After two days with an iPhone

Feb 17, 2008 17:33 · 952 words · 5 minute read

When the iPhone initially went on sale, I was fairly ambivalent them and didn’t immediately rush out and queue outside the Apple store at midnight. A couple of things made me change my mind - firstly O2 dropped their tariffs to something approaching reasonable value for money (or at least parity with my existing TMobile contract); and I had a good play with iPhones belonging to Aral and Pedro while I was at LIFT08.

My original intention was to jailbreak the phone and run it on my existing TMobile contract, but there were two reasons why I didn’t go down that route - firstly, jailbreaking the 1.1.3 firmware was too complicated and geeky even for me (although the latest version of ZiPhone changes all that); and secondly TMobile doesn’t have an EDGE service and the iPhone doesn’t (yet) have 3G. I didn’t fancy being stuck back at GPRS speeds after getting used to 3G.

So, now that I have a shiney new device up and running on O2, time for some initial thoughts. These are thoughts from the point of view of two points of comparison - a Nokia N73 on the 3 network that I use for (or was at least given by) work, and a TMobile MDA Vario II which is mine, and is a rebadged HTC Hermes device.

The first thing to point out is that I hate the Vario with a passion that I’ve never felt about an inanimate object before. It was an ill-considered purchase made in a hurry, and it sums up everything that’s gone wrong in trying to shoehorn the Windows OS onto a mobile platform. It’s just far, far too difficult to use - the menu-driven paradigm of Windows has been “adapted” to a touch interface, so it’s virtually impossible to drive one-handed. It’s slow - you rapidly get used to watching the spinning pizza of death as it tries to catch up with the human using it. And it’s really, really flakey - little things like the phone dialler, for instance. As you dial a number, it’s scanning the contacts database at the same time to bring up the details of the person you’re dialling. That would be quite a neat trick, were it not for the fact that with 1,000+ contacts the whole process is so slow that there’s a perceptible pause between hitting the key and it registering on the screen. It sounds trivial, but is incredibly annoying - if the phone isn’t very good at basic things LIKE MAKING A PHONE CALL, what use is it as a phone?

I just don’t care about the Nokia. I find it tricky to use - the interface is unintuitive (to me at least), and after using a Blackberry for several years, I found the numeric keypad and T9 extremely difficult to work with. As a phone, it’s rammed with features - but I don’t play games on it, the music player doesn’t come close to replacing an iPod and the web browser is let down by the fact that the screen is 2.5cm wide. All in all, it’s just “meh”.

So what about the iPhone?

Physically, it’s on the large side - as Aral pointed out while I was playing with his, it’s small enough to fit into a pocket, but it’s large enough that you have to take it out and put it on the table when you sit down - so everyone can see it and go “ahh” and “ooh”. But that’s balanced by the fact that there are no external protruberances or buttons to catch on anything - it’s the same smooth form factor that you’d expect from an iPod or a Mac.

The interface is also what you’d expect - extremely simple, stripped down and entirely touch-driven. It’s covered in affordances - clues about how the software operates and what’s expected of the user. For example,

Initially I was put off the touchscreen keyboard after playing with an iPod Touch - the keys seemed extremely small, and the lack of textural feedback meant that there was no way of telling short of looking whether your fingertip had actually “pressed” a key. But to my surprise, I’ve now got to the stage where I can type as quickly as I could on the physical keyboard of the Vario. The predictive text seems to work seamlessly, and without getting in the way - on the Vario, using the suggested word means breaking your typing flow and hitting the return key, whereas the iPhone assumes that you want the correct and inserts it as soon as a space or punctuation character is entered. Ignoring the suggested word is slightly counter-intuitive, because you have to touch the suggestion bubble - but quickly becomes second nature. While you may not want to write novels, banging out emails or quick Twitter updates is very straightforward.

Overall, I think this is a device that has dramatically raised the bar between what went before and what’s to come in the future. There’s simply no other device out there that can compete from a user interface point-of-view. Comparing the Nokia to the iPhone is like comparing a green-screen terminal to a GUI, and it simply makes Windows Mobile devices look ugly, slow, old-fashioned and buggy - they’ve been designed with an “it’ll do” attitude that is the polar opposite of the Apple “don’t release until it’s perfect” philosophy.

The interesting question is what the iPhone is going to do for mobile devices in the longer term - is it the shape of things to come, or is it just an early-stage disruption that will spur development off into other areas?

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