rest of our afternoon and early evening out in a line of about 200 people waiting to be the first two hundred people to own this piece of science fiction. The environment was a lot of fun. The poor bastard behind us had been sent by his boss to buy two iPhones to test and see whether the rest of the office would get them. The guy didn't even get to keep one of the ones he bought. Behind him was a fellow who used to work for NEXT, the company Steve Jobs created when he was exiled. Most of the line were Apple fans and everyone was excited about the phone. We better be to be spending that amount of time waiting to buy one. Pictures of the event can be found at my Flickr iPhone Album.
I spent the rest of that evening and most of the next day playing with my iPhone and I love it. It is as good as they demonstrate and as good as the reviewers say.
The screen is beautiful. I put a DVD rip of Blade Runner and another of Animatrix: Second Renaissance and both look excellent. When the iPhone plays a movie or video there are no screen controls visible at all. You are holding a black plate with a video showing on it. Tapping the screen brings up thin control bars but otherwise it is just you and the video.
It connects very easily to local Wifi networks. Within seconds it was up and running on my local wireless network. Systems like the Nintendo Wii, the Nintendo DS, and the Xbox 360 are not nearly as easy to connect.
The activation took me less than ten minutes before I could use all the basic iPod and Wifi functions. The phone came up about an hour later. I read a few different reports of people having trouble getting it activated but I did not. In-home activation was the smartest move Apple could have made. It was the one way they could get people in and out of the store as fast as they did. Before I heard they moved activation to iTunes at home I had visions of two hundred people waiting 30 minutes each to sign up for AT&T. Instead they just shoveled product out the door. That's a great business choice.
The web browser is excellent. It doesn't have tabs exactly but it does let you run more than one browser window. Switching requires just pressing a button and flipping to the next window. The zoom in feature works fine but web pages with wide columns will require a lot of jumping about. Overall, the iPhone rendered pages exactly as I would expect them.
Google Reader has an excellent interface for the iPhone. I find myself able to surf through my latest news items as fast as I do on a full PC. The only feature it lacks is the ability to share an item. For that I have to use a PC or find another better way to do it.
The keyboard is no where near as useful as a real keyboard but it works well enough. I can type relatively fast on it after a little bit of practice. It's good for a hundred words or so but anything longer will require a desktop. I never had a blackberry so I have nothing to compare it to but I am not having trouble with it.
The phone works very well. It sounds better than my old Nokia freebie and uses both headphones for the caller's voice. No one has complained about the audio quality of the mic inside the headset. The iPhone has a speaker built in that can be used for music or movies as well as the phone but it sounds about as good as you would expect. You're better off with headphones.
The contacts list binds various iPhone functions together. Contact information lets you dial directly from a contacts card, send an email, or send a text message. These contacts features show how useful converging a single device can be.
The built-in camera is also good enough. It takes 640 x 480 resolution pictures that you can email to yourself or to a friend. Some of the email submission features of Blogger and Flickr make that really exciting. I set up both Flickr and Blogger to receive new posts and images directly from email. This means that, with very few clicks and very little time, I can submit new photos or new blog posts from a device in my pocket. This is a very powerful concept. Here is Mike's iPhone Flickr submissions and Mike's iPhone Blog.
I thought 8 Gigs of space would not be nearly enough. However, when using it more like an iPod Nano instead of a full iPod, I found that the space was sufficient. You cannot mirror all of your movies, music, audiobooks, TV shows, and podcasts but you can grab enough of them to fill out a week's worth of stuff. The more I rip DVDs, the less likely it is that any hand-held device could hold them all. With my Nano and my Apple TV I already find myself with a system for recycling TV shows, movies, and podcasts to keep storage use low. Using a similar system works very well.
I can fit two movies, about four hundred songs, a couple of audio books, a half dozen podcasts, a half dozen video podcasts, and a couple of TV shows onto the iPhone and still have over a gig of space remaining. That's good enough.
The iPhone comes with a nice dock but I usually want to use the thing while it's charging so I just use the cable. This lets me work with it at my desk even while charging.
I'm going to skip over some of the features you've heard from everyone else. The iPod portion is wonderful, the construction is great, the interface is great, maps are great, the photo display is great, and Youtube is great. The phone's wonderful.
As wonderful as it is, there are still a few things I don't like.
I know there is big business between AT&T and Apple that ensures SMS will continue to flourish. SMS is like free money for AT&T. You send a few bytes of data and spend about a dime to a quarter to do so. Various AT&T plans can increase SMSs but for very high costs. Any built in iChat would hurt AT&T's free money machine.
Customers get screwed in this deal. There is no technical reason for not having iChat. It is a very powerful social communication tool yet big business decisions rip it out. There will likely be web-based Instant Messenger clients soon but they won't connect to the Contacts list and won't be nearly as well integrated as other features of less value like Youtube.
Worse yet, if they had put that camera on the other side of the unit or added a second camera we could have had video chat across the country with a device in the palm of our hands. Steve Jobs talked about how every Mac they sell has a camera because people love talking to their parents over a video chat. How many iPhones would it have sold if people knew they could have video chats with loved ones in the palm of their hand? How much like 2001 would that have been? Again, there's no technical reason why not except business decisions that hurt the customer.
I am guessing that the heavily recessed earphone jack will reduce damage to the internal workings if the iPhone as the jack is pushed about. This special jack, however, means I can't plug the unit into my car yet. It means my Sennheiser headphones can't plug into it yet. It means I'm going to have to buy a $10 plug to get the standard plug I should have had from the beginning. There are reports of people carving up headphone jacks to get their favorite headphones working. I'm guessing we'll hear about a whole slew of accessories that will make the jack more accessible but right now I'm stuck with the earbuds.
A video from PC Mag showed that it takes a fair bit of abuse to break up an iPhone but I've owned two cellular phones in my life and both of them took beatings bad enough to break the screens. I imagine that, sometime in my iPhone's life, I'm going to drop the thing. All of the rubber sleeves we can buy for $30 succeed in making the thing look ugly but maybe that's the best choice. At $600, a replacement is very expensive and even a replacement would mean extending a contract another two years. As much as I love it, I imagine the lifespan of this device isn't going to be much longer than a couple of years. That's not long for something as expensive as this.
More and more of my favorite websites display video using Flash. Even though the iPhone has a Youtube client built in, you cannot see embedded Youtube videos in Safari. Any other flash-based player also doesn't work. More and more of the web has moved to Flash and Flash has the potential to build powerful interfaces for the iPhone. Hopefully Apple adds Flash in the near future. Without it, the iPhone's access to the web is limited.
They keyboard isn't tactile which makes it harder to use. When you're on a web page, you can flip the iPhone to make the keyboard a lot bigger but you can't flip it after you've already brought the keyboard up. You have to cancel out, flip, and bring it back up again. The horizontal keyboard doesn't work for emails, SMS, or the notepad. I imagine this will all be fixed in a patch.
As a Getting Things Done disciple, I am proud of my empty email inbox. Few people can say they have four email accounts and all of them are cleared out to zero every week. However, even though I'm using my Gmail account on the iPhone, it always seems to have new messages in it. It doesn't follow Gmail's lead when I archive something. So now I perpetually have forty five new messages on the iPhone even though I cleared them all out on Gmail. That's annoying.
There's no way around it. A $600 phone with a mandatory two-year contract is very expensive. This, beyond everything else, still has the potential to keep the iPhone out of the hands of most people for the next few years.
Overall I am very happy with the iPhone. As Jobs said, it is the best iPod they ever made, it is an excellent phone, and a great internet device. I find myself needing a laptop less and less with a device like this. I'm going on a few short trips in the next couple of months, trips where I planned on bringing a laptop but now I don't think I will need it. The more I use it the more one conclusion keeps coming up in my mind.
The iPhone is the future of computers.