24 July 2008

iPhone 3G pros and cons

I’ve been away from the blogging a bit this week. I’ve been a bit sick and a bit distracted by my new toy, Apple’s iPhone 3G. So I figure it’s time for a bit of a review.

Pros: the user interface

First, the iPhone is an amazing device. Yeah, I know you’ve heard. It’s cool. No, really. It’s even cooler than that. The combination of a music playing device, a web browser, and a phone has been done before. But it’s never been done this well. The UI is really what makes it so superb.

For the first widely-used device with a multi-touch interface, it’s quite mind-blowing how much they’ve managed to do exactly right from the start. Lists scroll, buttons click, and images zoom exactly the way your fingers move. The navigation through the built-in applications is consistent and easy to pick up without reading any documentation.

The user interfaces feels like it’s meant to be used by a human being. When you scroll quickly to the top or bottom of a page, all the pages scroll just a little bit further to show that there’s nothing further and snap back gently. The keyboard knows you’re going to make mistakes, so automatically corrects them by default. Sliding your finger to unlock the phone feels much more natural than any combination of button pressing.

Pros: integration between the applications

Integration between the different applications is well thought out and implemented. For example, when editing a contact’s details you can choose to select a photo from your saved photos, or just take a photo of the person right now and resize it to fit. If you’re listening to music and receive a phone call, the music fades out and your phone starts ringing. You can answer the call with the single button on the headphones.

Despite their being no easy way to transfer data between the applications (see below for more on this), it’s not a problem I hit very often. The built-in applications just make it easy for you to use functionality of other applications when you need it.

Even better, the integration points don’t seem to be limited to the default applications either. The Facebook iPhone application lets you take a photo with the camera and post it directly to Facebook. No need to save the photo anywhere first and find it in your “media gallery” or some such, just hit the camera icon inside the Facebook application.

Pros: the physical controls

The physical buttons and slider switch take care of the most commonly used features of the device in ways that other phones just don’t do:

  • There’s a single lock button to lock the phone. To unlock, you press the same button then slide your finger across the screen.
  • There’s a single slide switch to toggle the phone between silent vibrating mode and ring mode.
  • There’s a single home button to take you back to the home screen at any point.
  • There’s a volume control, which adjusts ringer volume normally or music volume when you’re listening to music.

Some phones have the hang-up button overloaded as a home button, and most phone have volume controls on the side, but I haven’t used another phone with all these controls that do exactly these things. The beauty of these simple, well-chosen controls is that they take care of all the common things I want to do with my phone every day with the press or slide of a single button or switch.

I finish taking a call and I want to lock the phone. Press one button. I go into a meeting and need to set my phone to silent. Slide one switch. I’m deep inside some application on the phone and need to open something else up. Press one button. I’m reading my email on the bus and see it’s my stop. Press one button, drop the phone into my pocket, and get off the bus.

It might be hard to imagine the difference until you try it. Now that I’ve used an iPhone for just a week, I’m surprised that hitting Menu, * to lock and unlock my Nokia phone didn’t give me RSI after all those years.

Pros: the big screen

The huge screen of the iPhone provides a number of benefits to the user interface too. Most of the controls you need at any point can remain visible on the screen. You don’t need to scroll through long menus or lists very often to find a key piece of navigation or setting. The UI for most of the built-in apps has a top bar that provides basic navigation and controls.

On the home screen, you can see twenty applications at once. The icons are really big and colourful at about one centimetre square. It’s easy to find stuff, compared to your typical mobile phone menu nightmare.

Pros: more?

I could go on and on about the cool stuff in the iPhone, but perhaps more interesting are my criticisms.

Cons: limited processing power

One of my habits while reading news in Google Reader is to open up an interesting article in a background tab, to read once I’m finished going through all the other posts in my reader. Safari on the iPhone looks like it would support this. It supports multiple windows, and happily opens up the links from Google Reader in a new window.

However, Mobile Safari only appears to load the contents of the active window. If you open up a link in a new window, then switch back to the original window, the link in the background won’t actually load until you go back to it again. Even worse, when I switch from the new window back to Google Reader, Safari refreshes the Google Reader page and lose my position in the feeds.

I understand why Safari can only load one page at once. The iPhone doesn’t have enough processing power to attempt to render several pages at the same time. It is a bit of a hassle though, and one limitation I’d like to see disappear in a future revision.

I also think I understand why Safari wants to reload the page when I change windows. It needs to keep memory consumption low.

The other obvious side-effect of limited processing power is that some operations take a little while. Opening the contacts application shows the list of my 272 contacts pretty much straight away, but it isn’t responsive for a few seconds. I expect these glitches should go away in future revisions too.

Cons: no copy and paste

I’ve had a couple of occasions when I needed to write stuff down on paper (yeah, old school) because I couldn’t get information from one application in the iPhone to another. URLs aren’t really nice to write down; it’s easy to make a mistake.

It seems fairly obvious to me that Apple isn’t implementing clipboard functionality on the iPhone until they’re sure they’ve got the right interface for it. Fair call, I’d much rather prefer they get it right. I haven’t needed a clipboard that much because of the good application integration mentioned above.

Cons: third-party applications are flaky

Coinciding with the release of the iPhone 3G, Apple provided software updates to first generation iPhones and iPod Touches to allow installation of third-party applications. Hundreds of applications are available already through Apple’s iTunes App Store.

Unfortunately, despite many very nice looking applications, none of them seem particularly stable to me. At the moment, it’s very likely for you to click a button in any custom application, and suddenly you’re back at the home screen again.

Hopefully this will be ironed out as the platform and the applications mature. Apple is also partially to blame for some unnecessary application instability, as many application authors have patched their applications but have waited more than a week to get the updates approved by Apple.

Cons: iTunes treats free application downloads like a purchase

Strangely enough, when you install free applications from the iTunes App Store, Apple treats it like a purchase. This means they:

  • ask you for your iTunes account name and password
  • send you an email with a statement for $0 confirming your purchase
  • wrap the application in their FairPlay DRM
  • require you to authorise five computers with your iTunes account so that application syncing and iPhone backup works correctly.

Which leads me to the problem with the iPhone applications that confused me the most…

Cons: iTunes sync removed my applications

Applications appear to be automatically synchronised between iTunes and your iPhone when you plug your iPhone into a new computer. You get a prompt which says something like, ‘You have new applications on your iPhone. Do you want to transfer them to this computer?’, and when you click ‘Yes’, iTunes proceeds to delete them off your iPhone. How nice!

Once I saw this happening, I promptly cancelled the synchronisation. I went to the iPhone preferences and tried to turn off app syncing. Trying to change that option threatened to delete all my iPhone applications as well, so I didn’t actually go through with that.

Finally I worked out how to fix it: once you have your iPhone plugged in and no longer syncing, you can choose to ‘Authorize this computer’ on one of the menus and you applications will no longer be deleted when you sync your iPhone with that computer.

With the FairPlay DRM though, you’re only allowed five computers. With my desktop at work, my desktop and laptop at home, I’m already up to three. Surely there are people who use more than five and need to synchronise with all of them. There doesn’t seem to be any reason with free applications to limit syncing in this way. Free applications should be shipped without DRM, and I can’t see any technical reason why Apple shouldn’t implement this.

Cons: synchronisation nightmares

Although it hasn’t happened with the iPhone yet, I’ve had enough trouble syncing my two calendars across Google and two computers with iCal that I’m sure I’m going to have trouble with syncing.

My requirements are fairly simple:

  • the two Google calendars, Home and Work, are the source of truth
  • both computers (my work desktop and my laptop) sync their iCal calendars to the Google calendars with Spanning Sync
  • my work computer syncs the Work calendar to Zimbra with the Zimbra iSync connector.

Now that I have an iPhone, I need to add this:

  • my iPhone syncs to either my work computer or my laptop.

My understanding is that all these components use Apple’s iSync synchronisation engine under the hood, so it would be purely working as designed if it could keep these calendars in sync. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

My syncing hell thus far as been recurring sync conflicts. Many happen with events that are more than six months old. The number of them only seems to increase over time until, eventually, I get fed up with dealing with more than 40 sync conflicts every day and reset the sync data on that computer. That fixes the problem for a day or two and then the process starts again.

Summary

Overall, it’s been a great week with my nifty new device. Like Charlie Crews would say, it’s a little bit like living in the future.

I’m also tempted to have a go at writing a simple application for the iPhone. But before sharing it around, I’d definitely wait for things in the App Store to settle down a bit. And hopefully they can ditch that crummy DRM for the free apps.