Fixing the iPhone

For as many impressive features as the iPhone packs in to its tiny frame, it's missing just as many. Some of the absent features can be added via firmware updates, some won't appear until the second-generation model--and some likely won't be added at all

Apple iPhone
How much better will the iPhone be six months from now? Apple

Like a big summer blockbuster, the iPhone hype peaked the moment the doors opened last Friday. The waiting was over, the mystique had lifted--and by the end of the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people realized that their really cool iPod phones were missing quite a few features found on competing (but admittedly far less sexy) cell phones. The good news, of course, is that Apple can continue to roll out software updates to the iPhone, improving it piecemeal as the weeks and months progress. The bad news is that some of the device's drawbacks are hardware-based--so they won't be fixed until the iPhone 2 is released (if they're addressed at all).

Here's a rundown of the iPhone's main shortfalls--and my guesses as to the chances of them being added to the current model via a software update (the first number), or holding off for the inevitable iPhone sequel (the second number). And for the record, these are nothing more than guesses.

  • 3G data (this generation: 0%; next-gen: 100%): Perhaps the biggest complaint with the iPhone is that it uses AT&T's slow EDGE network, not the much faster third-generation (3G) HSDPA technology. Because this is a hardware limitation, the existing iPhone models are stuck with EDGE--but it's all but guaranteed that when the next iPhone appears (it's slated for European release), it'll be a 3G model.

  • Bluetooth A2DP (85%/100%): The iPhone has Bluetooth 2.0, but--for reasons unknown--Apple didn't include the A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) that allows it to stream to stereo headphones and speakers. Perhaps the company is waiting to release its own version of one of these accessories--iHeadphones, or a second-generation Apple Hi-Fi--so it can hype iPhone compatibility. But adding it via a software update shouldn't be a problem. Until then, you're stuck with monaural headsets.

  • User replaceable battery (0%/5%): Like all iPods--and unlike almost every other cell phone ever made--the iPhone battery is locked inside the device. Apple rates it for 300-400 charges, after which--incredibly--you'll need to ship it to Apple for a replacement ($79, plus $7 shipping). If that sounds like one of the most consumer-unfriendly moves you've ever heard, that's because it is--but since people have pretty much bought into the idea of their locked-case iPods, don't expect Apple to change its tune on this issue, even on the sequel models. (Overheard at the Genius Bar, 2009: "Instead of replacing the battery, how'd you like $150 off the new iPhone?")

  • Nonrecessed headphone jack (0%/25%): Another major iPhone annoyance: the device has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, but it's recessed, so many current headphone models won't work with it, simply because their jack casings aren't narrow enough to fit. In other words, that $300 set of earbuds you bought for your iPod won't work with the iPhone without you investing an additional $10 in an adapter . You'd hope Apple would fix this oversight in the design for the next model, but the conspirator in us suspects that the recessed jack involved some Faustian deal with headphone manufacturers to force yet another upgrade cycle--so maybe it's here for good.

  • Expandable memory (0%/5%): The iPhone's capacity--just 4GB or 8GB--isn't much, especially when you want to watch a movie or two on that next cross-country trip. Larger capacity storage in future models is a given (and we can hope that 32GB and 64GB SSD drives will eventually make it on board sooner rather than later). But, like previous iPods, don't expect a MicroSD slot on future iPhones.

  • GPS (0%/33%): The iPhone's built-in Google Maps feature is great, but it would be even better if it the device knew where it was at any given time. I'd give it a one in three chance that we'll see this feature in the next iPhone.

  • MMS (50%/75%): The iPhone offers SMS text messaging and e-mail, but not the Multimedia Messaging Service that allows for sending images, audio, and video to other phones. This would seem to be an easy addition for current and future models. Of course, if it was so easy, why wouldn't it already be there?

  • Integrated chat clients (33%/66%): The iPhone makes it easy to get AOL, Yahoo, and Google e-mail service delivered on the phone--but those companies' instant messaging clients are nowhere to be found. Supposedly, you can use Meebo on the iPhone's Safari browser, but those looking for integrated access to AIM, Yahoo Instant Messenger, Google Talk, or MSN (ha!) don't have any easy options. Again, this would seem like an easy software fix--but perhaps AT&T is frowning on such easy access to non-SMS messaging service.

  • Flash support (33%/75%): The iPhone is supposed to be a little OS X computer. The Flash plug-in is available for Safari on Mac computers, but it's missing from the iPhone's browser. This, too, would seem like a fairly easy fix--if not a top priority--but the fact that Google is converting all of its YouTube video to H.264 format makes me wonder if a Flash solution is coming later rather than sooner.

  • Landscape keyboard on other apps besides Safari (90%/100%): Prefer to type on the iPhone in landscape mode (horizontally) instead of portrait (vertically)? You can--but only when using the Safari browser. The extra room--and, for many people, comfort--offered by the horizontal orientation makes me think that universal landscape mode will be one of the most likely software upgrades to the iPhone. It's already there--it just needs to be accessible in all of the applications.

  • Video capture via camera (33%/85%): As Michael Richards knows all too well, most phones can record short video snippets. This camcorder functionality is currently missing on the iPhone. Perhaps it will debut in concert with the MMS capability--or maybe Apple's waiting for the larger memory capacity of a follow-up model before adding it.

  • Customized ringtones (95%/100%): This one's as close to definite as there is. It'll be added, to be sure, but I bet it won't be the ringtone function you want (use any iTunes song as ringtone). Instead, it'll probably involve you rebuying a snippet of your favorite song.

  • Third-party applications allowed (25%/50%): This would, in theory, offer a solution to most of the software-related problems above--but why should Apple let anyone else into its walled garden? Until it does, the only third-party apps you'll find on the iPhone will be AJAX-enhanced Web sites available on the Safari browser.

That's a stab at some--but not nearly all--of the iPhone shortcomings. There are plenty of others, including true Exchange Server e-mail access, video output, and modem tethering. And in addition to the ones I've missed, I'm sure plenty of you disagree with the odds I've given--or even that some of the items mentioned above are even relevant. So fire away in the comments below, and let me know what you think.

 

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