Sunday, December 09, 2007
myPhone: The Really, Really Big Review
The iPhone is a success. For everyone who thought that it would limp out of the gate and have little to no effect on the cell phone industry, it would be a good time to look for a little crow. Regardless of the final number sold, the iPhone has done a number of things that truly define success and truly define innovation.
First, the iPhone has changed consumer expectations of how a cell phone should work, how it should appeal to the senses, and how beautifully the interface works. It also showed that a good chunk of the public was willing to pay for their phones if only those phones were actually good. It isn’t just the well-to-do or people who need the constant contact of a smart phone that went crazy for the iPhone; it was people who liked the idea of an easy-to-use almost smart phone that integrated useful features in a stylish package.
Which isn’t to say that the iPhone is perfect or even that its features are for everyone. It’s just to say that this imperfect (I would still suggest that Apple released a stable beta on a willing public and that is just now getting close to a fully functional release) phone from Apple has not only sold well, but it has changed the industry. That Apple accomplished this with their first shot at the industry has to have the bigger players feeling a little nervous.
Apple didn’t achieve the feat without engineering a beautiful piece of technology.
The first and most important thing to the iPhone’s success is the interface. The touchscreen, which lets users interact with the phone in an simple way, is only part of the story. The organization and simplicity of the thing make it quick to learn, but the hidden features (like double tapping on a browser window to zoom in and then zoom out on a section of the screen) make it an absolute joy to use. It works well not just because most of the bits are so well designed, but because it encourages discovery.
Yes, that makes it sound a little like a toy, but that isn’t the right way to view the achievement. It is an incredibly useful phone with powerful network capabilities that opened my eyes to the possibilities of a cell phone. My last cell phone--a Motorola SLVR--had some of the same features as my iPhone. At least, it listed those features in the ads.
Using the text messaging, the network browser, and the kinda sorta iTunes functionality was such a chore that I rarely bothered. I’ve seen the same functionality on friends’ phones, too, and came away with the same conclusion: why bother?
The answer was this: done right, those features do make the phone better. The iPhone’s browser is brilliant. The email functionality--while flawed--is useful. The mapping features, the weather, the easy to use alarm, and the text messaging are all useful. The SLVR made me fight to do anything, the iPhone makes it all easy. It may sound stupid, but when traveling, I prefer to use my phone as an alarm; the SLVR was incredibly hard to set and update, but with the iPhone, I handled the problem in just a few moments.
The things that it doesn’t do right are significant, too. That there still aren’t downloadable applications and games or a developer kit is perhaps the biggest disappointment. This phone is crying out for custom applications and I can’t wait for the opportunity to add even more great features to the phone.
The email implementation isn’t perfect, either. With no apparent capacity to create subdirectories or spam filters, going through a large bunch of emails can be brutal. Deleting those mails, one by one, is just barely short of mind numbing. It’s not all bad, though: setting up multiple accounts is easy enough and reading through the mails themselves is simple. The problems with the mail program, though, are what makes the thing not quite ready for use by people who currently rely on smart phones.
A lot has been said about AT&T’s Edge network and all of it is true: for the phone’s network functionality to work, it has to either be logged into a wireless network or it uses the rather unpredictable Edge network for its voice and network traffic. The Edge network can be maddeningly slow--slower than an old dial-up connection at times--if the phone isn’t in the right spot. At my office on the southeast side of Denver, I might as well be ten feet down a ditch: there is no cell phone service. WIthout the office wireless, the iPhone would be completely cut off.
On the other hand, when I was on vacation, I used it at the beach, I used it in restaurants, I used it when we were out on the ocean and the connection was perfect. In fact, it was on vacation that I realized how much I loved the thing.
One morning we left for an early breakfast. Having gone to sleep late, I was a little groggy when we left the hotel and later found that I had forgotten to bring information about our reservation on a boat for a snorkeling trip. While we ate breakfast at a great little restaurant in Lahaina, I searched for the phone number and slip number of the company operating the boat. I found their site, jotted down the phone number, called to confirm the reservation and the time, and even checked the iPhone’s map to make sure that I knew where we were going.
When I bought my iPhone--second hand for just $200--I thought that it would make a great replacement for my current iPod. I assumed that, even if I didn’t activate it and use it as a phone, I would like the wireless network capabilities, the video playback, and the iPod functions. While I was right about the video playback and the wireless, I was surprisingly wrong about the iPod functionality. I still don’t use the iPhone as a replacement for my iPod.
The interface for the iPod functionality is a few levels down and you have to use the touchscreen to do anything other than change the volume. It is virtually impossible to use the iPhone one handed in the same way that I do my Nano while I’m driving. For that matter, without the familiar iPod controls, the iPhone is clumsier to use.
Who would have thought that what I assumed would be the iPhone’s unassailable strength would turn out to be one of its weaknesses? In fact, my iPod is more useful in a couple ways. Building playlists is easier, it can be used with multiple computers, and it acts as a four gig thumb drive for me to take files wherever I go. While rumors are flying about Apple bringing that thumb drive functionality in the next iPhone update, that doesn’t make up for the more difficult interface.
Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives. The screen is gorgeous, the video playback is shockingly good, and YouTube has never looked as good as it does on the iPhone. While I wouldn’t choose to use the phone for blogging, I did manage to write one post on the flight back from Hawaii using the phone’s notepad. If Apple ever give us copy and paste, it might be acceptable for regular short posts, but, given the device limitations, it would be hard to imagine using it for the longer bits.
One good surprise was how well the touchscreen keyboard works once the user becomes accustomed to not feeling physical keys. It corrects many mistakes, it has a decent autocomplete feature, and it has some shortcuts to make typing easier (like adding a period and automatically shifting for an uppercase when you hit the spacebar twice at the end of a sentence).
I could write more about features--the good and the bad of the mediocre camera, for instance--but it would be obscuring the greater point: I absolutely love this thing. I never thought that I would be the kind of guy who would actually use the data networking capabilities of a phone and I bought it because it was a relatively cheap toy. I found that I was the kind of guy who would use all those functions if they were done well; I found that they weren’t just toys, but could be useful in regular, real-life situations.
If this iPhone dies, I will buy another even if I have to pay more for the privilege. Not because it’s a style statement, not because I’ve been blinded by Jobs’ magnificent personality. I’ll buy another one because I won’t ever again settle for a phone that isn’t this good.
What Apple realized is that it really could raise expectations for consumer phones and that people would pay for the experience. They were right. And don’t talk to me about feature sets; talk to me about features that work. You could try to sell me the Swiss Army Knife of phones, completely packed with every imaginable gewgaw, but if it doesn’t all come together in a useful package it really doesn’t matter.
What Apple does for an encore is something that every iPhone fan is curious about. Following up a homerun like this has to be tricky, but the knowledge gained on everything from the features that people missed to the prices that people will pay will pay dividends on that next product release. I expect version 2.0 to be jaw-droppingly good.
The iPhone is a fine piece of kit. It’s imperfect, it’s a work in progress, and it’s anything but cheap (especially in a world of free and nearly free cell phones). But it is a phenomenal entry from Apple.