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The Apple iPhone is a Holiday Delight (12/2007)
by Douglas Dixon
The Apple iPhone has been a tremendous success in revitalizing the smartphone concept (www.apple.com/iphone). The iPhone combines phone, PDA, and Web usage -- with the full iPod player experience (syncing content with iTunes), mobile phone, plus Wi-Fi wireless networking.
While dedicated devices like the Palm Treo are focused on hard-core organizer functionality -- large contact lists, fast e-mail access, one-handed operation -- the iPhone provides a much more integrated and pleasing experience. Even in its first release, the iPhone (and its companion iPod touch without the phone features) will make a very satisfying holiday acquisition, with the promise of future upgrades for hard-core organizer needs.
What really makes the iPhone special, however, is the delight you feel in using it. You can read plenty of rave reviews (and unbelievers) online, but the real test is when even techno-agnostic spouses (the kind that aren't so enthused by each new electronic gadget) actually enjoy using it -- happily browsing the Web and viewing and shooting photos as soon as they first get their hands on it.
iPod / iPhone line
As a media player, the iPhone has an impressive 3.5 inch widescreen touch display, at 480x320 resolution, with battery life rated at up to 24 hours for audio and up to 7 hours for video. And the design is attractive: The front of the iPhone is all display, with just one power/menu button, filling out the hand-held form factor at 4.5 x 2.4 x 0.46 inches, and 4.8 ounces. Plus, the price has dropped (complete with a rare Steve Jobs mea culpa) from the original $599 to $399 with 8 GB.
The iPhone interface has that Apple strength of design -- friendly and appealing, and also implemented in a way that is consistent and responsive. The iPhone is such a compelling jump forward from today's smartphones because of how all of the broad range of functions fit together so well, and work in similar ways. For example, when you tip the iPhone on its side for a wider view, most (but not all) the applications automatically switch from portrait to landscape orientation. Plus there's the cool gesture of pinching your fingers together which can be used to zoom in on websites, photos, maps, and in other contexts.
The user interface is smooth and delightful, with gentle animations that provide visual transitions from one activity to the next. When you shoot a picture, for example, you see a camera iris close and then reopen -- the animation confirms that you've taken the shot (and also cleverly masks the delay while the photo is shot and stored).
And the touch-screen interface is even better -- just flick your finger to scroll, faster or slower. As you scroll, a very subtle scroll bar appears along the side to give you some sense of the context (where you are relative to the full size of the document). Even better, the scrolling motion actually bounces at the end of document, as a physical indication that you've hit the end of the scroll region.
The downside of this interface design, however, also is its simplicity. There's no room to provide additional options that might be helpful for more advanced users, or even context about what you are looking at. For example, without scroll bars as part of the standard interface, you can't tell whether you are looking at an entire document / photo / Web page, or whether there is more information hidden off-screen.
The simplicity of the iPhone interface also collapses when you try to use it for serious business -- for example, using it as an organizer to store multiple thousands of contacts and calendar entries. The iPhone currently has no fast search capability, so that cool finger-flick to scroll becomes a lot less fun as you wade though thousands of entries.
Just be aware that the Apple iPhone, like the iPods before it, provide this delightful and consistent experience -- only as long as you are a follower of the Apple way, and don't want to stray into the temptations of alternate uses. Other smartphone products like the Palm Treo (www.palm.com/us/products/smartphones) and RIM Blackberry (www.blackberry.com) were designed for a wide range of uses (especially fast messaging with built-in keypads), and have other rather useful features such as expandable memory and video recording, plus the ability to add new applications to further customize them to your needs.
The Palm Treo, for example, has been refined and optimized for use as an organizer. Even better, it's designed to be fully usable one-handed -- a benefit of having dedicated keys. To call a contact, use your thumb to press to turn it on, bring up the contacts list, and then type the first few letters of the contact's name on the dedicated keyboard -- the Treo instantly displays matching entries, so you can press to start the call. In this way, you can make calls, check e-mail, and verify appointments all while walking down the street, and even display memos (i.e., with train departure times).
Palm Treo and Centro
But the Treo is not designed as a media player, nor optimized for Web access. Palm has been distracted for years by corporate churning, with divestitures and re-acquisitions, even losing and gaining back the company name. So users need to assemble their own collections of third-party software to provide some of these digital media functions that are built-in to the iPhone.
To use the iPhone as a media player, of course, you just synch it with Apple's iTunes software on any Mac or PC, like any other iPod -- including music, podcasts, photos, and video.
In comparison, the Treo is so undervalued as a media player that most consumer media applications do not even have presets for interfacing to it. Instead, while the Treo does come with Palm software for shooting and playing photos and videos, playback of other Web video formats requires using the Palm browser, and better video and photo support requires third-party applications. For music, the Treo includes the pTunes third-party application for basic audio playback, but requires a paid upgrade to support additional common formats. The result is clunky and haphazard, especially compared to the smooth and integrated experience on the iPhone.
For Internet use, the iPhone aims for the best of both communications worlds -- fast Wi-Fi connectivity when available, or otherwise falling back on the mobile network. But the current iPhone uses the relatively slow AT&T (Cingular) EDGE mobile data network, with average data speeds between 75 to 135 kbps (www.wireless.att.com).
Even so, this dual connectivity worked well around the New York city and Princeton, N.J. area. The iPhone connected immediately over Wi-Fi to surf quickly in public sites like hotels and coffee houses (even with other near-by networks). Ad it even played YouTube videos over the phone data connection on the train and in the car (though it did stutter in the weak coverage in the hills outside Princeton). And on the Princeton University campus, the iPhone again picked up the open public Wi-Fi in the library, and then kept downloading as we walked out of range, as it quietly switched over to the cellular network.
Meanwhile, Internet browsing on the Treo is optimized for fast access, using the more advanced Verizon Wireless EV-DO network (www.verizonwireless.com). By default, the Treo's Blazer browser just downloads the text from a website (and skips the images) so that you can get at the content even faster. For example, you can enter airline flight information on a website form and quickly get a schedule update. You also can choose to see the full site with images, displayed in its full format, or reformatted to be more readable on the small screen -- but then the Treo does not have anything like the nice iPhone ability to scroll and zoom quickly over the page.
In practice, however, the faster loading on the Treo with the Verizon network is not always a win. One issue is that the Web browser and Internet connectivity on the Treo is not as well integrated as on the iPhone -- there are delays in starting up the browser, and irritating intermittent delays in loading new pages. Another issue is that viewing pages is dependent on the design of each particular website. Some sites are designed for mobile access, and can be very quick and easy to use on the Treo.
But, for example, in a shoot-out between the two devices, looking up a Princeton author on Amazon.com did not work so well. The site loaded faster on my Treo, but then I had to wade through all the extraneous junk that Amazon adds to its Web pages in order to find the actual content about the book. Meanwhile, the iPhone took longer to load and display the full page, and then longer to load the images -- but then the aforementioned spouse could recognize the page layout and quickly use finger gestures to zoom in on the material she wanted to read.
My bottom line: I'm waiting for the next generation of the iPhone, so that Apple can tweak some of these issues before I seriously considering moving my multiple thousands of contacts and calendar history to the new world.
Meanwhile, Palm has a small window of opportunity to beef up its platform to meet the new expectations of the post-iPhone world, and it will be very interesting to see how well the Google Open Handset Alliance consortium has succeeded by mid next year (www.openhandsetalliance.com).
But for Apple iFans, the iPhone already is mighty satisfying.
For the full Steve Jobs treatment on the iPhone, see his keynote introducing the product at last year's Macworld conference -- a tour de force of magnetic personality and marketing to the faithful:
For a quick look at the iPhone's interface and key features, see David Pogue's fun YouTube video -- also addressing some of its trade-offs:
Shelly Palmer also has nice discussions of some of the nitty-gritty trade-offs in the iPhone design: