Ten years ago this week, the original iPhone arrived and I was lucky enough to be among the earliest users. Here’s a look back at my first impressions article, along with photos I took of the device.
Apple iPhone First Impressions
by Paul Thurrott
July 1, 2007
Well, it’s here. And while we can safely ignore the first round of quickie non-analytical “I-love-it- I-love-it- I-love-it” reviews from all the usual suspects, Apple’s eagerly awaited iPhone is indeed a historic event for the industry, an iconic milestone that marks a new era in computing mobility. Here’s one bit of Steve Jobs PC hyperbole that I completely agree with: The iPhone will do to mobile computing user interfaces what the Mac did to desktop PCs in the early 1980s. This is the line in the sand, folks. You either get it or you don’t.
Then again, one you get past the gorgeous UI, the typically elegant Apple design flourishes, and the unnecessary but attention-grabbing on-screen transitions, the iPhone is flawed, man-made technology. The more you use it, the more the device’s problems and missing functions become apparent. In fact, the iPhone is a paradox. One the one hand, it has completely elevated the bar for mobile computing to epic, almost dizzying heights. On the other hand, once you’ve experienced what the iPhone does right–and it certainly is successful in many ways–you become all the more frustrated by what it gets wrong. In other words, its sheer excellence makes you start expecting more.
I’ve got a lot to say about the iPhone, but I’ll save most of it for my review. For now, I’d like to examine how Apple has fared in delivering against the three key attributes that the company itself has identified as the iPhone’s most important.
As a smart phone that must compete in a market full of keyboard-enabled MMS and SMS devices, the iPhone Thinks Different: Instead of a hardware keyboard of any kind, the device uses touch-enabled software-based keyboard and keypads. In my admittedly limited testing, using the virtual keyboard was just as difficult with my gorilla fingers as is using the Lilliputian hardware keyboard on the Motorola Q for the past several months. For those with more normally sized fingers, the iPhone is more difficult, especially at first, and I’ll need some time with it to decide whether constant use minimizes this problem. I will say this: The virtual keyboard tracking is horrible, and this is a complaint I’ve heard from a few iPhone users already: You often end up selecting the key to the right of the one you meant to hit, causing you to manually aim a bit to the left. Not good.
The iPhone supports SMS-based text-messaging, but not MMS photo or video sharing or any kind of instant messaging. It also does not support any kind of VoIP functionality. These all seem like big mistakes for a communications device. There’s no GPS or GPS add-on, either, which is becoming a common feature on modern smart phones.
The iPhone supports syncing with Outlook, Yahoo!, and Windows Contacts-based contacts, but not Gmail contacts, Hotmail/Windows Live contacts, Thunderbird contacts, or any of the many other Windows-based solutions for managing contacts. As with any other smart phone, making calls is much easier when you have the number in your address book. However, the onscreen virtual keypad for manually entering numbers is big and easy to tap. This is vastly superior to the method I must use on my Q, where I must tap the tiny number keys that co-exist within the built-in keyboard.
For calendaring sync, you get one choice: Outlook. That really stinks, especially now that Windows Vista includes a wonderful iCal-based application called Windows Calendar, while many users simply use online calendars from Google (like I do), Hotmail, or Yahoo!. This is very limiting, and even more so when you realize that the iPhone can only sync with the default calendar in Outlook: It won’t work on any other calendar you may have configured or subscribed to.
Some of the phone functionality is quite elegant. If you are playing music or a video and receive a call, the media mutes for the duration of the call and then comes back up when you’re done. This is a good example of the integration Apple is famous for. On the other hand, Apple blows it in some obvious places too: You can’t download ringtones or use your own iTunes-based songs as ringtones. There are no voice features at all, so you can’t record audio or “tell” the phone to dial a particular contact.
Apple invented the iPod, so it’s no wonder that the iPhone is, in some ways, the best iPod yet, with a cool cover flow view that displays automatically when the phone goes into landscape mode and, unlike on the PC, it actually works quickly. One gets the idea that Apple purchased the cover flow technology specifically for the iPhone; it’s just a natural.
On the other hand, because the iPhone offers limited storage—4 or 8 GB, depending on the version you purchase—many music and video lovers will find themselves in iPod nano land, having to create playlists that represent subsets of their full collection. While my iPod can handle all the music, TV shows, movies, and podcasts I’ve ever downloaded, I was forced to create iPhone-friendly playlists for some of these entities, or simply manually select the content I wanted to sync. The same issue applies to photos, and unless you’ve taken a super-simple approach to photo management (i.e. all photos are found directly in My Pictures/Pictures or only one folder level below that), the iPhone won’t even the seem them. Sigh.
That said, the iPod functionality is largely excellent. However, don’t believe claims that the iPhone’s screen is widescreen, as it is actually much closer to 4:3 than it is to true 16:9 or 16:10. By default, the iPhone crops widescreen movies so they fill the screen, but if you double-tap the screen, you’ll see the correct aspect ratio and realize you’re missing a lot of the action otherwise. Compared to the iPod with video, the iPhone screen is palatial and beautiful. Compared to the Zune, however, the screen is about the same width but maybe a centimeter taller, so it’s a bit bigger (but much nicer looking).
Here’s where the iPhone really falls apart. Yes, Apple should be applauded for bringing a real, PC-like Web experience to a mobile device as its done by providing a near-full-featured version of Safari on the iPhone. And yeah, the zooming and display stuff is top-notch, absolutely. But it’s Safari, a second-rate Web experience at best, and of course, the iPhone version is lacking compatibility with key Internet technologies like Java and Flash.
Further problematic, all of this happens over AT&T’s tragically slow EDGE network, which has the dubious distinction of reminding more than a little of dial-up. EDGE is no EV-DO, I can tell you that, despite rumors that the service was sped up a bit for the iPhone. (My guess is that this is wishful thinking. It’s horrible.)
The iPhone’s Wi-Fi capabilities make up for this somewhat, assuming you regularly visit an area with free access, and the iPhone’s other Internet features range from interesting to pointless. While much has been made of the native Google Maps application, it’s really just a slightly improved version of the Mobile Google Maps site I can already access from the Q’s Web browser. (All it really adds is support for the iPhone’s cool zooming technologies.) And YouTube is one of the few applications bundled with this thing? Spare me.
Beyond that, you get POP email access to Yahoo! Mail, Gmail, and AOL mail, plus you can manually configure any other POP- or IMAP-based email account. And by the way, shame on Apple for actually listing Exchange as an option in the Mail application, as the iPhone is decidedly not compatible with Microsoft’s Exchange Server. When you select this option, it actually tells you that Exchange must be configured for IMAP support for this feature to work. Doy.
If you use POP, you’re in luck. If you don’t, not so good. I use Gmail extensively, and I’ve taken advantage of its labeling and filtering features to bend the service to my needs, so POP access is completely useless to me. (I’ve actually disabled POP access on my account to prevent me from accidentally downloading mail off the server.) So the inclusion of a Gmail choice in the list of compatible email services is a bit of a misnomer: By default, any POP-compatible email application can work with Gmail. The iPhone is not Gmail compatible. It’s POP compatible. I’d love to see a native Gmail application that actually worked with the data up on the server. This isn’t it.
Other Internet-related features include a weather widget, a stock tracking application, and, well, that’s it. This thing is crying out for more Web services integration, it really is. I’d love to see real Google support on this thing, from Gmail to Google Calendar to Picasa. There’s just so much that can be done here.
So I’ve pointed out some issues and you’re probably thinking I’m done on the iPhone. That’s not the case. The iPhone is indeed revolutionary, if flawed. It’s expensive, too, and I think that it needs to be more consistent, more functional, and more extensible to justify that price. My wife, an infamous cheapskate, finds the iPhone interesting and attractive, but said it was worth about $200 to her. When I asked her why so little, she said that she gets a new phone for free anytime she wants, albeit at the cost of re-upping her two-year contract. She’d only pay $200 over the freebie phones to get an iPhone. This is a lot more pragmatic than most people who’ve discussed this device, but then she’s never gotten starry-eyed over technology. By contrast, my friend Chris will likely get one, even though he found the lack of a Back key problematic after using it for only 10 seconds. I guess different people have different reactions to the iPhone’s feature set and price point. And of course, different people have different needs.
I’ll keep using the iPhone over the next month and prepare a lengthier review that’s based on real-world use and not first impressions. For now, my feelings about this device are as contradictory as they are obvious: The iPhone is nicest mobile device ever made, but it’s also deeply flawed. I’m not sure that the sum of the whole justifies the price. But I’m going to find out. Stay tuned.
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