A month with the iPhone

I’ve now been using my iPhone for a month and am now ready to share some initial thoughts about the device. I finally solved my activation problem, which was caused by the automated credit approval service on AT&T’s side not knowing how to deal with my identity-theft prevention service, so after 24 hours of initial frustration, I was off to the races.

First off, the iPhone is a beautiful device and a pleasure to use: it is certainly the best iPod ever, with the coverflow interface for browsing music and the coolest photo browsing app I have ever seen on a handheld device, both made even more enjoyable by the beautiful screen the iPhone sports. The web experience is great (when using wifi) as are the YouTube and Google Maps applications.

It is also the most intuitive phone I have ever used: I love the visual voicemail (a feature I’ve been fantasizing about for a long time), and it was dead simple for me to figure out how to assign custom photos and ringtones to people in my contact list. While I know that doing this is, in theory, possible on almost every other phone I’ve owned, I have never had the patience to struggle through the generally awful interfaces on most of the other phones I have had (various Nokias, a RAZR, Moto Q, T-Mobile Dash, etc).

I am a lifelong mac user and Apple fanboy and I have ditched my old T-mobile Dash in favor of the iPhone. That being said, the iPhone suffers from two tragic flaws, one of which Apple can fix on the current platform and one of which will require me to buy a new device at some point in the future.

The unfixable problem is the slow-as-molasses 2.5G AT&T Edge Network. Why, oh why did you do this, Apple? While I am sure AT&T was the carrier who was most willing to prostrate themselves before the great Steve Jobs, the iPhone will forever fight with one arm tied behind its back until it can get on a 3G network. Clearly, Apple must have been able able to cut a great financial deal with AT&T, but it may have been shortsighted since the slow network will likely impede long term user adoption. As a very happy user of Verizon’s EVDO network on my laptop, it is very frustrating to go back to the speeds of the dial-up era on my iPhone.

Tragic flaw number two is the absence of enterprise class email. This hurts me big time. As it does any other business user who has used a Blackberry, Windows Mobile or Good Mobile-powered device. Real-time over-the-air sync of mail, contacts and calendar is the killer business app for mobile devices and it boggles my mind that Apple didn’t launch with a solution for this. Please let me sync over-the-air with my office’s Exchange server. This is a serious step backwards for me and the amount of time I can live with this shortcoming is measured in months, so I sincerely hope Apple is working on a solution for this. C’mon guys, just license Good or ActiveSync. The Macintosh has made serious inroads into the enterprise with the help of Apple’s enlightened support of BootCamp and the rise of great virtualization apps like Parallels. Clearly good enterprise class email support on the iPhone would only help Apple. One rumor I heard was that Apple had been far down the path to license Good when Motorola bought them, and that Moto subsequently scuttled the deal because of bad blood over the stillborn MotoROKR iTunes phone, but that is probably nothing more than rumor.

I have some other minor gripes WRT UI consistency across applications and the lack of a keyword search feature in the address book and calendar and the fact that there is no iChat client on the phone, but in general I think Apple has substantially raised the bar in UI and usability in the smartphone market. They’ve also done a great service to the industry by breaking the carrier’s stranglehold on the phone’s software, something that has been stifling innovation to the detriment of users since the dawn of the cellphone era.

Now if Apple can fix these small gripes I have and add enterprise-class email, I will be a happy user. I can live with the slow EDGE network for a while if I have good email. So I am hoping to blown away by the first software update and will fantasize about the gen two hardware and hope it adds GPS, stereo bluetooth, a 4 megapixel camera and 3G network capability. If Apple did all those things on the next iPhone, it would truly be unbeatable.

Update: I just realized I left out my comments on one of the more controversial aspects of the iPhone: the virtual keyboard. Before I ever used an iPhone, I knew it would be a big change to go from a real physical keyboard rich with tactile feedback to a virtual touchscreen one, so I committed myself to suffer through the inevitable learning curve for the first few weeks. I really disliked the keyboard for the first few days and then quickly improved. Now, I would say that I am 80% as fast and accurate as I was on my Dash and I think I am still improving.

One can argue that devices shouldn’t force you to learn how to work with them, but I found that a couple weeks worth of practice got me to a level where the virtual keyboard is totally sufficient. You basically have to “use the force” and trust that it will do the right thing — the error correction algorithm is very good and based on the likely mistakes of hitting adjacent keys and I am consistently impressed with how well the error correction works. The one app where the error correction is undesired is in SMS — given the acronym- and shorthand-laden SMS vocabulary, the correction in this context is not helpful. And finally, filling in password fields on the Safari browser isn’t great either — it really helps to see what you are typing when using the virtual keyboard and it should be possible to have your input show up in plaintext while you are entering it in this scenario.

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