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iPhone: Brilliant. Frustrating.

Last Friday night I bought an iPhone at the Valley Fair mall in Cupertino, took it back to my hotel room and five minutes later had it cracked using the excellent ZiPhone software.  I've been living with it non-stop since, in part because Robert Scoble told us all at VON during a panel that the iPhone was the best phone he had ever had… better than the Nokia N95 that he was using at that point in time to stream that session.  

I didn't believe Robert. After living with iPhone for four days, I will state unequivocally today that I disagree with him. The iPhone has the most potential to change the mobile phone industry of any device out there today, but it's not the best phone … yet.

First, the positives.  

The user experience.  The iPhone user experience is as important to phones as the GUI was to PCs.  It's a true game changer — dramatically simplifying access to common features while simultaneously exposing new rich capabilities that other phones don't have. 

The PC experience.  Compared to the Nokia and RIM devices I've used, the PC software for the iPhone (it's iTunes) is dramatically better.  It just works and it works well.  Synchronization of music, contacts, calendars, etc is fast — even with the 5500 contacts I synched to it.  The PC drivers are found and installed, effortlessly, out of the box.  Software updates are found and installed, effortlessly.  

The music experience. It's an iPod.  Enough said.

The browser.  It's a desktop class browser.  Websites that don't render correctly on any other mobile device work fine here.  As others have noted, this is a revolution for mobile devices. 

Stability.  My other two favorite phones (BlackBerry 8300 and Nokia N95) crash, probably once a day.  The only solution is to perform an emergency battery-dectomy.  Remove battery, wait, reboot. In four days of usage I haven't seen iPhone even hiccup.  It's probably a good thing too, since the battery is sealed inside the phone.  

And then the frustrations.

The camera.  Nokia's N95 sports a 5 megapixel camera that can shoot 30 fps video, with autofocus, macro capabilities and more.  It mystifies me that Apple chose a crappy 2 megapixel still camera for this device.

The network.   Apple built the worlds best mobile browser, and then saddled it with Edge speeds.  It's so slow as to be unusable outside WiFi hotspots. In contrast, the N95 can stream full motion video to the internet, live, using it's 3G connection.  

The phone.  Doh!  This is a phone, right?  Nokia's music phone, the N82, offers a set of integrated controls in the headset that allow me to skip tracks, pause, rewind and most importantly… answer the phone… from a button conveniently clipped to the collar of my shirt.  Apple offers the standard Apple headset with a tiny integrated microphone and nothing else.  When iPhone rings, I have to fish it out of my pocket, which is a safety issue.  Apple built an iPod and added a phone, but they didn't think enough about how people would use their new device as a phone.  

The keyboard.  Yes, iPhone does email using a touch screen keyboard that pops up when input is required.  Forget about serious email usage with it, however.  Compare iPhone's keyboard to BlackBerry's thumb board and you will be disappointed.  When Apple builds their corporate iPhone, they should provide a model with a slide out keyboard like the Sony Ericsson Xperia XP1.  In the meantime, if your email needs are limited to responding to the odd bit of GMail with a one or two word reply, then iPhone will do. For all else, stick with RIM.

The address book.  I have 5500 contacts synched with iPhone, and no way to search them.  The only way to find the contact I want is to scroll the entire list.  Lame. Lame. Lame.  

I could go on.  I want to love this phone — it's that good. At best, however, I can say that iPhone is a frustratingly brilliant device with more potential than any mobile handset in the industry today.  Is it going to change how I use mobile phones?  Sure.  Now I'll be carrying my Blackberry plus one of the iPhone or N95, rather than Blackberry plus N95.  Will it change how I use mobile phones in the future?  Almost certainly. Some day a vendor will deliver a phone with a great user experience, great browser, great camera, 3G or better network speeds and a great email experience.  

It just hasn't happened yet. 

{ 20 comments… add one }

  • david March 25, 2008, 7:42 am

    The microphone on the headphones is also a button. Click once to answer a call or to pause music. Click twice to skip to the next track. Its actually quite workable.

    Video recording is needed but it seems to be a software not hardware issue, so it might get better.

    Agree 100% on the need for search-ability with contacts.

    The keyboard is not as good as a physical keyboard but its close, it has nice aspects too, like the way it optimizes itself of certain situations like entering a phone number. After 3 months, I don't miss my treo's' keyboard.

  • david March 25, 2008, 7:58 am

    They have an interface for searching a contact in SMS and addressing an email – but not dialing – its a pity because dialing by initials was really handy on the treo. According to screen shots of 2.0, some kind of search seems to be on its way.

    There certainly are phones with more powerful aspects 3g or video but as a total device, the iPhone is the best I have used too, though I have never even seen an N95. Compared to Treo, RIM and S/E, the iphone is a much better device.

    Personally, its becoming my all-time favorite device. I am often amazed by the intensity of use I put it through. For example, on the train I read the nyt on it, read email, while listening to music and taking the occasional call.

    A RIM device does seem better for pure email, but a bigger screen allows a lot more for the web and more real estate for apps. When I think about the enterprise apps that could be written for it, the potential benefits there, plus the ability to use the web effectively, way outweigh the slightly better email typing on the RIM. But it will take time before iPhone is seen as a respectable work device.

  • Jeff March 25, 2008, 8:05 am

    Some good pros and cons, although I personally find the keyboard fine. However, I think you've missed some very obvious functionality on the headset…

    You said:
    "Nokia's music phone, the N82, offers a set of integrated controls in the headset that allow me to skip tracks, pause, rewind and most importantly… answer the phone… from a button conveniently clipped to the collar of my shirt. Apple offers the standard Apple headset with a tiny integrated microphone and nothing else. When iPhone rings, I have to fish it out of my pocket, which is a safety issue. Apple built an iPod and added a phone, but they didn't think enough about how people would use their new device as a phone. "

    However, the little microphone you mentioned that is a part of Apple's headset is also a button that answers the phone (it can also be used to pause/play music, as well as skip to the next song with a 'double-click'). Hopefully that will make your iPhone usage a little more enjoyable (and safer to boot).

  • Tony March 25, 2008, 9:24 am

    Sit tight tony…. It's only going to get better. If you watch the iPhone SDK you will realize that a whole new iPhone is coming for us existing users in the form of a software upgrade. It will offer push mail and a bunch of requested updates – i believe a search function for mail is one of them. Microsoft believe it or not is working to offer voice recognition in the near future. Also, since your iphone is hacked there is a method to separate your contacts into a widget and search them outside of the phone app. I forgot the link but you would have to google it.

  • KenC March 25, 2008, 9:47 am

    The Nokia N95 5Mp camera is barely any better than the iPhone's 2Mp one. In fact, the Nokia's camera is worse than any dedicated digital camera you can find at Circuit City or BestBuy for $100. Cellphone cameras are just lousy, and that's because they are a compromise. Cramming more pixels into a chip does NOT make the image better. It's just like the Mhz wars for PCs. Faster Mhz isn't always faster performance. And, the same applies to digital cameras. The physics dictate the optimal pixel size. Current P&S digicams have pixels already too small. That's why DSLRs with the same number of pixels take far better images.

    It's rubbish to say that since the Nokia's camera has better specs that it makes the iPhone's "crappy". They're both "crappy". Specs don't equal image quality. My 3Mp DSLR takes better pics than a 12Mp P&S.

    The Nokia's images and video are only good enough for MMS and Youtube. Not good enough for photo albums, enlargements or home movies.

  • Alec March 25, 2008, 10:47 am

    Thank you everyone for all these great tips.

    Ken – I beg to differ. I have taken many good photographs with the N95. Part of the benefit of a high pixel count, of course, is the ability to edit and still maintain picture quality. Have a look at some of these pages:

  • Stuart March 25, 2008, 11:30 am

    Your review was much the same as mine a little while back. http://www.henshall.com/stuart/2008/02/25/iphone-
    Although I have to disagree with you. It is the best phone for people that aren't you and me. The numbers on mobile surfing prove it.

    So look at what it is doing to new smart phone users. Who for the first time have always on internet in their pocket. It's revolutionary. Slow connection or not I see people surfing on them everywhere. I also know I've sent more emails from my iphone in a month than I sent from my N95 in a year. Still as you say that doesn't make it a better phone. The iPhone more than any other device right now is likely to make us a really always on society; it's the excuse people needed to discover that the web in the palm of their hand is nice.

    I know you bought it just like I did; to see the potential and learn what can be done with the SDK. It's early days for it. Still I'm convinced there will be 100m sold before long in some updated guise.

    In my case it has replaced the N95 for a lot of the time. It's disruptive innovation because a lot of the things about it really suck. The phone sound quality is a disaster, the speaker phone almost unusable etc. Nokia gets all these completely right in the N81. Yet that is like comparing apples and oranges. It's only called an iPhone because the target is the phone; not because it is a great one. Look at it for the "text" generation, the "facebook" generation etc. and that's a small part of it. If you send zero email, 50 SMS and 3 calls a day; plus need access to the internet its perfect, although the plans aren't.

    Oh and give that keyboard time. I like it more and more and it kept me away for months and months. Master the keyboard and what use your Blackberry?

  • luca March 25, 2008, 11:32 am

    I got one as well (actually for my wife) and will post my thoughts soon. Are you sure you cannot search for a specific contact?

  • Alec March 25, 2008, 12:25 pm

    Thanks for the tip David. That’s a nice feature, if not immediately obvious.

    Luca, guaranteed you can’t search contacts. I’ve tried. Now, designating frequently called contacts as favorites is a nice feature – kind of a visual speed dial – but it’s not the same.

  • Jason March 25, 2008, 12:41 pm

    Apple has changed the game because they've now made it about the software instead of the hardware.

    The ease of delivery of new firmware updates (through iTunes) has allowed them to upgrade the device with new features. When was the last time that you updated the firmware on your cell phone? Before I got an iPhone? Never.

    Yes, there are missing things. Personally, I never used those features before, so I don't miss not having them. I do enjoy having a phone that I enjoy using though, unlike my previous Motorolla RAZR.

  • nelson March 25, 2008, 12:48 pm

    You cracked it. Check out the 3rd party apps like SEARCH.

    Also like others have said, check out the button that's on your headphones. Well actually, read the manual.

    Have fun with the 3rd party programs.

  • Pecos Bill March 25, 2008, 12:49 pm

    I presume there were sacrifices made to get the product out the door. I also presume that giving feedback
    might help spur needed features if enough people make the point. I hope I’m not wrong on the second point. At least with searching your contacts, Apple does provide a means to only search a single letter of the alphabet, right? Still, search is needed. I don’t own one yet so I cannot verify.

    Based on what I’ve read, I agree that the phone part needs work. That’s where Apple doesn’t have the institutional knowledge that other mfr’s have to draw on.

    iPhone 3G is coming now that the needed chip is out. It’s been stated by both AT&T and Apple. My bet is June but it could be even a tad earlier.

  • Michael Geist March 25, 2008, 1:22 pm


    Polarbearfarm (http://www.polarbearfarm.com/) offers applications that do contact search and video recording on the iPhone.


  • lookmark March 25, 2008, 3:35 pm

    The squeezy remote is pretty great, both for taking/skipping calls and for play/pause/skip for music & podcasts. I don’t know how iPod Touch users live without it.

    And yeah, the iPhone’s camera isn’t very high-quality. I think one can definitely expect an improved version – possibly along with video recording – with the second-gen 3G version out in the next few months.

    Adding search (along with cut & paste – hello, Apple??!!!) is also a no-brainer. I’d expect to it see it added in a software update by the end of the year, if not 2.0 in June.

  • Alec March 25, 2008, 6:19 pm


    I have to say that I have upgraded firmware on my phones many times. Nokia makes a very simple to use upgrader for their hardware. You just plug the phone in, run the software, and it checks to see if there is new firmware and installs it if you want.

    But you know what, Nokia has never achieved the visibility for this feature that Apple has, and perhaps that’s part of Apple’s genius. I went to Nokia’s launch of the N96 in Barcelona, and while the N96 is an exciting device, Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo doesn’t have any where near the charisma of Steve Jobs.

  • Alec March 25, 2008, 6:21 pm

    Nelson, yeah yeah — I should have dug more deeply. I did a quick surf through the manual. But you know, a simple light grey triangle on the headphone button would have drawn my attention to it. I went looking at the headphones to figure out which was L and R, and something in the same color which looked like a play button on the microphone would have been enough of a clue.

  • Paul March 25, 2008, 8:28 pm

    My wife has an iPhone and for her uses it’s perfect. I for one am holding off until a number of the features mentioned by previous folks have either been improved or built into iPhone 2.0. However, what she has shown me, is that in the contacts list you can select the letter on the right to at least get you ‘into the ball park’! Not quite full search but should save a few finger swipes.

  • Alec March 25, 2008, 8:33 pm

    Paul, thanks for the suggestion. I found that feature. It works well for small groups of contacts, but when I reach the letter S, for example, I have to search multiple screens of contacts. There really needs to be a simple search feature, integrated with the address book, and not part of a separate application.

  • MatthewS March 26, 2008, 1:42 am

    The lack of support of DUN is what really is driving me nuts. I’ve used DUN extensively when a wired or wireless connection isn’t available. Granted it is slow, but if you need to bang out a few quick emails it fits the bill. Why no DUN?

    Basically, I’m loving my iPhone though.

  • James Body March 27, 2008, 1:26 am

    Ken – I have to disagree with you about the quality of the camera on the N95 – it is easily better than any other deployed camera phone and the 30 fps video is better than my old Sony 8mm camcorder.

    I normally carry one iPhone on me at all times, plus another two in my personal gear – but still use my Nokia Symbian phones (E61i and N95) as principal real time communicatins devices. The iPhone is the easiest portable e-mail device to use though – even though it's potential is limited by it's inability to work with my flat rate 3G data tariff from H3G (so I use the MS Exchange client on my E61i in parallel with the WiFi connected iPhone).

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