A couple of years ago, I was in the market for a new phone. After looking around at all the options and features, I ended up settling on a relatively “low-end” phone that was good for calls and SMS and that’s about it. It was small, simple, and to the point, and while it has served me well, I have kinda regretted not getting a camera in the phone (this is the paradox of choice in action). I considered the camera phone, as well as phones that played music (three birds with one stone!), but it struck me that feature packed devices like that simply weren’t ready yet. They were expensive, clunky, and the interface looked awful.
- Just to mention some of the typical stuff: it’s got all the features of a video iPod, it’s got a phone, it’s got a camera, and it’s got the internet. It has an iPod connector, so you can hook it up to your computer and sync all the appropriate info (music, contacts, video, etc…) through iTunes (i.e. an application that everyone is already familiar with because they use it with their iPod.) It runs Mac OSX (presumably a streamlined version) and has a browser, email app, and widgets. Battery life seems very reasonable.
- Ok enough of the functionality. The functionality is mostly, well, normal. There are smart phones that do all of the above. Indeed, one of the things that worries me about this phone is that by cramming so much functionality into this new phone, Apple will also be muddying the interface… but the interface is what’s innovative about this phone. This is what the other smart phones don’t do. In short, the interface is a touch screen (no physical keyboard, and no stylus; it takes up the majority of the surface area of a side of the phone and you use your fingers to do stuff. Yes, I said fingers, as in multiple. More later.) This allows them to tailor the interface to the application currently in use. Current smart phones all have physical controls that must stay fixed (i.e. a mini qwerty keyboard, and a set of directional buttons, etc…) and which are there whether you need them for what you’re doing or not. By using a touch screen, Apple has solved that problem rather neatly (Those of you familiar with this blog know what’s coming, but it’ll be a moment).
- Scrolling looks fun. Go and watch the demo. It looks neat and, more importantly, it appears to be consistent between all the applications (i.e. scrolling your music library, scrolling through your contacts, scrolling down a web page, etc…). Other “multi-touch” operations also look neat, such as the ability to zoom into web page by squeezing your fingers on the desired area (iPhone loads the actual page, not the WAP version, and allows you to zoom in to read what you want – another smart phone problem solved (yes, yes, it’s coming, don’t worry)). The important thing about the touch interface is that it is extremely intuitive. You don’t need to learn that much in order to use this phone, and the touch screen interface.
- The phone does a few interesting new things. It has a feature they’re calling “visual voicemail” which lets you see all of your voicemail, then select which one you want to listen to first (a great feature). It also makes conference calls a snap, too. This is honestly something I can’t see using that much, but the interface to do it is better than any other conference call interface I’ve seen, and it’s contextual in that you don’t have to deal with it until you’ve got two people on the phone.
- It’s gyroscopic, dude. It has motion sensors that detect the phone’s orientation. If you’re looking at a picture, and you turn the phone, the picture will turn with you (and if it’s a landscape picture, it’ll fill more of the screen too). It senses the lighting and adjusts the screen’s display to compensate for the environment (saves power, provides better display). When you put the phone by your ear to take a call, it senses that, and deactivates the touchscreen, saving power and avoiding unwanted “touches” on the screen (you don’t want your ear to hang up, after all). Another problem solved (wait for it). Unfortunately, the iPhone does not also feature Wiimote functionality (wiiPhone anyone?)
- Upgradeable Interface: One of the most important things that having a touch screen interface allows Apple to do is provide updates to installed software and even new applications (given that it’s running a version of OS X, this is probably a given). Let’s say that the interface for browsing contacts is a little off, or the keyboard is spaced wrong. With a physical keyboard on a smart phone, you can’t fix that problem without redesigning the whole thing and making the customer purchase a new piece of hardware. The iPhone can just roll out an update.
- Apple could put Blackberry out of business with this thing, provided that the functionality is there (it appears that it is for Yahoo mail, but will it work with my company? I can’t tell just yet.). Blackberries always seemed like a fully featured kludge to me. The iPhone is incredibly elegant in comparison (not that it isn’t elegant all by itself). This would also mitigate the whole high price issue: companies might pay for this thing if it works as well as it seems, and people are always more willing to spend their companies money than their own.
Ok, you know what’s coming. Human beings don’t solve problems. They trade one set of problems for another, in the hopes that the new are better than the old. Despite the fact that I haven’t actually used the iPhone, what are some potential issues?
- The touchscreen: Like the iPod’s clickwheel, the iPhone’s greatest strength could prove to be it’s greatest weakness. Touch screens have been in use for years and have become pretty well understood and revised… but they can also be imprecise and, well, touchy. When watching the demo, Steve didn’t seem to be having any problem executing various options, but I’m not sure how well the device will be able to distinguish between “I want to scroll” and “I want to select” (unless selecting was a double-tap, but I don’t think it was). Designing a new touch screen input interface is a tricky human factors problem, and I’m willing to be it will take a little while to be perfected. Like the scrollwheel, I can see it being easy to overshoot or select the wrong item. I could certainly be wrong, and I look forward to fiddling with it at the local Mac store to see just how responsive it really is (it’s hard to comment on something you’ve never used). However, I’m betting that (again like the scrollwheel) the touchscreen will be a net positive experience.
- Durability: Steven Den Beste hits (scroll down) on what I think may be the biggest problem with the touch screen:
I have some serious concerns about long term reliability of the touch panel. When it’s riding inside a woman’s purse, for instance, how long before the touch panel gets wrecked? Perhaps there’s a soft carrying case for it — but a lot of people will toss that, and carry the phone bare. Nothing protects that panel, and it covers one of the two largest faces on the unit. There are a thousand environmental hazards which could wreck it: things dropped onto it, or it being dropped onto other things. And if the touch panel goes bad, the rest of the unit is unusable.
Indeed. iPods are notorious for getting scratched up, especially the screens. How will that impact the display? How will it impact the touch screen?
- Two hands? It looks like you need to use two hands to do a lot of these touch screen operations (one to hold, the other to gesture). Also, when writing an email, a little qwerty keyboard appears on the touch screen… which is nice, but which also might be difficult to use with one hand or without looking (physical keyboards allow you to figure out what key you’re on by touch, and also have little nubs – home keys – which don’t translate to the touch screen). I don’t know how much of an issue this will be, but it will affect some people (I know someone who will type emails on their Blackberry with one hand, while driving. This is an extreme case, to be sure, but it doesn’t seem possible with the touch screen).
- Zooming: The zooming feature in web browsing is neat, but the page they used in the demo (the NY Times homepage) has 5 columns, which seems ideal for zooming. How will other pages render? Will zooming be as useful? The glimpses at this functionality aren’t enough to tell how well it will handle the web… (Google Maps looked great though)
- Does it do too much? This phone looks amazing, but it’s price tag is prohibitive for me, especially since I probably won’t use a significant portion of the functionality. I love that it does video, and while the 3.5″ screen is bigger than my iPod’s screen, I have to admit that I’ve never used the iPod video to watch something (maybe if I travelled more…) Brian Tiemann notes:
If it weren’t for the phone, I would buy this in a heartbeat. As it is, I wish (as does Damien Del Russo) that there were a way to buy it without the Cingular plan, so you could just use it as an iPod with wireless web browsing and e-mail and the like.
Again, there is a worry that a device that tries to do everything for everyone will end up being mediocre at everything. However, I think Apple has made a very admirable attempt, and the touch screen concept really does cut down on this by allowing applications their own UIs and also allowing updates to those UIs if it becomes necessary. They’ve done as good a job as I think is possible at this time.
- Battery Life: This goes along with the “does it do too much” point. I mentioned above that the battery life seems decent, and it does. However, with a device that does this much, I have a feeling that the 5 hours of use they claim will still feel a little short, especially when you’re using all that stuff. This is one of the reasons I never seriously considered getting a music/camera/phone a while back: I don’t want to run out my batteries playing music, then not be able to make an important call. This is a problem for mobile devices in general, and battery technology doesn’t seem to be advancing as rapidly as everything else.
- Monopoly: This phone will only further cement iTunes’ dominant position in the marketplace. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I go back and forth. Sometimes Apple seems every bit as evil as Microsoft, but then, they also seem a lot more competant too. The Zune looks decent, but it’s completely overshadowed by this. We could have a worse monopoly, I guess, but I don’t like stuff like DRM (which is reasonable, yes, but still not desirable except insofar as it calms down content owners) and proprietary formats that Apple won’t license. Will third parties be able to develop apps for the iPhone? It could certainly be worse, but I’m a little wary.
All in all, it’s quite impressive. Most of the potential issues don’t seem insurmountable, and I think Apple has a hit on their hands. It should also be interesting to see if other cell phone makers respond in any way. The cell phone market is gigantic (apparently nearly a billion cell phones were sold last year), and it seems like a lot of the best phones are only available overseas. Will we start to see better phones at a cheaper price? Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be getting an iPhone anytime soon, though I will keep a close eye on it. Once they work out the bugs and the price comes down, I’ll definitely be tempted.
Updates: Brian Tiemann has further thoughts. Kevin Murphy has some thoughts as well. Ars Technica also notes some issues with the iPhone, and has some other good commentary (actually, just read their Infiinite Loop journal). I think the biggest issue I forgot to mention is that the iPhone is exclusive to Cingular (and you have to get a 2 year plan at that).