The High-Tech Texan Blog

Sunday, July 01, 2007

iFun - What it lacks makes you laugh

Where do I start? There has already been so many iPhone reviews within the first 24 hours after its release there really is no use for me to go through the descriptions of what it does, how simple it is to use, how sleek the graphics look and justifications why I spent $600 (plus a $30 case) to get one.

I’m an early adopter. It’s my job and sometimes that can be costly, literally. I forgot what I paid for the Apple Newton when it first came out in 1993 but – for me - I’m sure it was relatively more expensive than the iPhone. My Newton is still sitting in its original box in my attic now. I gave up trying to figure it out after a week.

Fast forward to 2002 when the Segway went on sale and I was the first person to get one from the Houston dealership. It’s now standing in my garage constantly charging on the chance that I feel like gliding to my mailbox. That’s about as far as I’ll go on it as its lack of an air conditioner kills my yearning of riding it to the office or even around the block.

The marketing folks at Segway did have a cool nickname for their “game changing” transportation device. The Smile Machine. Every person who tooled around on it would break out into a large smile or laugh uncontrollably. Plain and simple it was fun (albeit there were cheaper ways to smile than spending $5,000).

The Smile Phone

That’s what the iPhone is. A Smile Machine, or perhaps a Smile Device. In the short time that I have had mine, all my friends who have seen it start smiling. They laugh, they say “wow” and “I really want of these” and they hoard it until I grab it back. But does making users smile make the gadget a winner? Only time will tell (Ok, sales will also).

But to be very sure, this is a game changer. It will make people rethink of what they want in a cell phone and how they interact with it. From the way it is activated at home on your personal computer to the touchscreen controls, this raises the bar on what a portable gadget should do and the interface of how we use it.

The iPhone is a product of many things. Yes, Apple designs everything to be simple, elegant and user-friendly. And Apple’s marketing department no doubt played an important role in what it can initially do so they can soon release the next versions with more features and storage capacity.

So why is this so different than cell phone we have seen? Because Apple and AT&T are telling us that it is a cell phone that - oh by the way - plays music and videos, surfs the Internet and takes photos.

In fact it’s just the opposite.

This is an iPod. It’s plays songs and has a video screen like the current video iPod. This manages your contacts and keeps your calendar just like iPods of the past. The touchscreen interactivity and sharp graphics are the big upgrade this time around. And – oh by the way – they added a SIM card to allow for wireless connectivity.

Hello phone and web.

We’ve seen combo PDA/cell phone/camera/music players before. As far back as 2004 when HP's iPaq h6315 Pocket PC hit the market. HP took its signature PDA and worked with T-Mobile to add GSM/GPRS connectivity for calls. That can’t be compared to the iPhone but it is certainly in the genealogy roots of Apple’s new device.

Marketing To The Masses

So why all the hype if we’ve seen something like this before? Because Apple in its sheer genius decided to tell us it is first a cell phone. And we all know that cell phones are the one device that is a necessity from kids to business people to grandparents. iPods and PDAs are great but many people still live without them. But if Apple could create a totally new user experience with something most all of us already have, then we must rush out and get a new one.

Apple has released many versions of the iPod and by my count not once did people camp out in front of stores several days before it went on sale. But if Steve Jobs & Co. said it was something other than a music and video player and focused on a feature that the world is addicted to like talking on a wireless phone, then by God people will go crazy for this.

And it worked. Apple told us and showed us in tiny bits that this cell phone looks and works different from anything we have ever seen. And they didn’t tell us much more. The media bought it (included yours truly) and continued to fuel the frenzy leading up to June 29, 2007, which will live on in product launch lore as iDay.

Less Is More

So let me type about the cell phone features first. The features I found unique in the iPhone are things that actually were not there.

I’ve opened dozens of cell phone boxes and the first thing I pull out is a thick instruction booklet; sometimes two. And a Get Started Quick guide. But not here. The only paper in the box was a thin booklet with color photos called “Finger Tips” that feature a whopping three whole steps: Download iTunes to your computer, Connect the iPhone to your computer, and Follow the onscreen instructions to activate.

Maybe Jobs should be put in charge of finding Bin Laden.

If you want more instructions on how to operate your newest family member (and you will) just watch the online videos or download the manual. I can only imagine how much they saved in printing costs.

Buttons. One. Physical keypad/keyboard. None. You would think this could be the first cell phone ever with it minimal hardware features. But it’s all in the software, baby.

The glass screen is a good call as plastic would be more susceptible to scratches. It also allows for incredible clarity that I can compare to an HD flat screen TV. And its that screen that feels your touch while taking your commands. A quick swipe of the glass scrolls through your contacts, music albums, photos and everything in a list.

Since there is no keypad to dial numbers, touching a virtual keypad does the trick. It’s easy enough to use as the “keys” are big enough to touch without clicking the wrong number. Entering letters on an iPhone is a bit tougher. A full QWERTY keyboard appears while in email, SMS, contacts, calendar and other applications. But since the 3.5” inch screen can only squeeze in so much, my fingers seemed to inadvertently touched letters they weren’t supposed to.

I assume I will become a better iPhone typist but it has some fuzzy logic that can predict what you meant to type. Still I can’t imagine entering information as fast as I can on a Blackberry or other device with physical keys that provide feedback to my touch.

HIT AND MISS

If I have to choose the one best and one worst features on the device I can start and end here. By far the most revolutionary addition to the cell phone is the visual voicemail. This is where every other phone manufacturer should start when designing their next models (are you listening Motorola, LG and Nokia?).

No more dialing your voicemail, listening to prompts, entering passwords then listening to old messages before getting to the new ones. On the iPhone just touch the Voicemail virtual button and up pops a screen with the names or phone numbers of people who left voicemails. Just touch any one of them, in any order and it starts playing. No dialing, no waiting. That is killer.

The biggest thing it lacks for me is probably one of the lowest technological features that can be found on a phone – a small LED light that flashes to let you know you have a voicemail or missed call. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t carry my PDA with me 24/7. When not carrying my phone I generally leave it on the kitchen counter to charge.

To see if I missed a call on every other cell phone I have owned I would simply glance at the phone to see if a red light is flashing. The iPhone, with its minimal external features, has no light to alert you of missed calls or waiting emails. You have to push the Home button to wake it up and look at the application buttons for small red icons. This is not a deal killer but still something that should be addressed in future versions.

I will give props to features like WiFi which is rarely found on other cell-based devices like the Blackberry, Palm Treo, Motorola Q and Samsung Blackjack. The iPhone can automatically find and connect to wireless hotspots (both 802.11 b and g) which makes for faster surfing than the AT&T wireless connection. It would be nice to be able to use VoIP when connected via WiFi but that is something AT&T probably won’t allow.

Love the Google Map application but GPS would be nice (version 2, I suspect). The camera is decent but no zoom? No video? (Ok, we’ll wait for version 2). Maybe one day it will have stereo Bluetooth support and 3G compatibility.

C’mon, even Bill Gates doesn’t get everything right in version 1 (I do feel sorry for his first-born).

WHY GET ONE?

I plunked down $600+ because I needed to see for myself if this device would live up to be the revolutionary gadget everyone claimed it to be. This actually is the very first cell phone I have bought in over 10 years as I get demo phones from wireless companies for review purposes. I think the $600 evens out all of the money I saved from the past 10 years of not buying cell phones.

Early adopters will have no trouble buying this and every subsequent version that is released. In fact if you want to be part of the hot social scene then go get one now.

But if you’re happy with your current phone, the one that flips open and dials numbers, keep it. If you’re happy with your Blackberry or other PDA that helps manage your schedule and contacts and also makes calls, there is no major reason to upgrade.

If you love your iPod because it easily plays your favorite songs or lets you watch movies and TV shows, hang on to it for a while as it probably holds more data than the iPhone (8GB is the current max).

The iPhone version 1.0 is gorgeous. It sets a new standard for many different devices and companies are already planning a game of catch up. And future iPhones will only get better, sleeker and, we hope, cheaper.

There are a lot of folks out there laughing at people like me for plunking down a nice chunk of change on “just a cell phone.”

But I’m smiling.

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4 Comments:

  • Just ran across your blog someone sent me. I was a consultant on the product dev and marketing team. Interfacing between Apple here in Cupertino and Chiat/Day.

    You have the first viewpoint I have read that actually comes pretty close to the internal thought process.

    By Anonymous J.M. Calif, at 9:45 PM  

  • Only time will prove this to be a useful tool or a neat toy. Many companies that I provide support for have several applications that work well with BlackBerry and BlackBerry Enterprise Server. I do not think that Apple will have as much success getting corporate America to start recoding or porting over these applications to work with a glorified mp3 player. I like the interface and have fun with the web browser, but it has a long way to go before it can replace BlackBerry and/or PDAs running Windows Mobile. I look forward to seeing the next version though as I think they will make several improvements. I would like to se it get a larger drive, after all IPOD is up to 80 gig.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:36 PM  

  • I really enjoyed reading your user review on the iPhone -- quite honestly, the best piece of information I've read or heard about regarding this device. Seriously. You should be writing a regular column for the Houston Chronicle on consumer technology.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:00 PM  

  • Maybe Jobs should be put in charge of finding Bin Laden.

    I think that item is on his iPhone to do list.

    By Blogger Thomas Johnson, at 12:57 AM  

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