Saturday, June 30, 2007

An Apple Critic's iPhone Review

I took MUNI down to Union Square today with the goal of trying out one of the sickeningly-hyped iPhones (I also had to get some new shirts at Banana Republic, but that's too boring for a blog post).

First stop: Apple store on Stockton. Mob scene around the iPhone table. I was all sweaty from running to MUNI, so I felt very uncomfortable trying to try it out in this crowd of people. I played with it for about 2-3 minutes and walked away feeling unimpressed.

  • No GPS for Google Maps. Seriously, what's the point when you can't have a phone tell you where you are?
  • The screen rotation feature only works about half the time for me. I turn it, and it doesn't really rotate easily.
  • Browsing seemed pretty slow, and it was actually on Wi-Fi.

Next stop: food. But on the way, I saw a Verizon store and thought I'd check out the competition. Wow, their choices are abysmal. The only attractive phone they have is Motorola Q. The Treos and others are too big, and the Blackberries that Verizon have are terrible.

I thought I wasn't impressed with the iPhone until I tried using Windows Mobile again. I've used Windows Mobile before, but today that thing sucked in comparison to the iPhone. I couldn't figure out how to just launch an app (Google Maps) after I downloaded it. The only icon I could recognize on the UI was internet explorer, and none of the others had tooltips. The Start menu didn't work. So I was screwing around for 5 minutes to figure out how to launch my downloaded app. Eventually, I'm actually browsing into the Program Files directory, full of DLLs, to find the Google Maps EXE and launch that. Yeah, browsing through DLLs... are you f---in kidding me?! Then, even though the Q says it has GPS ("Location On"), it doesn't read GPS. I messed around with it for a little while longer. This phone was $250 with a 2 year contract with $15 data (so approx. $55 voice/data). Why is that a far better deal than this iPhone with 8GB and a $59 voice/data plan? Sure didn't seem it. EV-DO, on that Q, had no advantage because it was so crappy to use.

Then I got some food.

A few doors down was the AT&T store on Third and Market, so I popped in there to try the iPhone again. No one was there, and I got at least 10 good minutes of fooling with it, making calls, etc.

I left there thinking:

  1. EDGE actually wasn't notably slower than the EV-DO I had just experienced on Verizon via the Motorola Q. (And yes, I forced the phone off of Wi-Fi to make sure)
  2. Apple has redefined the consumer-level mobile connected device for the better.
  3. I'm getting one.

Let's talk about points 2 and 3.

As far as mobile data revolution goes, there are a few bulletpoints. The Blackberry started something new with what was essentially a two way pager. Then Danger did it again. The HipTop was an amazing integrated, connected Java device with IM and such. Even though these got a little bit of steam, neither was compelling enough as a consumer device to really change the way we use mobile data. (Blackberry = a business device).

iPhone behaves much more like a home computer than anything else except Pocket PC/Windows Mobile. It trumps PPC in that it still manages to hide enough to be a user friendly embedded device. Back to my earlier experience, who on earth should ever see "DLL" or "EXE" on their mobile?! Answer: no one except devs. Apple understands what Microsoft does not.

The iPhone's lack of a keyboard isn't the best, but at the same time, how can you have a device that small that allows you to watch movies and include a keyboard? Something's got to give. I played with the keyboard a bunch and ended up thinking it was so-so. I've heard it takes hours to get the hang of it. My favorite was when I tried to write "what the heck" and it thought I wrote "what the jedi". That's good. I'm really glad that someone at Apple put "Jedi" in the iPhone dictionary, in case I need to have emergency Star Wars conversations over SMS. Maybe the dictionary people at Apple know more about my demographic than I know about myself.

So how does it behave like a computer? Easy to use mini-applications, a keyboard, etc., combined with a full media experience. No one else offers this. I have criticized the lack of an SDK, but the iPhone has the simplicity of "gadget" applications with an attractive UI. In that light, and considering that the iPhone is a pure consumer device, I'm not sure the lack of an SDK is as major as I once thought. I also never thought I'd actually want the iPod functionality of the iPhone, but I've realized that would be really handy. So would the availability of Wi-Fi connectivity.

While I was playing with Safari on the iPhone, I had a flash back to London, England, September 2006. With me, I had 2 phones (one GSM, one CDMA) and a PSP for music and games. In London, I had bought a £10 Vodafone SIM for my GSM phone so I could have my cellphone connectivity. Then back in the room at the Swissotel, I was trying to browse the web on their free Wi-fi using my PSP. It was ridiculous to configure and try to use (let alone type). iPhone is the convergence of a device that accepts SIM cards as well as browses the web on Wi-Fi. (And while the PSP is a better gaming device, I'd gladly leave the PSP at home to have movies, wi-fi and GSM on an iPhone).

Apple misses a lot of bullet points for former PDA users (and even regular cellphone users). Treo users isn't their market for this device, but it is worth mentioning. However, I've concluded that many of the initial iPhone's shortcomings can be fixed in software.

  • No 3G : Can't be fixed in software.
  • No voice dial: Can be fixed.
  • No GPS: I think this can be fixed. They should already have aGPS in the phone due to E911 requirements.
  • No IM: Can be fixed.
  • No MMS: Can be fixed.
  • No Video: Not sure.
  • No Copy-Paste: Can be fixed.
  • No Exchange support: Can be fixed.
  • No SD card: Cannot be fixed. I think this is a huge oversight.
  • No removable battery: Cannot be fixed. Another massive design-trumping-functionality decision.
  • General AT&T poorness: Cannot be fixed.

When I had finished at the AT&T store, I was pretty sure I was going to buy an iPhone. I say that even though I have ripped AT&T's service recently.

So to point #3, I am going to buy one. It's true, I'm leaning that way. Even though I've wanted Windows Mobile for a while, the devices have never impressed me enough to take the plunge. The iPhone impressed me even with its shortcomings.

Also, something I've realized in the last couple days is that Apple are doing two things with the iPhone that are notable and worth supporting:

  1. They're trying to break down the "mobile carrier as value-add data supplier" b.s. and make them into run of the mill ISPs. As a Verizon customer, I'm all for someone taking up that fight.
  2. There are only two US-based mobile handset makers now, Motorola and Apple. And you're telling me you want to support Motorola? Apple's local to us here in SF. Maybe we should throw money their way because it ultimately helps the local economy.

So I went back to the Apple store on Stockton with credit card in hand, but they were out of 8 GB models. After seeing Die Hard 4 (review coming), I thought I would get one online, but it's a 2-4 week delay. I might as well just wait and see if any new software updates come out, or how opinions change, and keep stopping by the Apple store. I also would need to find out the implications of my Verizon family plan.

BTW, I saw Helio's compare page and wanted to try one of those out today. Did you know the only retail store they have in the Bay Area is in Palo Alto? The only places they sell it in SF are resellers. EB Games on Powell was the one I tried today. They had a Helio shelf display with all of the demo phones ripped off and a Dyno-label that said "Ask a rep to try it hete [sic]". Classy! For some reason, I concluded that Helio just might not have a lot of steam even though it beats iPhone in a technical chart. I wish Helio luck, but man, if they don't have a store in SF and hope to get some steam going, they're going to have to do better than a half-assed display at EB Games.

My final take, after getting a bunch of time with the iPhone today: I'll be surprised if half the country isn't using an Apple phone in ten years. It is easily the best consumer-oriented handset combining mobile data, phone and media on the market today. The first iteration lacks on a lot of things, but still manages to set a new bar. It will take a very determined competitor to try to beat Apple at this game, but I look forward to seeing what kind of cool devices other handset makers offer in the wake of the iPhone.

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