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Brier Dudley's Blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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July 2, 2007 10:52 AM

Ten thoughts about the iPhone

Posted by Brier Dudley

Here's my iPhone likes and dislikes list, amplifying today's column.

Five things I really like about the iPhone

1. Its touchscreen interface. Apple was a little ambitious with the virtual keyboard and the browser buttons are too small, but the basic controls are really impressive. Instead of forcing users to move through menus, the screen displays all the major functions as a set of widgets that you tap to use. Forget the scroll wheel -- it's much easier and more fun to sort through a digital music collection by tapping and flipping through CD cases with a swish of the finger. If Apple puts interface on standard iPods (and gives them more storage) it'll keep dominating the category.

2. Finally, an iPod with a speaker. I have never liked earbuds and always prefer to play music through speakers -- more BFR than Walkman. It's not high fidelity, but you can play songs on the iPhone loud and clear enough to use the device without headphones in a car or cubicle.

3. The software for handling photos is terrific, fixing a pain point on cellphones. It has a nice slideshow feature, but best of all is the button you tap to decide how to use photos stored on the device. It gives you four choices -- use as wallpaper, e-mail photo, assign to contact or cancel. Too bad the camera itself doesn't have more features.

4. The iPhone looks and feels great. It feels smooth and touchable and has a nice heft without being heavy. You can't compare it to Microsoft's Zune, but they both have a more satin feel than earlier music players. It's subjective, but I think it's past time to move past the shiny plastic look. I'll bet the next Macs and iPods will have the iPhone's style, with a mix of brushed metal, satin and piano black plastic and chrome accents.

5. Consumers will benefit from the halo effect the iPhone will have on the mobile device and phone industry. Most functions of the iPhone were developed and released earlier on other devices. But Apple blended and presented them in a way that improves the user experience, like a chef that figures out a better way to make mac and cheese. Other phone manufacturers are now under pressure to improve their software, add more features and simplify their interfaces.

Things I really don't like about the iPhone

1. The network is way too slow, and saying that you can use Wi-Fi instead is cop-out. When pressed on the network issue, Steve Jobs has said people can just jump onto faster Wi-Fi networks, but that's utopian. Sure, you'll use the faster Wi-Fi at home, the office and your favorite coffee shop. But it's not an adequate substitute for AT&T service when you're mobile.

The iPhone does a nice job transferring from the AT&T network to Wi-Fi networks when they're available, but they usually aren't. Jobs may be able to walk around Palo Alto and hop from network to network, but it doesn't work reliably in Seattle and most other places. More often than not, people lock down their home networks for security reasons. Networks like the ones at Starbucks stores require additional monthly fees. Free networks are scattered and have varying levels of service. I couldn't get my iPhone to connect at all to the Bremerton ferry's Wi-Fi service on Saturday.

2. Durability is a question mark. I'm nervous about carrying a $600 phone that's half covered in glass. Its power and vibrate-mode buttons don't seem especially sturdy. Some people will be bothered that the glass front is constantly smudged by fingertips, especially since they have to hold it against their cheek to use the phone. Mine already has a few scratches on the chrome bezel and brushed metal back after just two days of use.

3. Battery life isn't adequate for the iPhone to be my primary mobile phone. I expect a mobile phone to last at least a full work day. I'd rather have a single-function phone that only needs a charge every few days than a multifunction device that can't stray far from an outlet or a car charger. I haven't experimented with power settings to maximize battery life, but if you have to shut off all the fancy stuff why bother to carry such an expensive phone?

4. The network lock-in leaves you feeling shanghaied and limits the appeal of the iPhone as a portable computer or iPod replacement. Apple and AT&T are telling consumers the iPhone is worth the huge investment because it's a phone, a computer and an iPod, but Web browsing on the network is slow and the iPod gets no benefit at all from the connectivity.

On top of a $60 to $220 monthly fee, two-year commitment and $500 to $600 device cost, the $36 activation fee seems like a gouge, not to mention the $50 worth of accessories forced on buyers at at least one AT&T store.

The partnership between Apple and AT&T may work well for introducing Apple to the phone business, but it's also providing cover for some serious issues with the iPhone such as the lack of access for application developers and the inability of the browser to properly display Flash Web sites. Pressed on the developer question, Jobs has pointed toward AT&T and its security concerns. Both companies need to be more transparent about challenges and direction.

5. Apple's smug attitude will keep a lot of people from even considering this device. Individuals I've dealt with at the company seem very nice, but the institution exudes a better-than-you attitude that I find repelling.

I'm not bitter that Apple gave iPhones to Walt Mossberg and David Pogue first, but I am amazed that Apple gets a pass for its attitude and controlling behavior. It acts just like a politician who refuses to participate in open debates and expects voters to decide based on slick ads and a few handpicked appearances in sympathetic venues. That may be today's reality but we shouldn't stand for it.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.