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The thoughts and theories of a guy who basically should have gone to bed hours ago.

I know, I know - what's the point? But look at it this way - I stayed up late writing it, but you're reading it...

Let's call ourselves even & move on, OK?


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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

ISBS Review: The Apple iPhone


So one of my colleagues at work went out and bought an iPhone, allowing me to spend a solid block of time with it in fully functional mode (as opposed to a store demo, which limits what you can try). For those who are interested, here are some of my thoughts:

First, this is a rock-solid device. Many of the "chic" cell phones out there look cool, but feel really flimsy, like if you pressed on them really hard, they'd bend or break. The iPhone feels solid in your hands. It feels like it's made of metal, not plastic. And while I didn't try to scratch the surface of my colleagues device, all of the reviews I've read put that down as super-durable as well, and I saw nothing to contradict that claim.

On to the functionality. First, I have to say that every new computer I've ever bought has filled me with a level of excitement, and that excitement tends to wane quickly as I start to use it. It may be shiny and new, but in the end, it's just a computer and it does basically what your old computer did, just faster and cooler. The iPhone was the same way. I was very excited to pick it up and play with it, but within fifteen minutes, I realized that it's still a cellphone. It does what most cellphones do, just faster and cooler.

The "pinch/spread" functionality for pictures and webpages lived up to its expectations. I suspect that as two-touch displays become commonplace, these movements will become a second nature as pointing and clicking. My only complaint was that the graphics grew/shrunk a little too quickly for my taste, making it difficult to achieve the size you want without making a few correcting movements. I'm guessing this is adjustable (much as a mouse's sensitivity is adjustable), but I didn't go looking for how to do it.

The asynchronous voicemail is another landmark change that will shortly become the de facto standard. My only comment on this is that as voicemail becomes more like e-mail, the habits around maintaining it will change as well. For instance, my colleague had 15-20 voicemails sitting in her voicemail box. With a typical phone, people tend to empty their voicemail box, or at least pare it down to the messages they need to keep. If they didn't, they'd have to punch in "next, next, next, next" to get through all the garbage before getting to the one they wanted. Now, with random access, there's little to no harm in leaving voicemails hanging around (just like e-mail).

In other news, the web browser was also very impressive. By far the best web browser I've ever seen on a handheld device. At just about any size, the text on the pages was readable, and the images were clear. When you resize a webpage, it employs the old "fuzzy and then gradually clear" technique that used to be the mainstay of web graphics in the dial-up days. Again, just one complaint: the preferred view for reading a webpage is "zoomed out," but the preferred view for interacting with it (e.g., clicking on buttons or links) is "zoomed in." So, in navigating to a few pages, I found myself zooming in to click on something, then zooming back out to view/read the page. After a while, even the super-cool "pinch/spread" thing started to wear thin. I'm not sure how I'd have solved this, but there it is...

The iPod functionality is basically the same. The only new thing is the "flippable album cover" view that appears when you turn the device sideways while in iPod mode. This view, to be honest, was disappointing. It looks very cool, but the album covers flow too freely from left to right, making landing on the album you want very difficult. Both of us tried to pick a specific album cover, and while we eventually got it, we both had to try more than once to get there. If I owned one of these devices, I think I'd always use it in good, old-fashioned portrait mode.

Oh, and speaking about the gyroscope functionality, here are some interesting points. First, it only works in a couple of instances (web browsing, iPod mode, and maybe e-mail - I didn't get a chance to try). Other places where you'd expect it, such as your picture library or some of your on screen widgets (e.g., YouTube), it is absent. Not a major complaint, but I throw it out there for your consumption.

Another interesting fact about the gyroscope: my natural position when holding the device is to hold it on about a forty-five degree angle to my body. If you do this and then rotate it into landscape mode, the image does not adjust. You need to stand it up closer to vertical (relevant to the ground), rotate it, and then tilt it back again to read. I'm sure I'd get used to its sensitivities in a day or so, but I did notice it the first time around.

Finally, the only thing I truly disliked about the iPhone: the on-screen keyboard. I've read reviews that say it's not so bad, but I have to strongly disagree. Typing on it, I missed roughly one of every two characters I tried to type. My (female) colleague, instinctively types with her fingernail, so she doesn't miss keys. At one point, she actually took the headphones out of the jack and typed with the headphone connector so she could move along more quickly. Again, maybe practice makes perfect, but I think they can definitely do better on this point.

So there are my thoughts. My cell phone is provided to me through my work and integrated with my work e-mail, so I'm limited to one of two RIM Blackberry devices. Unless I wanted a separate, personal cell phone, that puts me out of the market for an iPhone (that, plus the $1,200 it would cost in the first year). That said, I think the device will do well. Maybe not as well as everyone expects, but well enough that version 2.0, with several of the enhancements described above, will be an even bigger seller than this one.

Me thinks Apple is in the cell phone market to stay...

posted by Brian at 11:29 PM


2 Comments:

  • A few addenda:

    Double-tap on any web element in Safari, and it'll guess what you want to focus on and zoom that to full screen. Double-tap again to zoom in further, or zoom out. Had around 90% accuracy in my tests -- I was very impressed by how it managed to zoom on text and skip sidebars. Didn't use pinch/squeeze once.

    You're absolutely right about how random access will affect interaction with voicemail. And you can have it on any MP3-playing phone now by forwarding your voicemail to Google's GrandCentral.

    I think the iPhone is shinier and newer than you do -- the smooth animations are the best I've ever seen on a handheld computer, bar none. And with pushed software updates, it'll have its newness refreshed regularly (theoretically, anyway).

    Interesting observation about the 45-degree angle.

    I'm in partial agreement about the keyboard. Yes, I missed many keys using it, with my average-sized thumbs. However: Apple is right that if you trust the auto-correction, you don't need to backspace. And Pogue points out that a key in registered when you *depress*, not when you press, so you can slide your finger when you miss a key and get it right. This isn't intuitive, but it works great with practice. Agreed that "with practice" is suboptimal.

    Finally, the keyboard gyroscopes, but only in Safari. This is a brilliant idea to me -- entering a URL is the only place where autocorrect won't work (they're not English words, usually), so it's the only place where you need a wider and more accurate keyboard. Secondly, while entering a URL, it's acceptable for the UI to cover most of the screen as you don't need to see the web page.

    In conjunction with the correction features of the regular keyboard, I'm amazed at Apple's attention to fine detail. That being said, I expect that the sideways keyboard will be a user option shortly if people don't quickly catch on to the corrections.

    BTW, your colleague's use of the headphone jack is a BRILLIANT hack.

    By Anonymous Jeff Porten, at 11:37 AM, July 12, 2007  


  • Re: double-tap - yes, I did that too. My issue with the web browser was more about the need to zoom in to click, zoom out to view, etc., etc. I'm not sure what they could do about that (except make the phone bigger, but that'd be bad too). More of an observation than a criticism...

    Re: animations - completely agree. In fact, they struck me as very similar to the desktop/laptop Macs. Apple's got animation & graphics over everyone else, and have for quite some time now...

    Re: keyboard - actually, just about every touch-screen in the world these days works on depress, not press. Check it out next time your at an ATM or something. I remember being taught that technique in my Human Computer Interactions course at Penn in 1990.

    The problem here is the convention of "touch typing" with your thumbs (made standard by Blackberry, I think). When you're doing that, your fingers are tapping each letter, so touch and depress happen simultaneously. No one is sliding their thumbs around the screen to get the right letter.

    I tried the horizontal keyboard in Safari, and still had trouble getting the letters right. Granted, I only tried for a couple of minutes, but it was still tough.

    As a regular blackberry user, I think the problem they're dealing with here is that the tactile response of the keys helps people type much faster, especially when the keys are small. For that reason, I don't think most people will type as fast on an iPhone as they do on a blackberry.

    But that's probably OK - I know you can use it for e-mail & IM, but I don't see it catching on as the primary device for that sort of thing. And with web browsing, most navigation is done with favorites or links. Actually typing a URL into an address bar can usually be avoided...

    By Blogger Brian, at 11:07 PM, July 12, 2007  


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