Opinion: From cell phone 'Luddite' to iPhone lover

Apple 'hit a home run' with the iPhone, says Computerworld's Scot Finnie

Back in July, not long after Apple Inc.'s iPhone was released, I told those plagued by iPhone lust "to get over it." Alas, I was unable to follow my own advice. That's why I bought an iPhone a few weeks back -- after learning that I could ditch Lotus Notes and my crummy CrackBerry at work and use Apple Mail for work e-mail and the iPhone. That combo proved to be absolutely irresistible.

A bit of background: My wife, Cyndy, got a nice BlackBerry at her job several months ago and it quickly became her main phone. Neither of us was using our circa 2005 LG flip phones from Verizon. I'm a jeans-pocket guy for my cell phone, and the LG phone felt like a brick in my pocket. My older model CrackBerry was great for e-mail, but a very poor cell phone -- so bad that I found myself carrying both at times, something that's patently ridiculous. So we dumped our Verizon phones, and I went to the Apple Store in a nearby mall.

Apple sold more than 1 million iPhones in the U.S. between late June and September.

Apple sold more than 1 million iPhones in the U.S. between late June and September. The most surprising thing for me was the purchase experience. When I bought my Verizon air card (WWAN service) at the nearby Verizon store back in May, I had to sign-in, wait 15 minutes for a sales rep, politely listen to the upsell and then indicate that, no, I just wanted what I wanted and wait while she brought first the wrong card then the right card from the backroom. Then I was ferried over to the cash register, where I had to wait another 15 minutes to get to the register. Then there was something strange in my account that involved 20 minutes of head scratching and furrowed brows by two Verizon salespeople. Eventually, I was allowed to pay and walk away with my air card.

I had an entirely different experience at the Apple Store. It took me longer to park my car at the mall than it did to walk out with my iPhone; the entire purchase experience lasted about five minutes. There are no decisions to make, accounts to check, contracts to sign. Literally, all the details are taken care of by the iTunes-based iPhone activation software. You have to connect the iPhone to your Windows or Mac computer, download and install iTunes (unless you have it installed already, as all newer Macs do) and then follow the on-screen instructions. Apple's documentation on this process is, well, basic. But then again, you don't really need it. The process of initializing activation required about 10 minutes, and after a little over 20 minutes of wait time, activation was complete -- including the transfer of the phone number from my old Verizon LG cell phone to the AT&T-powered iPhone.

Here's hoping that the iPhone user experience transforms the mobile phone industry, which seems more intent on making profits than ensuring that its customers enjoy buying and using their products.

Dazzling in operation

Using the iPhone is an absolute joy. I've been using cell phones for about 15 years, but the iPhone is the first mobile phone that I actually enjoy using. Things I never bothered with before -- like texting -- are suddenly easy and fun to do; before they just seemed like a bother.

The Safari browser included on the iPhone delivers the best browsing experience I've ever seen on a mobile device. There's literally no compromise other than the size of the screen. You can see the Web with either an emphasis on width of the screen or length, and switching between the two is as simple as rotating the iPhone 90 degrees.

The iPhone is designed to use Wi-Fi wireless connections with the same straight forward operation of the Mac, which remembers your previous Wi-Fi connections by location and connects to them automatically. So even though AT&T's EDGE (not 3G) network is a little slow at 100Kbit/sec., you won't need it all that often unless you're on the road. And it's good enough for Web and e-mail.

The iPhone works fine with Windows, but it's especially well suited to Mac users who subscribe to Apple's .Mac syncing and Web-based services. If you're using iCal, iPhoto, iTunes, Safari, Apple Mail and Apple's Address Book already, you'll be able to integrate your Mac with your iPhone seamlessly. I'm big on the idea of having just one computer for both business and personal needs, so it's also great that the iPhone bridges those two uses just as well as my 17-in. MacBook Pro. For people like me, the iPhone is the smart phone that already has access to all my personal data and communications. Sure, it may cost $399 -- and another $60 a month (at minimum) -- but it replaces the two phones that I previously had, and that's worth paying extra for.

Less than two hours after I first turned on my iPhone, I had copied all the songs from my old iPod, as well as my calendar entries, photos, bookmarks and Web-based log-in info to the iPhone. I'd also set up voice mail and run through all the settings screens. All this happened so simply and quickly that I rapidly began thinking of the iPhone as more of a portable extension of my Mac than a separate device.

The phone is also much better than I expected. Even though I live in an iffy AT&T service area, I haven't had much trouble with signal strength. One thing I've noticed is that AT&T's signal strength varies a lot more than Verizon's, even when you're sitting in one place. Sound quality is surprisingly good on calls. I've dreamed about the visual voice mail feature for years. I detest the linearity of voice mail. I want to be able to pick and choose what messages to listen to right away, and which ones to skip for now. The iPhone lets you do that.

Rounding out the features and programs are a camera, YouTube access tool, stocks reader, Google Maps, Yahoo Weather, world clock/timer/alarm clock, calculator, notes and settings. The two best features of the iPhone, though, are the large touch screen and the finger-gesture user interface, which is ahead of its time. Apple's software and user interface design are superb.

The iPhone hardware is, like most Apple hardware, a model of industrial design and simplicity. The device is heavier than it looks, which makes it feel substantial. And it's the perfect size to fit into a front-jeans pocket (but buy a screen protector to protect the touch screen).

Sore points

I've found very little to criticize in the iPhone, but it's not perfect. The software keyboard isn't as bad as I'd feared and I don't miss the tactile feel of actual keys. The audible click when you press a key helps a lot. The only problem with the keyboard is that the keys are too small for bigger fingers. That's no surprise, really, given that the keys span the width of the tall-and-narrow screen orientation. Apple would have been smart to offer a portable external keyboard. The iPhone is good enough to be the only computer you travel with (at least, on shorter trips), but the onboard keyboard really holds it back.

Various screens in the iPhone software don't actually offer a back or cancel button. For those times, Apple has a hardware-based Home button. But shouldn't every screen have a way to back out?

And what idiot designed the iPhone's small, recessed audio jack? Really now, for all Apple's vaunted design prowess, if the iPhone doesn't work with my Bose QuietComfort 2 noise-canceling headphones -- and it doesn't as is -- what good is it as an iPod replacement? I'm disgusted with the lack of attention to detail with this facet of the iPod. Yes, I know, there are short, cable-extension adapters (and less desirable rigid adapters) that solve the problem. But this seems like a gratuitous aggravation on Apple's part.

Various people around the Internet have suggested that Apple's thinking was to add strain relief by recessing the jack, thereby limiting the leverage of the protruding connector. Theoretically, this would minimize damage to the system-card-mounted audio jack. But when you consider that the Apple Store is selling a more or less rigid Belkin adapter whose 2-in. stand-off only exacerbates the strain-relief problem, what's the point? For the record, my Bose headphones offer a very standard right-angle 1/8th-of-an-inch stereo male connector with built-in strain relief that's been in use for many years. If I press on the male connector when it's inserted in the iPhone jack, I get the sound through the headphones. So the design tolerance is just a tiny bit tight for my headphones. The actual problem is the size of the hole in the iPhone case. The difference in size might be attributed to something like a measurement in metric versus SAE for the iPhone case hole. Shame on Apple for not fully testing this in the marketplace.

But those drawbacks aside, I still love this thing. I'm carrying my iPhone everywhere. For the first time in my life, I get all the hubbub about why cell phones can be cool. I guess it took Apple's user-interface design to make it work for me. I'd probably have forgiven several additional minor peccadillos for that one primary advantage.

One week later

I'm now happily listening to music on my iPhone after buying a 4-in. $7.95 adapter cable from RadTech. It works great. More importantly, my reliance on this phone matches no other mobile device I've ever owned. I will admit to having been something of a cell phone Luddite. I've owned a succession of mobile phones from Nokia, Motorola, LG and RIM. Not a one of them inspired gadget lust; I viewed them more as annoying life complications than conveniences. Their controls, displays, signal strength, sound quality and features were not worth the trouble. But with the iPhone, I already feel like I'm missing something when I forget to slip it in my pocket. I know I sound like a mobile phone newbie, but I don't mind admitting that the iPhone has become my primary phone number. Through almost 15 years of using cell phones, no other device has achieved that.

The iPhone's touch-screen user interface is brilliant, and a big part of why this device is a success.

iPhone Video

Click to see video of the user interface in action. It makes Web browsing on a tiny screen actually enjoyable. I find myself reading things very informally in a reclined position, almost like I would a paperback. At my daughter's birthday party, a bunch of parents were standing around talking. One mentioned a great place to take the kids snow sledding, but the parent in the know was having a hard time giving directions to the sledding hill. I felt a little self-conscious whipping out my iPhone to access Google Maps and figure it out, but eventually I did just that. A few minutes later a bunch of us huddled around the screen, where we figured out the location and could all see it on the map.

Along with all that's fabulous about the iPhone, there remain some aspects that Apple should fix. The primary trade-off with this device is data entry. You can't copy and paste, for example, a phone number from one place to another. In most operational modes, you can't use the keyboard in the widescreen aspect and in the vertical aspect, the keys are just too small to stab at them comfortably. The separation of basic keys like period, comma and so forth onto a second keyboard palette is cumbersome. You can't depress and hold down a key for an extra second or so to induce a capital letter as you can on BlackBerries and other smart phones. I'd be OK if I could use two thumbs on this keyboard, but I can't. I'm reduced to one finger pointing. And even then, I've had to train myself to point slightly to the left of the key I'm pressing because otherwise I get the wrong key. Even when I do hit the right keys, the iPhone's built-in type-completion text-changing "smart" behavior rears its ugly head wanting to "fix" things it hasn't a clue about. The bottom line is that typing, if you can call it that, is not a great experience on the iPhone.

I realize that Apple's iPhone engineers faced a significant challenge with the keyboard. The touch-screen-as-input-mechanism, display size and overall form factor are collectively a huge design-limiting factor for the keyboard, but they are the heart of what makes the iPhone such a pleasure to use in all other aspects. I wouldn't change anything about them. So the keyboard took it on the chin. It's hard to imagine what Apple could do to make this better. But I hope that brainy engineers are working on this very point for future software upgrades and the iPhone "Platinum," or whatever the next major revision to the iPhone will be called. Because if they can improve the keyboard experience, even somewhat, I will pay to get to it.

The data entry and keyboard weaknesses of the iPhone are magnified by the fact that Apple not surprisingly opted to use its existing Mac software set to support functions like Address Book and e-mail and so on. Most other cell phones come with proprietary software for managing some of these functions. For Mac users, it's vastly preferable not to have separate software. But in their current renditions, the desktop Mac software isn't really designed to support the iPhone. As a result, Apple customized the iPhone software. For example, the iPhone's contact favorites (the list of people you call frequently) must be managed on the phone itself. Similarly, some of the management and setup chores, such as configuring e-mail account settings, require laborious use (with no copy and paste) of the iPhone keyboard. There's just no option to configure some of these things while your iPhone is docked to your computer.

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