mac.column.ted: The iPhone: Second thoughts

mac.column.ted: The iPhone: Second thoughts

Ted Landau
January 2007

As I exited the keynote address at last week's Macworld Expo, images of the iPhone were dancing in my head. If Apple had set up a booth just outside the hall for selling the device, I would have signed on the dotted line without a moment's hesitation. Fully aware of Steve Jobs' persuasive powers, my defensive shields had been set to full strength prior to going into the keynote. But the device itself was so amazing, more than living up to its pre-Expo hype, that it shattered my shields with ease. I was not alone. You only have to briefly surf through the cornucopia of articles and blog entries covering the iPhone to see that it is already been anointed as the breakthrough product of the year -- and it's only January.

But now, with the passage of several days, and back in the confines of my office, I have had time to reflect more carefully on exactly what the iPhone does and does not bring to the table -- at least to my table. The result is that, while I am certain to get an iPhone eventually, I am no longer certain I want one when it first arrives in June.

To be fair, I am not the iPhone's ideal target audience. I do not currently use, or lust after, a smartphone of any kind -- not a Blackberry, a Treo or any other similar competitor. In fact, even though my not-so-smart Motorola mobile phone is capable of Internet access, I have never even enabled this feature. As for my phone's camera, I have taken a few snapshots with it, but not enough that I really care that it has a camera. I do have an iPod with video but (unlike my phone) I don't carry it with me all the time. I take it along only when I expect I might actually use it (such as for a long car ride or while commuting on a BART train).

Still, part of the appeal of the iPhone is that it provides such an appealing and easy-to-navigate interface, that you start thinking about using it in ways that you never used a phone or an iPod before. With an iPhone, I can at last see myself using a mobile phone for email and surfing the Web. With an iPhone, I will always have my iPod with me because it's part of the phone. So I expect I will use the iPod more often. How wonderful. Except for the...

Cost. The iPhone will set you back a minimum of $500. The model that I would get is $600. Add to that the cost of the required two-year mobile phone contract and you are talking serious bucks. In contrast, if you agree to a similar two-year contract with Cingular, you can get a Razr V3 for better than free: after rebates, you'll get a check for $25.With a similar deal, a palm Treo 680 can be yours for just $50. Yes, the iPhone has the added bonus of a widescreen iPod. But I already have an iPod; one that has so far been more than adequate for my needs.

If you intend to use the iPhone's Internet features, you will need to pay yet additional dollars to access the EDGE network, probably about $35 per month. Yes, you can try to get by with getting online only when you have Wi-Fi access (which the iPhone also supports). But I know that once I get used to checking my email from my phone, I will want to be able to do so whenever and wherever I want, not just when I can join a Wi-Fi network.

Finally, unless Cingular is your current mobile phone provider, you'll have to switch to Cingular to get an iPhone, which could mean additional costs for cancelling your current contract. Fortunately, I dodged that bullet; I am using Cingular already.

Disk space. Because it uses a flash drive instead of a hard drive, the iPhone has only limited disk space: 4GB or 8GB depending on the model you get. In contrast, my iPod with video has a 60GB drive. Given that I have already filled up over 30GB, I can't imagine having the iPhone be my primary iPod.

While iPod nano owners may believe that 8GB is adequate, bear in mind that nano owners don't get to put video, including feature-length movies, onto their device. The iPhone's widescreen practically screams "use me for movies." But most users will be hard-pressed to have more than one or two movies on the iPhone, especially after they start filling up its disk with music.

My guess is that, before the year is over, we will see a widescreen iPod, sans the phone but with a true hard drive, replacing the current iPod with video. But I doubt we will see this until near the end of the year. Apple's strategy will be to drive all sales to the iPhone, until after the initial rush to purchase the device has peaked.

Battery. The battery life of the iPhone is listed at 5 hours, when used for a combination of "Talk / Video / Browsing." As is true for most "official" battery life stats, that's probably an overestimate. If I use the iPhone to watch a full-length movie, I am concerned that there may not be enough battery power left over to depend on the phone working for the rest of the day. Currently, I recharge my phone only at night. I prefer to keep it that way. With the iPhone, that may not be possible.

I have also been told that, unlike most other mobile phones, the battery itself is not user-accessible. This means that when it eventually needs to be replaced, you'll need to send the iPhone to Apple (as you now have to do with the iPod). Again, this is a step backward from how my current phone works.

Closed system. Although exact specs still remain a bit unclear, the word is that you will not be able to add any data to an iPhone -- except what you add via synching with iTunes. In contrast, my iPod mounts on my Mac as a plain vanilla hard drive. This means, for example, I can use it as a backup device when travelling. I can also connect to my mobile phone via Bluetooth and add my own ringtones and wallpaper. As of now, it appears that none of this will be possible with the iPhone.

And despite the fact that the iPhone includes a version of Mac OS X, don't expect to add any third-party Mac OS X applications, not even a widget. Apple says that, at least for now, the iPhone's system is "closed."

Physical size and screen protection. The iPhone itself is just a tad bigger than the current iPod with video. And it fits comfortably in one hand. That sounds pretty good. Still, dialing a phone number using a touchscreen, with its lack of tactile feedback, will likely be more difficult to do with just one hand than with a traditional mobile phone. While the iPhone may compare favorably in size with other smartphones, it is significantly larger than my current flip phone, making it less convenient to carry around all the time.

Plus, while the touchscreen remains one of the iPhone's most impressive features, I am concerned about protecting it from scratching and other damage. Ideally, I would want some protective device that would still allow me to grab the phone and make a call without having to fumble around to remove the phone from some slip case. Given that touching the screen is required to use the iPhone and that the screen makes up practically the entire front of the device, this may prove tricky to accomplish.

Changing habits. Switching to an iPhone will require that I change some of my current habits.

For one thing, I will likely want to switch from my current POP email account to an IMAP one (such as the Yahoo! service noted by Steve at the keynote). This will make it much easier ensure that all email work I do on the iPhone can be later accessed from my Mac. I will also likely need to give up on using Entourage as my email client, as the iPhone will only synch with Mac OS X's Mail, iCal and Address Book applications.

By all accounts (although this all may change by the time the device is released in June), the iPhone does not provide for voice activation of phone numbers, a feature I frequently use on my current phone.

Finally, the iPhone is the first iPod not to use any sort of circular wheel for navigating the menus or controlling play. Although this is at best a minor concern, I am not certain that I will prefer the iPhone's interface here.

Taking all of these matters into consideration, I have decided to step back and look some more before I leap at the purchase of an iPhone.

A peek at the future. Today's iPod is significantly better than the original model of 2001. The same will hold true for the iPhone. I am confident that the concerns covered in this column will be resolved by the 2009 iPhone (if not sooner). That's why I know I will be getting an iPhone eventually.

When I do get my iPhone, I am beginning to wonder whether it will turn out not only to be a replacement for my current mobile phone and iPod, but for my notebook computer as well! I am in the fortunate position of having two computers: a desktop Mac that I use as my primary computer and a MacBook Pro that I use primarily only when I travel. Yes, given that it's sitting on my desk, I use the MacBook at home as well, offloading jobs to it that would otherwise occupy my main Mac. But if I never left the house, I would not really need a notebook Mac.

When I do travel, I typically use the MacBook for only a limited set of functions: checking email, checking my calendar, surfing the Web, watching movies, working with photos, giving presentations and writing text documents. The current version of the iPhone can already do all but the last two and a half of these tasks. It partially succeeds at working with photos; you can view photos but you cannot add new ones directly from a camera. As for showing presentations, I can easily imagine a version of Keynote added to the iPhone's repertoire, together with a port that would permit connecting it to a larger external display. To use it as a word processor, I would want to have the option to attach a portable display and keyboard (as the 3.5 inch screen and virtual keyboard is not adequate for extended text work). And, of course, I'd want to be able to save documents to the iPhone itself. I remain confident that all of this is in the iPhone's future.

Even so, I don't see the iPhone becoming a total replacement for my MacBook. But even if it meant that I could use it instead of my MacBook 50% of the time, that would be a fantastic convenience.

In fact, I see the inclusion of Mac OS X in the iPhone as Apple's potentially biggest "stealth bomb" against Microsoft. Imagine that the iPhone becomes so popular as to dominate the mobile phone market, as the iPod now does for MP3 players. Further imagine that the iPhone's capabilities have expanded to the point that it is equivalent to a mini-notebook computer. The result? The majority of the country will be using a computer running Mac OS X! Who would have ever thought that day would happen?

Regardless, I don't need a crystal ball to know that the iPhone will be a smashing success in 2007, even at its present stage of development. Once again, Apple has shown that it has the vision to look beyond how things have always been done to create a device that exemplifies how things should be done and how they will be done from now on.

This is the latest in a series of mac.column.ted columns by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

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