What is iPhone?

So a very odd keynote at Macworld yesterday. There was nothing said about Macintosh related products at all, which surprised everyone, and probably annoyed a number of people. Clearly Steve Jobs wanted to send a very direct message about the future of Apple.

As I said before, I wasn’t really that excited about the idea of an iPhone, because I didn’t (and don’t) consider a cross between and iPod and a telephone to be very interesting. I think that how you react to iPhone depends on how you view it. Even though it is a converged device, I think that people still view it through a primary modality: widescreen/video iPod, telephone, or internet device.

As an iPod, there are cool features: the touch screen based interface, the quality and resolution of the display, CoverFlow, the ability to play video. But there also drawbacks, the biggest being the amount of storage being offered.

Most of the coverage that I have read emphasizes the telephone aspects of iPhone. The iPhone UI works the way that I would like a phone to work. The interface for call management, putting people on hold, the ability to use e-mail and the web browser while on a call, and the visual voicemail feature, are the kinds of features that any mobile telephone ought to have, and just about every other phone UI is clunky in comparison. I know that the Series 60 in my Nokia 6600 does. The ability to seamlessly switch between the Wifi network and the cellphone network is also a big plus, although we didn’t see that in action. Perhaps we’ll see this capability in a future Macintosh as well.

There are a lot of issues around the telephone features. Many people will be unhappy with iPhone being locked to Cingular, although the choice of GSM means that the only additional options in the US would be T-Mobile. Part of this is due to the collaboration between Apple and Cingular on visual voicemail, which is one of phone features that appeals to me the most, since I hate voice mail interfaces with a passion. There’s also a big question around the pricing of data plans, but more on that shortly. As a phone device, there are some scary features. Battery life is a short if you look at being able to fully use that converged device throughout the course of an 8-12 hour day. The battery is not replaceable, which seems to ignore the physics/chemistry of battery wear. As a phone, I think that there are some questions about single handed use, although I think the use case is more for texting than for one handed use while driving (scary). The durability of the screen is also an issue since the interface is completely dependent on the screen.

I personally view the iPhone as an Internet access device. This is the functionality that interests me the most, since it is the functionality that I wish for the most when I am untethered.

The promise of having Safari on a phone and being able to run AJAX apps on that form factor is very appealing, and I was very excited about this until I watched the keynote video. In the video, Google Maps is a separate application from Safari. It’s possible that this is a widget style application, which would be okay, but not great. So from what I’ve seen so far, the jury is out on whether we can really do AJAX on iPhone, which I think is important. Also, there doesn’t appear to be a GPS in the iPhone, which is curious given the promotion of Google Maps. I’m sure there must be some hardware related limitation here, but location information is pretty important to mobile applications.

I also liked what I saw of the mail client, especially support for IMAP, since I do a lot of e-mail. The touchscreen isn’t a real keyboard, but I think it’s a step up from a phone keypad.

Steve demo’ed an iChat like interface to SMS, which is definitely and improvement in my mind. It doesn’t look like iChat was present on the phone, and that’s something that I’d like to see. SMS is cool, but in the US, they charge for those messages, and if you want to have things like twitterbot, you’ll go broke inside of a week.

Many people have pointed out the 2G/3G issues and the uncertainty around Cingular’s data plan pricing. Lack of 3G is definitely disappointing. iPhone would be awesome at EVDO speeds, but it doesn’t look like we are going to get that. My 6600 is on GPRS, and the the speed is definitely an issue. You might have Safari, but if the pipe is slow, that’s not much help. You also want unlimited bandwidth usage, so Cingular’s data pricing is going to influence the success of the iPhone, and I can only hope that Steve Jobs managed to work some deal for iPhone subscribers.

The last and perhaps biggest problem is the third party applications issue. Right now it appears that 3rd party applications will not be allowed on iPhone. All the reports that I’ve read say that users won’t be able to install applications. I’ve had a few conversations in person that suggest that this may not be a permanent situation, but until it changes, this is a problem. Couple this with uncertainty about AJAX support in the iPhone Safari, and things start to look a bit less cool.

I was pretty excited about the iPhone. When I was at Apple and the disposition of the Newton division was uncertain, there was a cell handset company that was interested in acquiring Newton, but it didn’t work out. I was really disappointed when that didn’t work out. The concept of the iPhone that we saw yesterday is what Newton should have become, but I think that there are still a few things that will hold the initial iPhone back. I think that all those issues will get fixed in time, but it’s frustrating to see that they weren’t addressed in the initial product.

I’ll end with some good iPhone links:
Engadget’s keynote reportage
David Pogue’s hands on time
Time’s coverage
Some perspectives from Europe
Updated: I incorrectly attributed the Microsoft Watch post to Mary Jo Foley – my apologies!
Microsoft Watch’s view

4 thoughts on “What is iPhone?

  1. Karl G

    I really wanted this thing to be open and low level hackable. I see mobile devices as the most interesting app development space, but the lack of a programmable widespread consumer oriented phone and poor pipes in the US limits the ability to create interesting applications that are conceptually different to those delivered on the desktop. I’m interested in exploring this design space.

    I was hoping to get a Gen1 for app development, but no SDK means that I can stick to my no-Gen1 rule for apple products.

    As far as input systems, i’m disappointed that their solution is a corrected querty. I was hoping for something more like the TenGO system or some use of multitouch (chording springs to mind but probably isn’t a good solution).

    As a js developer, I think it’ll take a while for phones to ramp up to enough processing power to handle DOM manipulation in a satisfying manner. The widgets use it in a relatively tame manner, but js on the wild and wooly web tends to be a good bit heavier.

    P.S. Your contrast is too low for that much text. I had to bump it up to #b0b0b0 to get it readable and I have good eyes.

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  3. luxuryluke

    Great post, Ted.
    I agree about the SDK, and it will be fascinating to see what happens with widgets, if at all?
    I’m just not anxious to sign on to Cingulars pricey data plans.
    I’ll def get it for the mp3, movie, photo, contact and everything else, non web-related.

    Thanks for the insights.

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