Letting go of the Trumpets: A Week with the iPhone
In discussing the iPhone with Dan Benjamin a couple of days ago, at one point I mentioned it was “like someone assembled the finest orchestra the world, but decided to leave out the trumpets”.
Given such an orchestra, one can come away with either of the following reactions:
a) “Wow, what an absolutely fantastic orchestra.”
b) “Uhhh, where are the trumpets?”
With apologies to trumpet players around the world, I find myself decidedly in camp A — sometimes appreciative of what Apple has left out of the iPhone and sometimes frustrated by it, but never losing sight of what a great device this is and what it will become in the months to follow.
A lot has been said already about the jesusphone so who knows how much of this article will be interesting, but it’s a cathartic post for me, having waited several years for this device to become a reality. I first wrote about the iPhone almost exactly three years ago at a time when most of the world thought Apple would never get into the phone business. It’s interesting to see how opinions have changed since then from “why would they ever” to “why would they ever NOT” get into this market.
iDay in Seattle
In the week leading up to iDay, my friends and I all began hatching our strategies for procuring a device as early as possible. I talked to friends at AT&T and friends at Apple, scoping out the best possible locations to queue up, but in the end, my strategy was simple: send Intern Rob down to the closest Apple Store at 10:30am to hold a place in line until 6pm.
Upon dropping him off at the University Village Apple Store, I parked for a few minutes and said hi to the Blue Flavor homies who had been there since 7am and the 43 Things guys who were right behind Rob in line. Tom and Brian ended up getting their picture on the front page of the Seattle Times and a blurb in an AP story too… nice.
After about a half hour of group Apple claqueing, I found myself not wanting to leave the line. Before I knew it, it was 1pm. Then I thought, what the hell, I’m staying until 6! What was a totally unnecessary 8 hour wait became a voluntary march towards release.
The already inspiring environment was made even more pleasant by Apple employees coming out with bottled water and merchants from nearby shops distributing truffles, pastries, and all sorts of other sustenance to the crowd.
We even spotted Fake Steve Jobs in line, as seen in this photo of FSJ and Intern Rob:
As I waited in line with Intern Rob, knowing I could pick up four of these phones, I really never once thought of turning a profit (unlike this moron from Dallas). Instead, I called up Gruber, Om, Rex and a few other lovers of fine technology on their cell phones to make sure they were taken care of.
Pathetically, Verizon hired an advertising truck to drive back and forth around the Apple Store for an hour or so as well (pictured below). I’m not sure what the thought there was, and I can’t think of a worse audience to try and sell your service to than a crowd of people willing to walk barefoot and blindfolded into the treacherous arms of AT&T.
At about 6:30pm, we finally got our iPhones and headed to the Ram Bar & Grill next door for a Jager shot, some bar food, and some hot iPhone activation action. I have to say that my first experience with AT&T (no doubt via Apple’s oversight in the process) was flawless. My phone was activated and ported in less than 5 minutes. Unbelievable, and no pesky humans to talk to the whole time.
I feel terrible for poor Khoi, PhotoMatt, and countless others who endured hours or days of time waiting for their accounts to kick in. I might have thrown myself off a cliff had I been denied instant gratification.
First and foremost, it’s important to keep in mind that the iPhone is not only at hardware version 1.0 but software version 1.0. The original plan was to launch the iPhone and Leopard simultaneously so there’s no doubt there is a bit of functionality that didn’t make the cut because of the delay in Leopard. Ever wonder why there’s an empty row on the iPhone’s main menu towards the bottom of the screen? I’m sure we’ll see four new buttons there shortly.
Every software upgrade on this phone is going to be like a Christmas present… and I expect several of them before Christmas even comes around. I expect one bug fix upgrade within several weeks and then one nice feature upgrade alongside Leopard, for starters.
The iPhone is quite simply the perfect sized device. Any bigger and it would be too bulky. Any smaller and it would be too hard to use. Any thicker and it would be too heavy. Any thinner and it would be too delicate.
It feels so good in your hand that it’s hard to fathom buying a protective case for it. I’m also glad Apple went with a matte finish a la the iPod Nano instead of a shiny backing a la the iPod Video. This phone does not seem to scratch quite as easily as I feared it would.
The screen on the iPhone is the only screen I’ve ever seen in my life that I’d describe as amazing. Every time a new type of LCD comes out, its manufacturer tends to describe it as “groundbreaking” or “brilliant” or some other hyperbolic adjective. Brightness is brightness… not a huge deal to me. But this is the only screen I’ve ever seen where I can read 5 point type without even squinting. It is just so sharp.
Another cool thing about the casing is that if you hold the iPhone correctly in bright sunlight, you can shine the reflective Apple logo onto a wall like the Batman symbol. I played around with this for about 20 minutes on the seatback in front of me on a recent plane ride. The person next to me didn’t get it.
I only have a few complaints in the hardware department. The decision to recess the earphone jack is careless at best and suspicious at worst . Many people have invested over $100 in their earphones and because Apple has recessed its jack, none of them will fit. Kottke has a tip on how to jimmy rig your existing headphones with an X-Acto knife, but c’mon, really, Apple?
The speakerphone also seems a bit weak to me, but nothing terrible. Aside from that, the only other suggestions I have are to recess the screen a millimeter or two below the bezel to protect it and to add some easy, tactile way to tell which side of the phone is “up” without looking.
Like everything else Apple has done since the beginning of time, the true innovation in this device is its interface. It’s the reason why it’s so sexy and also the reason why countless other devices that will pop up over the next year or two will look exactly like it, but feel nothing like it.
There was quite a lot of concern pre-launch about the keyboardless input capabilities of this device, but the reviewers are right: it’s extremely easy to get used to. Mossberg said it took him 5 days to start typing as fast as he did on his Treo. It took me about one and a half and I’m coming from a Treo as well. I only have one complaint about the keyboard and that’s that I would shrink the space bar and put the period and comma alongside it, but after reading Pogue’s very useful trick today, that’s barely an issue anymore.
The iPhone’s applications never seem to “quit”, which I quite like. I hate phones that bury functions more than one level deep (I’m looking at you, Nokia) and it’s just such a relief to have almost everything I’d ever need to do right on that main menu and available on a moment’s notice.
Couple of nitpicks: When you press the main button — to check the time, for instance — you should be able to press it again to shut the screen down instead of having to feel your way up to the lock button on top of the screen. Also, you should be given the option of displaying more information on the “locked” screen, like upcoming events or unread items maybe.
The only huge issue I have with the general interface right now is the lack of select/cut/copy/paste functionality, and maybe just a general lack of a contextual menu where it is frequently needed. Apple has exercised great restraint in keeping the iPhone’s interface simple, but the simple addition of a contextual menu with such options would really round out the experience. My suggestion would be adding these two gestures:
- “Cuticle”-select: The iPhone can detect how much of your finger is actually touching the screen so how about if you ever want to select text, you just run your fingernail across it to precisely select it.
- Smudge: When you see an item you want to do something with (like selected text for instance), you make the same motion you’d make if you were getting fingerprinted at the local police station, twisting slightly (or so I’ve heard). A contextual menu would then pop up asking you if you wanted to cut, copy, paste, save, email, etc.
I mentioned to Dan that I could use some sort of limited file system access on the phone and my guess is that that may be coming with the Leopard upgrade. I don’t even really need anything more than just a simple “shuttle” folder to throw stuff in.
Everybody’s split on what their favorite applications are. For me, it’s Phone, Text, Mail, and Safari. Phone is great because it’s so damned easy to use. Text is great because the notification and conversation interfaces are so sharp. Mail is great because it provides true IMAP syncing across multiple accounts and doesn’t bug me every single time a message comes in. That said, the fact that I can’t “smudge”-click on the cc field to turn it into a bcc field shows how early on we are in the life of the Mail application.
As for Safari, it’s obviously the most unbelievable mobile web browser in the world and I love love love it, but it’s also made me more convinced about something I already knew: I really don’t need a whole lot of things on “the mobile web”. Having Mobile Safari there in a pinch is really great, but the only data-related things I need to do on a mobile phone very often are maps, driving directions, yellow pages, and maybe a couple of other things… all of which seem to be better suited for actual applications like the built in Maps app. Maybe I’m atypical… I don’t know. I just know that I don’t need a whole lot from the “mobile web”, and based on that, the iPhone gives me more than enough.
Visual voicemail is pretty cool, but it doesn’t change my life. One thing I think I’ve noticed that I haven’t seen reported yet is that the iPhone seems to pull your messages down locally to the phone. Never seen that before. On the bright side, you can scrub through messages, and instead of worrying about pressing 7 or anything like that, you just hit the “delete” button. On the down side, the messages sound very compressed and degraded to me.
The Social Factor
I have to say, I am almost embarassed to take this thing out of my pocket. You take it out at a bar and people swarm around. You take it out at an airport and other travelers stop their Blackberrying to gawk. Guys. Girls. Pretty much everyone who has seen a commercial (which is everyone). This effect won’t last forever, thankfully, but it’s a testament to how Apple has once again — actually, no — for the first time ever — captured the mainstream world’s attention with a product introduction. The Macintosh never did that. Neither did the iPod. This is a first.
Much like the lack of cut/copy/paste and file system goodies, the lack of full customization on the iPhone is another example of “omitting the trumpets”. Thankfully, however, Apple has seen to it that what I do have available to me is quite good. Want to change the font? Well you can’t but at least it’s Helvetica. Want to change the ringtones? Well you can’t, but at least they are all tasteful, unlike every other phone on the market. Want to change the interface? Well you can’t but at least it’s nicer than anything you could come up with. Apple’s very good at substituting their own taste for yours… but thankfully since they have such impeccable taste, it’s usually not a problem.
The iPhone’s lack of full customization and hacking opportunities is lost on all but the few percent of us who really need such things. We’ll get more options eventually, but you have to admire Apple’s restraint in producing an initial device that is so simple from a UI perspective that it’s hard NOT to know how to use it. This thing is 100 times the device my Treo ever was, but while the Treo ships with a huge manual, the iPhone has none. No manual! I wonder if that was a design requirement.
With all that is great about this device, following is a list of what I’d like to see, most of which I’m sure is already on its way:
- Select/Cut/Copy/Paste functionality
- Contextual menu functionality
- Wifi syncing
- Ability to build native apps via simple Dashboard-style authoring
- Removable battery
- Limited file system access and use as a removable drive
- GPS or cell-tower powered location awareness
- More apps (e.g. SMS) which work in landscape mode
- Ability to use as a remote for iTunes on a computer in another room via Wifi
- Faster data speeds from AT&T… EDGE is so sloooooow
I’m sure there are a few more, but as you can see, it’s not a huge list. At the end of the day, your mobile phone doesn’t need to do a million things. It just needs to do about 5 or 10 things really, really well. The iPhone, in this very first rev, is already about 80% of the way there.
It’s exciting enough that the iPhone is selling so well initially, but what’s even more amazing is that the vector Apple is on after only one release is so far ahead of where Motorola, Nokia, and Samsung are after several hundred. Is there any doubt that if this thing cost $150, it would be the most widely used device of all time?
The good news for Apple is that financial success doesn’t require either of the previous conditions to be met. The better news, however, is that in two or three years — when they are met — Apple will have completed the greatest turnaround the technology and even business world has ever seen. I’ve followed the saga almost my entire life and I can still hardly believe it.