I haven't been playing with it obsessively, as some of my friends might, but I dare say i've gotten fairly well acquainted. Overall, I don't think I've felt like a new toy was this cool since I got my Palm Pilot 5000¹ in 1996. At that time, I remember talking about how I was holding as much computer in the palm of my hand as the Mac Plus of roughly ten years earlier. Now I'm once again holding as much computer in my hand as a roughly ten year old Mac — but that's one hell of a lot more computer, and you can get a lot more done with it. Plus, another ten years of really smart people thinking about palmtop UIs have gone into the iPhone, and boy does it show.
That said, there's plenty of gushing about the iPhone out there, and it's not without its frustrations. So I'm going to focus on some of those. Starting with the on-screen keyboard: this has to be the most annoying and error-prone UI device ever. I thought it would be slightly worse than the Treo's thumb keyboard; instead, I find it takes me two or three times as long to enter any text I need to. And because of Steve's control-freak instincts, not only is there on option of using a bluetooth keyboard when I really care about entering text, but I'm told the architecture would make it nearly impossible even if Apple changed their minds and wanted to allow it. (There is a report of a beta Graffiti, but it would require jailbreaking my iPhone, and I'm not that frustrated about text entry. Yet.)
One place where Apple's control-freak attitude is just flabbergastingly stupid is alert tones. It's not just that the only way to add a ringtone without hacking is to buy it from ITMS, although that's certainly annoying. No: Consider my choices for sounds settings. Silent mode is a physical switch on the phone, which is totally the right way to do that; the sound settings also give me independent control over whether the phone vibrates in silent and ring mode — as you would expect from even the most basic phone these days. Those aside, here follow all of my sound choices:
|Ringtone||Menu w/ 25 items|
|New Text Message||Menu w/ 7 items, including 'None'|
And what do I do if I don't like the alert tone Apple chose for, say, Calender Alerts? (Which, as it happens, I don't: the phone has to be sitting on the table in front of me for me to even notice it. Which makes it pretty pointless.) Or if I would like a vibrating alert in addition to the sound for something other than a call? Apple's answer appears to be "Sucks to be you."
Which brings me to another matter, Apple's arbitrariness in its role as App Store gatekeeper. Perhaps their contract with AT&T really does require them to limit the functionality of iPhone apps. But given that Steve used that excuse for his original decision not to allow third party applications at all, only to backpedal on it and open the App Store a year later (and given the applications that exist on other smartphones), I'm dubious. I like Apple a lot, and I'm an Apple shareholder, but I hope if they don't get their head out of their ass about this, someone finds a way to drag it out in court.
And while we're on the subject of the App Store: Damn, what a terrible UI. If I have to use iTunes as a special-purpose web browser, can't I at least please have spacebar give me page-down? And how about letting command-click open, if not a new tab, at least a new window? And command-left-arrow take me back a page? No, scratch all that: Just make the damned App Store a fucking website, only calling iTunes for downloading. (Then, among other things, people could link to App Store descriptions of iPhone apps in a discussion like this, instead of having to Google for a page about each app, and mostly not finding a satisfactory one.) The App Store also turns out to get an F in arithmetic: A couple days ago I was looking at two iPhone spreadsheets. Both, according to the App Store, have an average customer rating of three stars. But when I looked at the reviews for one of them, which has only been out about three weeks and only had eight reviews, I found myself thinking these don't average three.. In fact those ratings are 1, 5, 3, 5, 5, 4, 5, and 4 — that's a total of 32. Dividing 32 by 8 and getting 3 is the kind of arithmetic I expect from politicians, not computer companies.³ Oh, and Apple: once you've mastered the arithmetic thing, maybe you could get your buddies at Google to help you with the search thing? Searching the App Store for "spreadsheet" gets me 34 apps, of which at most a half-dozen are spreadsheets and another dozen or so special-purpose apps you might, if you squint, think of as spreadsheet-like. The rest include the likes of gFlashPro (a flashcard program) and RPN Calculator, neither of which appear (there is no searching or copy-pasting the descriptions; see previous remarks about iTunes sucking as a web browser) to even have the word in its description. And none of those 34 is i123, whose description starts "i123 is a spreadsheet program for iPhone...."
One last point: I really love having high-speed internet in my pocket, and the combination of that plus GPS had me thinking of the iPhone as a basic navigation tool after only a few days. I was consequently extremely frustrated last night when I couldn't get any network connectivity, even though I had four or five bars of voice connectivity. I'd have gotten home a good 20 minutes sooner last night if that had been working. (Or if I hadn't assumed it would work and had instead done what I would have last weekend or any other time in the past decade: spent a few minutes downloading and printing maps and directions before I left.) I'm told losing 'net is a known issue, and that switching into and back out of airplane mode. Call me naive, but I expected a product that's been out for five months and sold tat least eight million units to be out of beta.
Now, to close on a positive note, some things I'm enjoying about my iPhone:
- Favorite way to kill time on the T:
- Tiltsnake: the classic snake game, controlled by swipes of your finger — or, if you change a setting (which, oddly, has to be done in the Settings app, not in Tiltsnake itself) by using the iPhones accelerometer.
- Best amusement:
- urbanspoon: Launch it, give it permission to use your location, and shake your iPhone to see a slot-machine display (with appropriate sound effects) of nearby restaurants. Keep shaking til you find one you want to try. (I have not yet used it to find a place to eat, but it's fun to play with.)
- Best gee-whiz UI:
- Google Mobile app: Pick up the phone, launch the app, hold it up to your ear, speak your search, hold it in front of you, and read the results. Totally amazing. Now I know why they've been giving away 1-800-GOOG-411.
- Most useful:
- The strangely named Air Sharing: a combination of a WebDAV server that runs on your iPhone — enabling you to easily upload any files you might want to have in your pocket — and a file browser that lets you look at them, in most of the formats you might care about. This is so much cooler than it sounds. The other day I spent roughly an hour on the T, reading a book all the while without having brought my bag. I can review a spreadsheet, show someone my resume, or proofread a friend's thesis, all in this one app.
¹ Boy do I wish I'd hung on to that little piece of computing history.
² Called, imaginatively enough, "Spreadsheet" and "Spreadsheet LX" — I want a ringside seat if one of those developers sues the other for trademark infraction.
³ Yes, I checked the other as well: Its 59 reviews average 3.17, for which rounding to 3 is entirely sensible.