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Three Weeks with the iPhone

One of the fun things about no longer being an Apple employee is that I'm now much more at liberty to speak my mind about Apple's products.  Apple may have a reputation for being a bit of a cult, but in my experience, most insiders are only too willing to call a spade a spade when the company's products fall short, and it's nice to finally be able to do so publicly again without worrying about violating the PR code.  And, of course, the opportunity to speak freely came just in time, seeing as the first new hardware product released after I left was a highly significant (but in many ways, still unrefined) one: the long-anticipated iPhone.

I was among the faithful who bought an iPhone the day it was released, salivating at the prospect of finally having a phone built by people who get it–and by "it" I mean UI/VI design and industrial engineering.  Where I had become accustomed to years of death by a thousand paper cuts the moment I started trying to use my previous mobiles as anything more than a phone, I knew that the iPhone would be different.  And, thanks to Apple's characteristic thoughtfulness, it mostly is.  Among the things that make the iPhone such a pleasure to use:

The Keyboard
In many ways, the virtual keyboard is the single most gutsy risk Apple took with the iPhone–the essential design decision that shaped the rest of the device.  While many–including myself–were skeptical about how well the lack of tactile feedback would work for them, I'm proud to report that after only a week of use I'm a faster typist than I ever was with T9.  The on-the-fly auto-correction works admirably (it's right more often than it's wrong and it seems to catch most of my common errors), and the typing interaction design (when was the last time anyone spent much time thinking about that) is wonderfully well thought out–from the way the key set shifts from punctuation back to alpha when you press space, to the completeness of the character set, to the way the space bar disappears and a special ".com" button appears in its place while you're typing URLs.  In my estimation, no single feature does more to make the iPhone a less frictionless experience than any other phone on the market than its keyboard.

The Maps App
If any app on the iPhone could be considered "killer," in the sense that its very existence justifies the device's purchase, it's the Maps app.  I've spent the last week wandering around a strange and daunting city (New York), and the iPhone's maps app has helped me enormously (I've even been able to give directions to tourists on the street without actually knowing where I'm going myself).  Back when I had various Sony Ericsson phones, I was an avid fan of the mobile Java Google Maps app, but the iPhone's large, high resolution display and multitouch interface makes wayfinding a far more natural experience than the typical mobile phone "joystick" experience.

The Web Browser
The iPhone commercials don't lie–having a "real," undilluted web browser on a phone is a breath of fresh air.  The page rendering is flawless, the support for web technologies is, with the noteable exceptions of Flash and Java, fairly comprehensive (at least compared to most phone browsers), and the multitouch panning/zooming interface is probably about the best reconciliation of the small screen/full page dilemma I've seen.

The iPod Experience
Steve Jobs billed the iPhone as "the best iPod we've ever made," and I think that's true in many ways: it has the widescreen form factor the iPod has always needed to make video compelling, the Coverflow interface is stunning, the song list navigation (with the alphabet down the side for quick jumps) is clever, the "Now Playing" screen (with its giant album covers) is beautiful, and its On-the-Go Playlist functionality is easier to use than on traditional iPods.

The Physical Buttons
I haven't heard many people mention this (and it seems like such a simple thing), but I think Apple got things just right with the physical buttons on the iPhone (with a few exceptions I'll mention below).  The fact that I can lock the phone with a single button press (as opposed to most non-flip phones, which require multiple key presses for locking) solves a longtime, head slap-level annoyance for me.  The fact that I can take the phone in and out of silent mode with a single physical switch (as opposed to some deeply buried virtual preference) also strikes me as an eminently sane decision.

Visual Voicemail
No single thing more poignantly symbolizes to me what I've always hated about phones and phone carriers than traditional voicemail–possibly only fax machines piss me off more.  Thankfully, the iPhone turns this disaster into a relatively pleasant experience in the most obvious way possible: by giving me random, GUI-based access to voicemail messages without requiring me to remember arcane numeric shortcuts.  I almost hesitate to trumpet this as a feature because it seems ridiculous that it's taken us until 2007 to get such simple (and, obviously, in light of the fact that Apple was able to pull them off, do-able) improvements, but as of now, it remains a major coup of the iPhone.

The Display
The iPhone's display is simply gorgeous.  I think it's probably the nicest–in terms of resolution, brightness, and color rendition–that I've ever seen on a mobile device.  The photos I've synced to the phone from Aperture look amazing–better than on my computer's display.  The inclusion of a light sensor that controls the screen brightness is also a thoughtful touch.

All of that said, the iPhone is still very much a 1.0 device from a newcomer to the mobile space, and, as such, it's likely to have some shortcomings.  Among the ones I've noticed:

The Headphone Jack
One of the first things I noticed about the iPhone's case is that I couldn't plug my Bose headphones into it on flights, because its headphone jack is deeply recessed in a very narrow hole.  Even the headphones packaged with most iPods don't fit it.  Belkin does make an adapter to solve the problem, but it's rather inordinately long and awkward to use.

The Absence of Traditional Mobile Features
This probably isn't something that will bother everyone, but I think I tend to be a bit more of an "advanced" mobile user than the average American, and the iPhone's inability to send an SMS to more than one recipient, or (in particular) to send MMS messages at all, has put it a step behind even some of my clunkier old phones in certain ways.  For example, without MMS, in the absence of web browser file uploads (disabled in mobile Safari), and in light of the fact that iPhone email isn't an option for me right now (see below), I have effectively no way to upload images to Flickr.  The iPhone, despite its supposedly advanced nature, is the first cameraphone I've ever had where this has been a problem.

The Absence of Traditional iPod Features
As I said, I do think the iPhone is the best iPod Apple's ever made in many ways, but there definitely are some things about it that make me miss my "traditional" iPod.  Foremost among them is that I would prefer the iPod aspect of the device to be less compartmentalized–that is, I'd prefer playback (at least play/pause and back forward) controls to be available no matter what part of the device I happen to be in, as they would be on a "real" iPod.  It would also be nice to have disk mode back, although I admit my primary motivation there would be so that I could use PodWorks with it.  It also seems to me that the volume increments are too large (and the little on screen volume control is too difficult to use precisely).

The Camera
I hate to say it, but my last cameraphone, the Sony Ericsson w810i, kicked the iPhone's ass in both performance and usability.  The quality was good enough to almost rival many point-and-shoot digicams, and I loved the fact that you could actually use it like a "real" camera by turning it on its side and pressing a shutter button on the top.  The iPhone's camera is barely capable of producing a non-blurry photo in broad daylight; it exhibits the sickly, blue-green-ish color shift that seems to be the hallmark of crappy cameraphone CCDs; and its shutter is triggered by an ergonomically awkward virtual camera button on the phone's screen (which makes holding the thing steady very difficult).

The Email Experience
I ditched Apple Mail in favor of Gmail not long after OS X 10.4 came out, and, except for the fact that I had to use T9 on a phone keypad to type into it, I was very happy using Google's Java Gmail app to get my mail on the go.  On the iPhone, of course, that's not an option, and Gmail users are left with two choices: embrace the iPhone's Mail app and access Gmail using POP, or use web-based Gmail through MobileSafari.  The first option doesn't work for me because using Gmail through POP, frankly, sucks–it ignores whatever filters you have set up on the web (even messages that completely skip Inbox on the web show up in POP), and it quite unhelpfully puts a copy of every message you send in your POP Inbox.  The second option isn't much of a solution because the Gmail site brings MobileSafari to its knees (I'm guessing because Gmail is one of the more Javascript-intense web apps out there, and MobileSafari's Javascript performance could use some work), and even when it doesn't, the packed, full-page Gmail UI requires too much panning, zooming, and clicking on tiny buttons and links to be efficiently usable on the iPhone.

The Web Browser's Performance
So far there seem to be two problems at work here: AT&T's EDGE network appears to be painfully slow when brought to bear on "real" websites (at least it seems to be in New York City, the primary place I've had occasion to use it thus far), and (as I mentioned above) the iPhone's Javascript performance seems to be a bit lacking.  Whatever the cause, I find myself beating by head against the wall a lot when trying to use the MobileSafari on both Wi-Fi and EDGE (not to mention the fact that I rather pointedly lost a "look it up on Wikipedia" contest to a Blackberry user last night).

Scrolling Anxiety
Since touching both "clicks" and ends a "rolling" scroll (e.g. when you flick your finger upward to start the iPod songlist scrolling and then touch again to stop it), I often find scrolling a nerve wracking experience.  What happens quite frequently is that I'll accidentally register a click and start a song playing or something when I simply mean to stop the scroll.  Maybe I'm unique in this concern, and maybe there's a good way around it (using two fingers to stop the scroll perhaps?), but I find this annoying and it frequently makes me miss my iPod's scroll wheel.

Apparent Lack of Vision
Like most other Mac developers, I was very excited to discover that the iPhone, unlike Apple's previous mobile devices (i.e. iPods) was going to be an honest-to-God "handheld Mac" running a form of OS X.  As I told Merlin Mann at MacWorld, I was excited about this because a) it had the potential to greatly expand the market for Cocoa apps beyond the Mac market and into, essentially, the iPod market and b) it could foster the creation of mobile social software applications that could go far beyond things like Dodgeball and Twitter (applications I was very eager to develop myself). 

Unfortunately, as many others have already pointed out, Apple's actual offerings to would-be iPhone developers have been very disappointing.   Most of us were looking forward to developing groundbreaking mobile Cocoa applications that would take full advantage of the iPhone's impressive array of gadgetry (orientation sensor, light sensor, camera, multitouch display), but Apple has told us we should make due with…Javascript.  No offense to web developers (unlike Will Shipley, I have a lot of respect for Javascript), but I find it hard to imagine anyone creating a killer, breakthrough app that could only be done on the iPhone using only web technologies.

As for the social software part, I've had the sense for years that Apple (or at least the higher echelon of Apple) doesn't really "get it," and the iPhone continues Apple's streak of missing the boat on social apps.  As Peter Magnusson points out (though I think a lot of his suggestions are a bit Web 2.0 wanky), the iPhone could have been a bold forary into the kinds of social networking applications–particularly location-based services and "lifeblogging"–that it's young, hip user base will embrace.  Instead, with the exception of the iPod and the YouTube app, it's stuck in Blackberry mode with mostly prosaic, productivity oriented offerings (and, unlike the Mac, it offers no way for third party developers to bring in the fun).

All of that said, the current iPhone is still only the very beginning of what is essentially a new platform, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple address all of the above issues (most of which can be corrected in software) over time.  Even the lack of an API is something I suspect (or at least hope) is more the result of time constraints than a dearth of goodwill on Apple's part.  I look forward to the future of what I think will, in the long term, be a fantastic mobile platform.

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