First Impressions: Apple iPhone

iphoneI’ve been waiting for this. I’ve been waiting a long, long time. In fact ever since I first cabled my Apple Newton to my Nokia phone and managed to get a feeble-but-exciting GSM data signal from within the bunker of the Palais de Congres in Cannes (it was a very very tedious conference session). And that was fifteen years after my first mobile computing experience – an only approximately luggable Texas Instruments thermal printer terminal with a built-in acoustic coupler: the first mobile combo device.

Since then, I’ve been through the mobile mill: I’ve carried around every ‘mobile’ device Apple ever made (if you’ve ever played with a Newton, you’ll understand the quotification of ‘mobile’), helped design a couple of them and, when Steve The Revenant canned the Newton in a Learish fit of Alpha Male pique, I reluctantly went over to and through various incarnations of the Palm. Compared to the Newton, it was but a nursery toy but it did have the major advantage of being truly pocketable, unlike the dear old Newt. Along the way I dallied with an early incarnation of the iPaq – for about three days, after which I returned it as “unfit for purpose” – to say that I was disenchanted with PocketPC (as it then was) was a galactic level understatement.

The last few years of course have seen the emergence of multi-function phones and PDA-crossover Smartphones, not one of which I yet consider fit for purpose in any of their functions – at best, they’re bastard mongrels which do many things at least equally badly, and here I make little distinction between Windows Mobile, Symbian or UIQ, not one of who has demonstrated any significant understanding of the meaning of “User Interface”. Meanwhile Palm have, through consistently poor design, lack of vision and bad market judgement, self-immolated, leaving the market essentially clear for the fifth (at my count) major incarnation of Windows Mobile. My current mobile device is a so-called ‘state of the art’ HTC Tytn Windows Mobile 2005 Smartphone. It has everything, does everything and is, at heart, pretty damn useless at any of them – it maketh neither a good phone nor an effective communicating device, despite (or possibly because of) its being equipped with practically every technology known to Science. Probably my most of-uttered plaintive cry when around the thing is along the lines of, “If this is the best that Microsoft can do, then where are you Apple?!”.

Now they’re here. The cavalry, whilst not exactly charging over the hill, can at least be heard trumpeting in the distance. The long-rumoured iPhone is now a reality and, for once, even the wilder rumours seem to have been far short of the mark: Like the mythical number 27 bus, we’ve been waiting since the far side of forever for a widescreen iPod, for the phone itself and for a generically useful and useable data comms device. Now all three come along at once. In one device.

Which takes us straight back to the Jack’O’Trades experience of all-in-one devices – have Apple tried to do too much in one object and are they about to fall spectacularly flat on their minimalist designer faces? On the basis of first description, and trying to disentangle fact from hype when removed from the proximity of Steve’s Reality Distortion Field, it looks like this might just be the coming of age of the ubiquitous device: it does appear to have the trademark simplicity of interface and functional clarity that marks genuinely iconic tools, rather many of which have come from this same company.

So let’s recap what we now know to be on offer: Firstly, the screen – it’s a 3.5″ widescreen format display, pretty much de rigeur for the size of device. But it’s a 160dpi resolution. Which matters: Given that it’s generally accepted that print becomes untiring to read at 600dpi, I used to assume that we’d need to pretty much get to that level with our displays before the electronic interface stood a chance of supplanting paper as a long-form reading tool. An conversation with Alan Kay about eight years ago disabused me of that notion – he pointed out that, because of the way in which we perceive the self-illuminated nature of the computer display, we perceive similar levels of resolutions at about 200dpi. Which isn’t far off the 160dpi of the iPhone. Just as long as the iconography is scaled to suit – one of the problems with Windows Mobile devices is that that doesn’t happen – everything is just too damn small and too poorly smoothed.

Then there’s the stylus-free interface. This is a good thing in principle and will save much time groveling around under car seats, in aircraft and less salubrious places in search of small pointy bits of plastic. And it’s got a button: just the one apparently, which will be a great advance over devices like the Tytn, which is nigh on impossible to pick up without pressing something and starting some unintended and possibly expensive process.

Its touch interface is gesture-driven, which will either work well or it won’t, in the latter case inspiring gestures of another kind altogether. We can only hope that Apple have learnt their Newton lesson well – the handwriting system on that device was underpowered in its first iteration and, by the time of the Newton 2000, which did work, and very well, the world, or rather the world’s media, had lost interest. It does use multi-finger gesturing, including a ‘pinch’ gesture to zoom images – if the two-finger stuff works as well for tapping, dragging and scrolling as it does on the current generation of MacBook trackpads, it’ll be very good indeed.

And all that runs atop Mac OS X. Now this is a surprise: Along with many others, I was expecting the iPhone to feature an expanded iPod-style OS. Having a robust unix on a phone is a very very nice touch and should allow huge scope for creative hacking. This I like, a lot. With Mac OS X comes Core graphics, Dashboard-style Widgets for the interface and a usefully robust security and integrity architecture. It should also mean that application developers for the iPhone should be off to a flying start (but see Yoz’s comment, left…). Update: I’ve now had it semi-officially confirmed that the iPhone is in fact a closed platform, so unless Apple are going to start licensing developers and providing the necessary toolkits, the iPhone will remain a task-specific device rather than a true soft platform. At this point the word, “Pillocks” is springing unbidden but irresistibly to mind.

And it’s an iPod, with the no-brain addition of that high-res widescreen. On the 8GB model that gives the potential for 60ish movies (depending on how much of the 8GB is available for media use) at decent native resolution with H.264/AVC encoding (I’m easily getting a feature film into 128MB using this technique). What will make or break this device as an iPod however is whether or not Apple have managed to transfer the iPod’s clarity and ease of use into the OS X-based iPhone, with all its additional functionality. Time will tell, but I’m not about to sell my Nano any time soon. It does look like the iPod interface on the iPhone is more akin to iTunes, using the Coverflow album browsing technology bought and introduced by Apple last year.

Other thoughtful (i.e. as long as they work) touches are a proximity sensor to switch off the touch screen and backlight when you hold it up to your ear, an accelerometer-based orientation sensor for landscape/portrait mode (which could also make it useful as a control device for other electronics) and the obligatory virtual keyboard for those who type stuff slowly. Another thing I don’t yet know is whether handwriting recognition is built-in to the iPhone – if anyone sees Larry Yeager wearing a large smug grin, you’ll know the answer to that.

Less thoughtful is the absence of a physical touch-type capable keyboard for those of us who type a lot and quickly, although as long as the iPhone supports the necessary Bluetooth profile, any Bluetooth keyboard should work with it. And, without wishing to seem (very) churlish, given what Apple has already packed into the device, a GPS unit would be a fine thing indeed. Again, of course, third party Bluetooth GPS systems should work with it, but there again we’re starting to get away from the One-for-All model.

It does however have the now-obligatory camera – in this case a fairly bog-standard resolution 2MP job, with no other information currently available, so I don’t yet know it if does autofocus, video or for that matter, decent image quality. What it doesn’t appear to have however is any video calling functionality, a la iSight/iChat. Which is odd, but does however dovetail with the iPhone’s one true piece of specification insanity – and this is desperately predictable for a device designed in the USA – the lack of support for UMTS/HSxPA. Now while most e-mails and static web content for mobile devices can (eventually) be downloaded over GPRS/EDGE (where the latter is available), the lack of 3G support effectively means that the iPhone is unusable for downloading or streaming media or to act as a modem for my MacBook. Now I’m sure that Apple will argue that this is exactly their point – that a Wi-Fi connection does all that and more. Get real, guys – outside North America, public Wi-Fi coverage is still very patchy and is usually usuriously expensive – this is very very true in the UK. And for those of us who spend much to most of our lives somewhere over the horizon from any Wi-Fi connection, this is a serious omission. And that’s even before we start thinking about VOIP/Skype, which are effectively unusable over EDGE, even where this is deployed. This could well be the biggest inhibitor to the iPhone’s uptake in some markets and market sectors.

Apple (and, as of today, they’re Apple Computer, Inc no longer – it’s now simply Apple, Inc) are claiming to be five years ahead of the opposition, such as it is. Given that most of them have spent the last few years going backwards in their UI, that’s not too hard a trick. But we can take at least six months off that lead, and longer for those of us outside the US – I’m going to have to stagger along with the Tytn until at least June and I suspect that even then I’ll have to sneak one out of the US – they’re talking about Q4 for the UK and rest of Europe – let’s hope that they’re using the delay to include 3G support.

One thought on “First Impressions: Apple iPhone”

  1. By coincidence a friend of mine landed at SFO just as the keynote was finishing. He’s one of Nokia’s main multimedia UI designers. As you can imagine, he’s had a rough day. I met him for a sympathetic pint and picked up the n95 he’d brought with to have a play. “Oh, thanks for showing some appreciation to what *was* the world’s most eagerly-anticipated phone until this morning!”
    Anyway, the point I’m getting to is that they did add extra explanation to why the iPhone has no 3G support – namely that 3G radios are notorious for playing havoc with other components, and when you’ve got so much packed in so tight as you do with the iPhone (I’m totally amazed they’ve managed it) it’s a big risk to take. This, combined with the unpopularity of 3G in the USA, means they’re probably doing more work on it for the European release.
    I have to admit to total tech lust here – I really cannot recall being so totally sold on an Apple product for a very long time – but I did just spot a potential deal breaker. I’m hearing word that, despite running OS X, it’s a closed platform, and only Apple can get extra software onto the thing. I’m desperately hoping this isn’t true – for a start, it’d be mind-bogglingly stupid. I’ll have to wait and see.

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