Monday, August 17, 2009

The Quest for the Perfect Phone part II - iPhone

As I already explained in my last post, I can't even find one good Smartphone that I can recommend in good faith to a power user.

What about the iPhone?

I know a lot of people love the iPhone, and praise it as the perfect phone. I don't get it- the iPhone, despite its popularity, is actually one of the least useful devices to bear the name Smartphone in my opinion. As a power user, I can't justify even considering it.
Sounds kind of harsh- but if you hear me out (and are not a rabid fan caught in the famous Reality Distortion Field), you may yet understand...

Before we begin, lets remember what the purpose of a Smartphone SHOULD be... a device powerful enough to handle tasks normally reserved for a desktop computer, while still offering the convenience of a mobile phone (industry marketing changed it over time... the original definition was a bit more specific).

Since Apple is all about the user experience and convenience, one would assume that the slick and simplified iPhone would be perfect for a Smartphone.

I will admit that the iPhone has great looks and actually makes mundane tasks fun to do on it (flick, slide, pinch!). The problem is, many people will actually find it FAILS when it comes to doing anything serious with it.


1) The biggest problem: MULTITASKING.
You multi-task your life. You multi-task on your desktop computer. You'd think multitasking on a mobile device would be a no-brainer feature in being productive on a casual-use device, right?

The iPhone as a platform only allows one application to be running at a time. This is a problem for people who are juggling things on the go.
Joshua Topolsky, editor (and talk-show cameo celebrity) of laments trying to use the iPhone in a doctor's office waiting room to work remotely.
Joshua logged into a chat room using an IRC app for iPhone, and begins to converse with his other writers. Thank goodness, as they say, there's an App for that. The problem is, as soon as he switches away from the screen to check an email or copy and paste something from a web page, what happens to the IRC app? It closes! He then has to start it up again, connect to the chat, and he has now missed anything that happened while he was away from the screen.

"We don't work like this on our computers -- why does Apple think we want to work like this on our phones?"

As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter how many Apps are in the App Store- if I can only run one at a time, that's a great big fail. I need to have my mail, browser, possibly a spread sheet (or two), or even an IM window open, and be able to swap between them seemlessly. This isn't hard to do- Smartphone classics like Windows Mobile and Nokia's Symbian have been able to do this for going on a decade. The iPhone surely could have been designed to multitask, however Apple feared that 3rd party multitasking support would create a very messy and decidedly inefficient OS, so they left it out.
What you get is a nice user friendly system... that isn't really all that useful.

Many enthusiasts have a keyboard atop their iPhone wishlist, but I'd like something a little more basic first- buttons. The sleek design of the iPhone is aesthetically pleasing, but at the very least some shortcut buttons would make one-click access possible. Most modern phones have a dedicated key for things like the camera, voice command, menus, "back" to the previous screen, etc... relying on a touch screen for everything sure does look cool, but it actually makes navigating the OS take more steps (click, select, scroll, scroll, click)!
Not to mention an on-screen keyboard, no matter how elegant Apple tries to make it, is always going to be a compromise feature.

I'll admit something- I love the novelty of Touch Screens, and I've have them since the first Pilot 1000 running Palm OS was around... but they are not convenient to use!
Let me illustrate something to you:
A standard feature phone can be used without looking because of the physical keys- many "old-school" phones can be silenced or have their profiles changed without even taking them out of your pocket. Can you do that with an iPhone?
I think not.
A full-on touch screen device not only requires two hands (one to hold it, and another to tap), but it REQUIRES YOUR ATTENTION TO LOOK AT WHERE YOU ARE HITTING THE SCREEN!
In fact, its difficult to even answer or hang up the call without using two hands and giving it your visual attention for a sec or two. Do you own the phone, or does the phone own you?
While there are some novelty advantages to having a large touch area to use (great for remote desktop or dragging information on screen), at what point are we sacrificing one-touch easy and convenient use of the device for a novelty effect?

Yes, the fact that this device is made by Apple is a down side.
What's wrong with Apple, you say?
In this case, the company currently has too much control over this device, which hinders its capability. Don't like Safari? Want a web browser that supports flash? Too bad. They won't allow Opera, Skyfire, Netfront, Firefox or any other developer to make a browser, even thought they offer features Safari does not (and are available on other Smartphone platforms). Want a media player that handles other formats, or syncs with stores other than iTunes? Fat chance. You're stuck with their store and their prices, because G0d forbid they should lose any iTunes revenue. Then there's the fact that they can remotely remove apps after you bought them if they later decide they don't like them (Google voice, anyone?). Heck, Apple denied a dictionary from being allowed into the App store because it contained definitions for words they deemed "inappropriate". This Big Brother "protect you for your own good" approach might make for a seemless user experience, but at what cost? All the really useful stuff either jumped ship to more open platforms or require you to Jailbreak your iPhone, thereby voiding your warranty (and possibly breaking the law, if Apple has their way in court).

There are other things that irk me about this phone as well but aren't worth going into detail, such as the fact that you can't swap batteries (I always try to have a spare battery around for those trips that may leave me for days without a charge), or the fact that all apps throw their icons into one giant directory instead of allowing you to organize them into sections or folders (you could easily have a couple of hundred apps and scroll through pages and pages to find the one you want- no joke! What is Apple THINKING?!).

The bottom line, as far as I'm concerned, is that the iPhone is a really cool gimmicky phone that doubles as a toy and/or show-off status symbol device. It looks really cool from afar, and even when you play with it, but try to sit down and use it productively, and you may find yourself experiencing the same anguish as Joshua Topolsky above. At least he had the decency to write about it- Considering how I use my phones on a regular basis, I would have gotten frustrated and hurled the iPhone at a wall after one day of trying to make it work for me.

What the iPhone needs to be perfect:
Here's my wishlist for the fruit phone-
1) Multitasking support in the OS - this is key.
2) add a directional pad and 2-4 shortcut keys around the outside of the screen- perhaps two on the bottom and two on the top or sides. They can even be flush with the finish so that it doesn't ruin the aesthetics at all.
3) Apple needs to step back and open up the platform a little bit. Let it grow and evolve on its own and stop protecting people from themselves.

Until these things happen, I can't even consider it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Quest For the Perfect Phone - Part I

I came to a sad realization the other day when discussing the pros and cons of various modern cell phones with some of my friends.
The bottom line I found, especially regarding Smartphones, is that they pretty much all suck for one reason or another.

Yes, every one. I don't care if you DO love your iPhone, Blackberry, G1, Windows Mobile, Symbian or other handset... I think it sucks. Or, at the very least has something inheriently missing/wrong with it that keeps it from being the useful device it *COULD* be.

As someone who closely follows the mobile industry, I am often asked to recommend the "best phone out there". I used to always tell people that there is no such thing as a perfect phone for everyone- with so many choices available as well as varying needs of users, it is clear that there is no such thing as phone that is perfect for all people all the time. The trick is, as I used to say, to find the phone that is best for YOU and what you want.

Not anymore... Now I see it differently: Everyone phone sucks, and the trick is to find the lesser of all evils that still does MOST of what you want.

Don't believe me?
Think I'm overreacting?

Perhaps, but I'm still convinced that anyone who is happy with their Smartphone either
a) have low expectations from their handset
b) don't know what a Smartphone is truly capable of or
c) are kidding themselves.

What's got me so disgruntled? Its simple really- A good phone shouldn't be difficult to make, but sadly I think the manufacturers have gotten too carried away with the latest features and gimmicks, and forgotten the most important rule of a mobile device: Be convenient to use.

Bill Maher put it best when he lemented "Thanks for all the bells and whistles, but I could communicate better with ACTUAL bells and whistles".

The point of a Smartphone is (or at least used to be) to take tasks normally reserved for a desktop computer, and make them more portable and convenient. Sadly, many modern Smartphones often FAIL, and sometimes end up making normal phone functions unecessarily complicated.

Over the next series of posts, I'm going to analyze different handsets and explain why I think each one somehow missed the boat.

Do you love your phone? Got a handset you think is an exception? By all means leave a message about it in the comments and see if you can change my mind...