iPhone at 23 (days)

Now that I’ve had my iPhone 3G for just over three weeks, I figure it’s time for me to share some thoughts.

Anyone reading this probably already has some idea of the iPhone, just from the constant media attention, so I won’t mention the most well-known features (touch interface, hi-res display, GPS) except in passing.

The Good

The web, everywhere. For years I’ve had phones that supported web-browsing in some form, first with GPRS and more recently with 3G. The problem was always the browser itself. The built-in browser in most phones often feels like a bad joke, like surfing today’s web with Netscape 1.1, over a 1200 bps modem. Opera Mini changes the game considerably, providing a decent browser experience for almost any modern phone, but the fact that it’s not integrated into the phone means that as soon as you click a link in an SMS or email, or do anything else that the phone considers an internet-related event, you are thrown back into the phone’s caveman browser. With the iPhone, you’re using Safari, which is an established browser with a great javascript interpreter, so it works well with most existing websites. So far I haven’t seen any sites that trip it up, and I really don’t expect to. The only drawbacks are the lack of Flash (which I do miss in a few spots; I can’t play Scrabulous without it!) and Java (really only a drawback in theory, since usage of Java in the browser seems to have vanished from the face of the earth).

Pervasive contacts. Your contact database, imported automatically from Mac OS’s Address Book (or Windows’ Outlook, though I haven’t tested), is readily available for applications to use, both built-in and third-party. For example, if I’m using the maps application and need direction’s to a friend’s house, I don’t have to enter his address, since I can just pick it from the address book. Similarly, I’ve already got email addresses and phone numbers for most of my friends and family in my address book, so they’re all just a few taps away.

Offloading resources. One of the working assumptions of the iPhone is perpetual internet access. This is put to good use in, for example, the maps application. Unlike most previous standalone GPS units or telephones with GPS, the iPhone doesn’t need to be preloaded with map data, it gets it live from google just like your web browser does. This also goes for route planning, that’s handled by google’s servers instead of the phone itself.

The built-in speaker. This baby is surprisingly loud. Combined with talk-radio podcasts, you can convincingly reproduce the experience of listening to AM talk-radio on a tinny kitchen radio! This is actually more useful than I’d imagined; If it’s placed on a surface a few feet away I can hear it even over the noise of babbling children, a running dishwasher, etc. Not a great hi-fidelity music listening experience obviously, but for talk podcasts or just to have some music playing in the background, it’s pretty good.

The App Store. Being able to quickly and easily download software for the phone, both free and commercial, via a built-in application, is a big win. Sure, lots of the applications are similar to one another, and you sometimes sift through commercial apps that are bested by free competitors, but that’s true of desktop software as well. If you buy any non-free applications, you probably won’t need to break out a credit card, since the App Store will charge the credit card you’ve previously registered with Apple for either a .mac membership or iTunes Music Store purchases.

Some great apps. There are some great apps available already in the App Store, with more to come. Chief among these, perhaps, is Apple’s own Remote app, which lets you control iTunes on any Mac or PC on your wireless network. For years I’ve envisioned smarter remote controls, that would actually be aware of the state of the devices they’re controlling (instead of just blindly sending commands in response to button presses that may or may not be relevant at the moment, as current remotes do), and this is actually a step in that direction.

The “Bad”

Missing 3G features. The iPhone is missing some features that many people have come to expect from 3G phones, particularly MMS, video calls, and FM radio (not really a 3G feature at all, but something that many people expect in a modern phone in any case). For me, the absence of those features has no effect. I’ve been using 3G phones for several years, and during that time I made a video call once (to a friend in the same room, just to try it out), sent an MMS maybe once, and received MMS messages a handful of times (literally, I can count them on one hand). IMHO, video calls and MMS are actually mis-features, created by the telephone carriers as another way to charge high service fees. As for FM radio, well I did listen to it a few times with my previous phone, but now I’ve got 8 gigs of space to fill with my own music and podcasts! Who wants to listen to commercial radio when they can choose themselves?

The (truly) Bad

Some things just won’t sync. At least for me. For some reason any apps I download straight from the phone aren’t synced back to iTunes, so in the event of a full restore (see below) I am forced to manually download them again.

The Ugly

Full restore. I ended up having a problem where every app I had downloaded (including Apple’s own Remote app) crashed right after startup, sending me back to the home screen. A bit of googling revealed the solution: Sync everything, and do a full restore. Ugh. That’s the sort of thing that makes me hate Windows, where the general solution to any problem starts with “reinstall Windows”, and it pains me to see this “solution” on the iPhone. Hopefully things will stabilize. On a plus note, the full restore was quite painless, if a bit slow. The only problem is that none of my third-party apps were synced to iTunes, so I had to reinstall them all. If I’d had any valuable data saved in any of these apps, then I’d probably consider that to be a much bigger problem.

The Battery. Oh, good gracious me, this phone sucks juice. I was aware that it would do so, I’d heard that many smartphone users need to charge their phones every day, but still. The speed with which that battery gauge dives into the red is truly frightening. I’m thinking forward a year or two when, if this battery deteriorates anything like my first MacBookPro battery, I’ll be down to 3-4 hours of standby time, or maybe 15 minutes of actually using the phone before the battery is completely drained. Turning off 3G seems to help (and surprisingly doesn’t seem to effect the speed of mobile surfing too much), and turning off wi-fi helps even more, but how fun is that?

In Conclusion

I think the iPhone 3G represents a milestone, of sorts. While I don’t suppose that everyone, or even a large minority, will have an iPhone in the next few years, I do think that it raises the bar in many areas, and when other phones start reaching the iPhone’s level of integration and internet capabilities, it’ll be better for everyone. Rising tides and all that. In any case, if you want a sneak peek at the future of mobile telephony, buy an iPhone today.