22
Jul
07

Review: Two Weeks With An iPhone

The iPhone has these nice, big, easy-to-hit buttons that make me smile every time Iiphoneicon think of what I went through on my Windows Mobile devices. Windows Mobile 5 or Windows Mobile 2003, both have such tiny onscreen buttons that you are a slave of the stylus. Dialing, Web navigation, waking the device up, you not only have human-sized controls, but you have human-usable feedback.

 

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For example, typing. I’ve done it on Treos, the XV-6700, the PPC-6601, and now, an iPhone. I’ve run the gamut of keyboard types, and considering I was never an avid thumb-typist, I find the iPhone not just easier to type on than everything other than the 6700, but it has such good feedback and a great autocorrect, that I find myself typing on it far more than I have ever typed on a phone. It makes password entry far more reliable, because I know what key I’ve pressed, thanks to that feedback. While the 6700 was marginally better than the others here thanks to the bigger keys, on the 6601 or the Treos? “Torturous” would be how I describe password entry.

I rate the iPhone over the 6700 here, because I find the way you deal with numbers on the iPhone simpler, and more elegant than on Windows Mobile because I don’t have to do the “fn key – number, fn – key special character” dance, or use the incredibly tiny onscreen keyboard. Neither of those are great for passwords, because it’s hard to tell if you entered a number or not.

Keys In Motion

The iPhone’s keyboard isn’t something that I’d want to type long-form articles on, but the feedback it gives you makes entering passwords far easier, and in my world, that’s important. The adaptive nature of the autocorrect helps a lot, too, especially with things like names and technical terms. If I had to give advice to those still having trouble with the iPhone keyboard, it would be: don’t over-think it. Trust the keyboard and your fingers, and you’ll find that it gets a lot easier in a hurry. If you try to compensate for the lack of physical keys, you’re going to be more annoyed than you have to be.

When it comes to both browsing and e-mail, the iPhone wins hands down. (Especially when it comes to Web browsing.) In comparison, Pocket Internet Explorer on Windows Mobile 5 and 2003 devices isn’t “limited,” it’s crippled. I avoided it like the plague, because I never knew what I’d see. The best was when it would get done rendering a page, then tell me the page could not be found. That thing that ships with Treos shouldn’t even be called a browser.

Safari on the iPhone works, well, like Safari. It’s not perfect on every site, but it is better than all of the competition by a landslide. The multi-touch gestures take no time to become a natural way to zoom in and out, and the text rendering on the iPhone is just glorious. There’s also a lot of little touches, my favorite being how the iPhone deals with dropdown lists.

When you select one, you get a “barrel” that has all the choices in the list. To get to the one you want, you use the scrolling “flick” to spin the barrel until you get to your desired choice, then you select it and go. It’s hard to describe here, but when you see it, it makes so much sense for dealing with long lists on a small screen. It’s certainly better than dealing with scroll bars and thumbs on a tiny screen à la Pocket IE.

As far as the lack of Flash goes, well, thus far, it means I can’t order Elbow Chocolates online on my iPhone. Then again, I couldn’t do that on any other smartphone I’ve had, so that’s hardly a loss. If you really require Flash on your phone, well, you’re kind of hosed anyway, as it’s not exactly ubiquitous, and if you do have one of the few smartphones that also has full Flash support, I’m not seeing the browser environments there being particularly kind, especially with the low amounts of memory available for such things on those. I have yet to even notice a Java site issue yet, but then again, 90% of my Java usage is with the Web pages on older HP printers, and really, that was hardly a joy to use. Your Flash/Java needs may be different, and if those are a hard requirement, again, the iPhone is not for you.

E-mail on the iPhone is the best phone e-mail I’ve ever used. It’s certainly the most functional. On both Windows Mobile 5 and Windows Mobile 2003, I could never get Pocket Outlook to send mail from any IMAP accounts I use. Enabling SMTP AUTH, disabling it, SSL, no SSL, it simply wouldn’t send e-mail, and after a while, I just gave up. There’s a limit as to how much troubleshooting I’m going to do for something that wasn’t particularly nice to use anyway. Checking multiple accounts on my Windows Mobile devices was tedious, as I could only get one account to reliably check on a schedule. The other accounts I had to manually check. Reading HTML e-mail? Forget it, not happening — you get the plain text version.

Even though I’m a Microsoft Entourage user, the iPhone sync is still dead simple. I just tell Entourage to use Sync Services, and any changes I make to events or contacts in Entourage get replicated to my iPhone, (along with Address Book and iCal) thanks to Sync Services. So as long as your contact/event applications work correctly with Sync Services, you can use them with the iPhone, no problem.

There are some other items that people have made much of in the “the iPhone doesn’t have it” department that I either never understood, or missed. As you’ve seen from the commercials, the iPhone, in addition to having no physical keyboard, doesn’t have a lot of physical buttons. Well, having had two Windows Mobile phones that had all kinds of hard buttons for things, honestly, it’s good riddance. I was forever hitting the camera button or the IE button every time I took the thing out of it’s case or my pocket. I always ended up setting those buttons to do nothing, because I got tired of being paranoid as to what I might hit if I grabbed the phone wrong.

Another issue I’ve seen raised is the lack of SD I/O cards. The argument here goes that expandable memory means you have, effectively, unlimited storage. Now, anyone with an SD I/O card, take it out and look at it. It’s small. It’s not got a lot of label space. Now, imagine having four or five, which you have to bring with you regularly. Not losing them, and figuring out what is on them without searching/browsing? Not that simple. I’m sure that, somewhere, there’s someone with a portfolio of SD I/O cards with accompanying 3-by-5 cards that contain detailed indices of the contents of each card.

Turn Down The Brightness

However, at that point, I think any theoretical advantages of unlimited storage are overridden by the practical considerations. In simpler terms, who does this? Every SD I/O card user I’ve ever known, seen, or just heard of has one card that they use in their phone. If they get a new one, it’s because they need more space, and they then stop using the old one. It’s trying to make SD I/O cards into some bizarre “über-floppy,” and that fails, because at least floppies had space for you to put some kind of label on them.

There’s the lack of a replaceable battery. While having to send the whole unit back to Apple for a dead battery is annoying, that’s only what I’d call a problem if the battery were unusable for some reason. In practical use, the only time you really care about extra batteries is if your battery is unable to get you through the day. Thus far, once I dropped the screen brightness a bit, my battery life has been able to handle whatever use I need, and I get through my day just fine.

Sure, other devices, like the Motorola Q, need additional batteries, but that’s because the batteries they ship with are so unable to handle the needs of the person using it that they have to be able to easily swap batteries. A need created by poor specification and design is not a feature to be emulated. Unless Apple shipped a bad batch of batteries, this issue is a tempest in a teapot.

Greasy Fingers

Finally, what must be the silliest issue of all: The iPhone will be hard to clean if you have greasy fingers and type on it. Somehow, grease, BBQ sauce, etc., is no problem for mechanical keyboards where you can get all kinds of crud under the keys (some kind of magic spell protects them, I suppose), yet will render the iPhone unusable. Obviously, the idea of cleaning one’s hands when they are coated in grease or sauce isn’t an option here. However, silliness aside, keeping an iPhone clean is as easy as breathing on it a few times, then wiping it on a pants leg, shirt, skirt, what have you. In other words, if this is the best objection someone can come up with to the iPhone, they’re kind of desperate.

No, the iPhone doesn’t make you taller, stronger, better looking, or able to fly. It’s not the perfect device for every human being on the planet, nor is it perfect for every situation. In fact, it’s not perfect at all. However, it is the best phone I’ve used, or even played with, and with the sole exception of Exchange/Domino-style connectivity, it is the best smartphone I’ve ever used. I’ve been using it heavily since it came out, and it’s done everything it’s supposed to do better than anything else I can think of. It’s not the cheapest smartphone I’ve ever had, but it is, by far, the best value in a smartphone I’ve ever had, and I’ll take value over low price any day. Well worth every penny.

First, you can’t just walk up to any computer with a USB port, plug in the iPhone and suck data. You have to install the application on every computer you want to copy data from, and install it on a destination computer. Secondly, you have to have the rights to connect writeable USB devices to that computer. Even basic experience with user privilege settings, GPOs, and MCX policies lets you prevent either of those from happening on either Windows or Mac OS X. Simply following best practices will keep users from installing random software, and hooking up random portable storage devices to the computers on your network. Anyone thinking this hasn’t been something to deal with until the iPhone is at best ignorant of a string of problems involving far cheaper USB flash drives, or in deep denial.

As far as remote access to data via EDGE or wireless, I’ll just say, Good luck with that. Right now, the only way to wirelessly get data on or off an iPhone is via e-mail. Considering most attachment size policies, you aren’t getting a ton of data off your company’s network via e-mail. But again, keeping random wireless devices from your network or your e-mail servers isn’t rocket science; in fact, it’s not even particularly tedious. If your network is properly configured, this is not a Godzilla-level problem.

One security issue that has been raised, and is legitimate, is the inability to remotely erase e-mail data from the iPhone. I know at my company, this is a requirement for us to allow you to get e-mail, etc., on your phone, and we’re not alone. If you’re using e-mail the way, well, everyone is, your company is probably sending sensitive info out on it, and a remote-erase feature for phones that connect to company e-mail servers is neither a minor, nor a luxury, item. If you have a need for that functionality, again, don’t get an iPhone, and don’t let them connect to your corporate e-mail systems.

If it sounds like I’m saying “Don’t get an iPhone if it’s not going to meet your needs,” well, I am. While I’m more than pleased with mine, if I had to sync my personal cell with my Exchange server, and carrying two devices was far more onerous than it is, I’d not own one. It’s not for everyone, and if you’re in that group, don’t get one. “Cool” doesn’t override “not functional for your needs.” Ever.

However, both remote management and Exchange/Domino connectivity bring me to my next point:

iPhone Application Development

This is one that has created a kerfuffle of Megatronian proportions, and while I know why, I’m still somewhat surprised at the vehemence. First, as I stated earlier, I have a solid bit of experience with both Windows Mobile and Palm smartphones. Both of those have essentially unlimited access for third-party developers, and while this is nice for those who want more toys/functionality, from a support POV, to be blunt, it stinks. Remember, at heart these devices aren’t Internet terminals, nor PDAs — they are phones. And yet, I’ve seen third-party applications, from both major (Quicken & AOL) and minor (Ilium Software) turn these phones into bricks. I watched a version of Pocket Quicken put a Treo into a never-ending soft-reboot loop. I’ve experienced how Ilium’s NewsBreak can screw a Windows Mobile device straight into the ground to where only a soft reset will allow the silly thing to send or receive calls, because NewsBreak had locked up the radio so bad that you no longer had a phone. Talk about an “iBrick.”

There are a few reasons for these kinds of problems, the biggest probably being the astoundingly small memory space you have on Windows Mobile and Palm devices for running applications and the OS. For example, my work phone is a Verizon XV-6700. It has a 128-Mbyte Flash ROM and 64-Mbytes of SDRAM. I don’t have a SD card in it, but the only third-party application on it is GoodLink. So, for every single function on this device, from OS to application storage and run space to data storage, I have, out of the box, 172 Mbytes of possible storage. Of course, since most of that is ROM, I only have 64 Mbytes available for third-party application use or data storage.

With just GoodLink’s e-mail and calendaring running, I have exactly 8.84 Mbytes of storage space and 22.52 Mbytes of program space available. Now, were I to add a SD card, I would gain a lot of storage space, but my OS and application execution space would pretty much stay the same. It’s worse on the Palm side, since most of the time, all you can use memory cards for is picture and file storage. So all it takes is an application that’s a tad careless with resource use, and your nice smartphone at best requires a reboot, at worst, a hard reset. It’s not just smartphones — I have friends with first-generation Razrs who swear at the AIM client, because it reboots their phone with astounding ease.

Having owned my iPhone since about 20 minutes after they went on sale June 29, I’m comfortable in saying that, while the iPhone isn’t perfect, and has some real flaws, it’s nevertheless the best-designed, most pleasurable to use device I’ve ever owned.

Keep in mind that I’m no newbie, having used smartphones since 2001. Along the way, I’ve owned a Sprint Kyocera 6035 smartphone, an Audiovox PPC-6601 Pocket PC phone, also from Sprint; and two Verizon XV-6700 smartphones. I also support four models of Palm Treo, the aforementioned 6700, and the Motorola Q Windows Mobile 5.0 smartphone, all in an Exchange/GoodLink environment. So I’m hardly new to the joys of either smartphones or corporate uses thereof.

In reflecting on my two weeks with the iPhone, my objective is to move beyond nattering about its specs or complaining about what it doesn’t do, and shed some serious light on security issues, corporate e-mail syncing, iPhone application development, and a bunch of other areas of interest to serious users, both corporate and otherwise.

Syncing With Microsoft Exchange

I wanted to deal with this first, because it’s about a third of the noise in the iPhone signal. Right now, without third-party products such as Synchronica’s Mobile Gateway, you can’t connect to Exchange, (or Domino/GroupWise) via any method other than standard e-mail protocols. Even with a product like Mobile Gateway, you only get e-mail sync due to limitations in the iPhone. If you need full-on Exchange/Domino access à la GoodLink/Exchange ActiveSync, if that is a hard requirement for you, and you don’t want to carry two cell phones? Don’t get the iPhone for now, you’ll not be happy with it. There’s no sense in getting something that can’t perform a critical function.

Having said that, this is only an issue for people who need Exchange/Domino-type functionality. I know what I’m about to say will give a lot of pundits the vapors, but here goes: Not every company uses Exchange/Domino. In fact, in the SMB and higher ed markets, a lot of people don’t use Exchange, and don’t particularly care about it. If you don’t use an Exchange/Domino-type solution, if IMAP and iCal are fine for you, then the iPhone is an outstanding option.

The truth is, until Mac OS X Leopard is released, I doubt that there will be any options for over the air (OTA) sync of anything other than e-mail. Currently, Apple doesn’t have a calendaring solution. They don’t have a really good way to deal with networked user contact databases. Since there’s no provision for OTA sync of contacts and events to any kind of server, third-party support for this is, shall we say, tricky.

However, come October and the release of Leopard Server, that changes. Apple will have a calendaring/group contact solution. I’ll give you 80% odds right now that within a few weeks, if not days of the release of Leopard, you’re going to see an update to the iPhone which will allow for OTA sync to CalDAV servers, and probably some OTA LDAP love, too. After all, why would Apple keep the iPhone from connecting to its own products? I quote from the Chewbacca Defense: “It does not make sense.”

Once you have published ways to get contact and event data in and out of the iPhone over the air, then dealing with Exchange/Domino-style connectivity becomes far simpler, as you only have to make your server act in a way that’s compatible with the iPhone. So I’ll hazard that, post-Leopard, iPhone connectivity will get a lot easier.

Not A Big Security Risk

Leaving aside specific vulnerabilities in the iPhone itself (Yes, I agree that a hardcoded root password is, on the surface, a bad idea. However, an iPhone is an embedded device, not a general-purpose computer. There are some different rules in that arena, and the iPhone is hardly the first such device. I worked on a few Siemens Saturn phone switches that had the same issue. It’s not what I’d call a great idea, but neither is it the end of the world. With any luck, this is fixable via a firmware update, and I’d like to see one soon if there is. But face it, as security risks go, an iPhone is far less of one on its worst day than any brand of laptop you care to mention on its best, and that includes Apple’s.), the next big noise factor is security.

If you listen to some pundits, you’d think that every iPhone was vacuuming data off your network as fast as it gets on. This is highly overblown. The iPhone is not a flash drive. Even with software like Ecamm Network’s iPhoneDrive, the iPhone still isn’t a flash drive. Assuming that there’s going to be a Windows version of iPhoneDrive (currently it’s Mac-only) within a short time, it still doesn’t make the iPhone a flash drive.

On the iPhone, it all just works. The setup is simple, it sends e-mail from every account, and it checks all of them. It renders HTML e-mail correctly. While it doesn’t have a spam filter itself, that’s not a problem for me since all my e-mail providers other than .Mac use Aliph Jawbone. Whatever they do, test the silly thing in the wind next to a highway overpass.

However, neither of those, while bugs, are deal killers. The basics of using the iPhone, i.e., making and receiving calls, just work. Nice big buttons to dial with, unlike the 6700, whose on-screen keyboard is impossible to use without the stylus or very small fingers. Using the address book is simple and clear, (although this should migrate to the main page at some point. I use my address book for a lot more than just making calls), and setting up favorites is easy.

The list for picking a contact would seem to have a huge flaw in that the letter column on the right side is really small, but in practice, I’ve found that errors are minimal. The amount of information available for each contact is huge, and I’ve yet to run into a contact that had too much information. (Including my own, which has far too many phone numbers and e-mail addresses for my own good.)

The visual voicemail is something that made me realize just how bad voicemail was until now, and just how accommodating we’ve become of truly wretched UIs, even on phones that had the ability to do voicemail just as well as the iPhone. It’s brilliant, is what it is. No more sequential access of saved messages, or remembering various codes and button pushes. See the list of voicemail? Play the one you want, return the call you want, delete, whatever. It’s such an obvious idea, yet somehow, not even the giants like Nokia and Motorola were able to push the idea. They just plodded along with the same old stuff. This is one feature that has become a requirement on an cell phone I get in the future.

As I said earlier, call quality is top-notch. I’ve no problems with talking or hearing calls on the iPhone, and after almost six years of working on jet bombers in the USAF, my hearing isn’t exactly what you would call “dolphin-like.” The truth is, 90% of the problems I have with the phone functionality are either out of the iPhone’s control (holes in AT&T’s coverage), or due to the earbud microphone. Those two annoyances notwithstanding, the iPhone is just an excellent phone.

Synchronization

Over the years, I’ve used a lot of synchronization methods with my Mac. Palm conduits, Missing Sync, iSync, you name it. They’ve all basically worked, yet there was always something that I had to watch out for, or some data that never round-tripped well. With the iPhone, it just works. Contact data is not only preserved when going to the iPhone, but coming back as well, so I don’t have to fear creating data on the iPhone. The same with events, photos, etc. Since I have more songs in iTunes than I have space on the iPhone, I just created a couple of iPhone playlists, and have it just synchronize those. Painless and fairly effortless, other than adding/removing songs to the playlists.

If I need to overwrite the phone information for contacts, events, or what have you, it’s not a problem. Click the appropriate checkbox and hit the sync button. Photos sync painlessly, too, and that’s all managed from within iPhoto. This is the first phone I’ve ever synced to my Mac that is what I would call “Worry Free,” and it’s something I’ve wanted for a long time.

The point is, unlimited third-party development on an embedded device with stringent operational requirements is not the magic spell of good and light that people think it is. That’s not to say that I don’t think Apple should release a “proper” SDK for the iPhone, just that I’d rather they take their time and create one that, above all else, does no harm. It’s an iPhone — I expect that part to never be troubled by anything other than carrier signal.

But there’s another possible reason as to why Apple didn’t release an SDK at the iPhone release: The version of OS X the iPhone is running. I’m going to make an educated guess, based on the way the iPhone does certain things, and how the iPhone’s launch delayed Leopard, and say that the version of OS X that the iPhone is running is not, in fact, an embedded version of Mac OS X 10.4, but an embedded version of Leopard.

This is speculation, but I’m pretty happy with the reasoning behind it. If this is the case, then it would be quite difficult to release an SDK that allowed you to build features that don’t run on the current OS release. Apple could build a “simulator,” but unless that simulator included the full iPhone OS, it wouldn’t be something you’d want to trust. True, Apple could have released an SDK at the recent WWDC, but then you’d have a (probably) beta SDK that used beta developer tools running on a beta OS release that targets a device with a tiny margin for error. This is not a recipe for reliability.

So I do think we’ll see a “real” SDK, but it won’t be until after the release of Leopard, at the earliest.

Activating Your iPhone

I was one of the people who waited in line to get an iPhone on June 29, although I only showed up about 3:30pm or so. Unless it’s Led Zeppelin reunion tickets, I’m not camping out for anything! The staff at the AT&T store in Kansas City was easy to deal with, didn’t push accessories, and my total time in store was about 10 minutes.

My full activation took just over 24 hours. However, I knew at the start that it’d be a complex process. I’ve had exactly one personal cell phone number in my life. I’ve moved four or five times since I bought my first cell phone, but that number has stayed the same.

I first got that number in Massachusetts as a Sprint customer. So, porting it over to an AT&T account in Kansas City, Mo., wasn’t going to be as easy as it should be. Not from a technical point of view, mind you. It’s just one of those Byzantine marketing things that every cell carrier inflicts upon us. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, they’re all equally annoying.

However, I have to say that every person, (whether over the phone, or in an AT&T store) I dealt with in my quest for my number was courteous, professional, and really went out of their way to make it work for me. This especially includes the staff at the AT&T store where I bought my phone who sat there, for an hour past closing, and wheeled, dealed, shucked, and jived until they were able to turn to me and say “You have your Massachusetts number, just reactivate it through iTunes, and pick the option to use a current AT&T number. It should be ready to go in three minutes.” It took me 10 minutes to get home, and 20 minutes after I plugged it into my laptop, I had my number. I am aware that my experience is not indicative of the entire country, but I have to say that I am as happy as possible with my dealings with AT&T thus far.

Inside And Outside

There’s an old saying: The devil is in the details. Well, with few exceptions, Apple took care of that particular devil better than any phone I’ve ever used or supported. I am not even slightly exaggerating when I say that the iPhone is the nicest cell phone from a design and use POV that I have ever had.

Take how you turn off the iPhone’s ringer. On all my Windows Mobile devices, this is a multistep process. Wake up the phone, get past the splash screen, and hit the physical volume button until it was on vibrate. On the Palms, it’s a simpler process, but on the iPhone, you don’t even have to look. Just hit the mute switch located on top of the volume rocker, and you’re in silent mode. It buzzes a bit to let you know that you’re in vibrate mode. Do the opposite to re-enable the ringer. Dead simple.

That’s what almost everything about the iPhone has been. It’s dead simple to use. It is the first smartphone I’ve had since my Kyocera where I had on-screen buttons big enough to use with my orangutan paws. All the buttons, not just a selected set.

Via Yahoo


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