First look at the iPhone: Tomorrow's technology today

The iPhone does indeed deliver as promised

I'm not ashamed to admit that the technology of Star Trek (especially The Next Generation) helped spark my interest and eventual career in IT. The gizmos and flashy technology always appealed to me, and I always found it fascinating that for the crew of the Enterprise, everything contained computers, yet most devices remained functionally similar to what we use today.

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs seems to feel the same way. When The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg in a recent interview with Jobs described the iPhone as actually a mobile computer with a phone in it, Jobs noted that lots of things have computers in them, but nobody calls them computers. A car is still a car, he said, yet cars have many computers in them. Suddenly, I realized my Star Trek future had arrived, hundreds of years early.

Forget communicators and phasers. I have something better and seemingly more advanced. I have an iPhone, the 8GB model that retails at a pricey $599. More about how it works -- and a couple of glitches -- below. (For another take on the iPhone, see "Hands on: Five things I love, and three I don't, about the iPhone").

I've been waiting for this for six months, and yet the past six hours, standing in line with nothing but an iPod outside an AT&T store in the Florida sun yesterday, were the hardest. I was No. 7, and I learned a little bit about just who's buying these things while waiting. The line had grown to more than 20 people when one of the AT&T reps came out and conducted an impromptu survey. How many Macintosh people; how many Windows users? The crowd was split down the middle. How many AT&T customers; how many from other mobile providers? Again, we were split half and half.

I don't know how those proportions played out nationwide. But Apple's reach into the Windows world seems to be working.

The AT&T store closed at 4:30 p.m. to prepare for its reopening at 6. Not long after, AT&T workers brought out the floor-model iPhones for the first time. There, beyond the glass, not five feet away, was the hottest, most-talked-about product ever to come out. First impression? Wow, sexy.

Pictures, for the aesthetically minded, didn't do the iPhone justice. In person, the phone is sexy. It's a deep black surrounded by a halo of silver. It's thinner than one might expect, and the floor model separated from me by the unwavering glass really just exuded sexy. No other word for it.

With gadgets, sexy sells. It's that "Ooh, wow" factor that makes you want a product. The iPhone has that. To be fair, so do other smart phones, though not to this extent. Why? For most phones, it's because they rely on keyboards. Some are hidden, some are shown to the world in uber-geek glory. However, little mobile keyboards are just so commonplace, they're just so ... late 20th century. The iPhone, in contrast, rivals gadgets shown in science fiction movies. The iPhone, with its multitouch screen, is like a Star Trek gadget come to life. Think of it like this: a touch screen with a fluid, well-executed user interface is to a plastic, static old-style phone keypad like LCD panels are to CRT monitors.

The iPhone looks like it was teleported from the future. The competition, in comparison, look like ... well, phones. With keyboards slapped on. Not sexy. [Eds. Note: At this point in editing this review, I ran out and bought one.]

At 6 p.m., AT&T finally let us in. People in the front of the line broke into applause, then cheering. Within minutes, I had it in hand.

At home, I unwrapped the plastic from the box. (The weight and feel of the box itself are reminiscent of packaging worthy of fine jewelry.)

The iPhone itself is amazing in its simplicity and elegantly flowing lines. The silver halo that surrounds it sharply contrasts the black finish, and from many angles, the screen actually appears to disappear into the unit, giving the iPhone a clean, polished look. The unit feels heavier than it looks, but the weight gives it a solid feel, and the construction screams top-notch. Everyone I've shown it to has been blown away by its design and feel. Its heft in your hand is just right.

The 3.5-in., 480-by-320-pixel screen is gorgeous, even when it's just displaying the wallpaper. We're talking about 160 dpi here, which makes the display look high-resolution. The size is perfectly suited for movies and TV shows on the go, and with all of the content on iTunes at your disposal, there's more than enough entertainment to keep you occupied.

Activating the iPhone through iTunes was a breeze. As an existing AT&T customer, I agreed to the addition of a $20 data plan to my line and soon after, I was off. Within minutes, my iPhone was syncing my data, and just moments after that, my iPhone alerted me that it had been activated.

A few minutes later, I received my first phone call. A few moments after that, I got another. I was able to swap between calls, merge them, put them on hold and separate them without hassle. Other phones, of course, do that as well. What's the difference here? The multitouch screen and interface. I can confirm what early reviewers have already pointed out: it works like magic. The interface is intuitive and straightforward, and multitouch works like a dream. Merely tap the screen, or drag your finger across it depending on which function you need. And remember, this is glass, not plastic.

I was not able to put my iPhone down all night as I explored its features. I've already used Google Maps through downtown Orlando. The interface is easy to understand, and multitouch works as billed. So does visual voice mail. Mac OS X mobile? Cool. Cover flow on my iPod? Nice. But I keep coming back to the interface. The fact that Apple's products are easy to use enhances their value; the iPhone isn't a collection of features; it's a well-thought-out multifunction device with functions bound together by a drop-dead simple, drop-dead gorgeous interface. The sum is more than the parts.

The iPhone in its first incarnation works, and works well. Not only that, but it does so using a multitouch interface that other phones can't (yet) rival. The newness of multitouch in concert with a growing number of mobile desktop-class applications will eventually fade, just as all paradigm-shifters do. But products like the iPhone and flat-panel monitors and fuel-efficient cars -- think hybrids -- leave imprints in time because we can literally judge points into two parts: before and after. I'm convinced the iPhone is that type of product, and I believe its impact will match the hype of recent months.

Is the iPhone perfect? Not at all. While the phone itself hasn't crashed, I have experienced a couple of crashes in the Safari browser with some apparently incompatible Web sites. In those instances, Safari just fades away and the home screen appears. Everything else keeps ticking normally. And for those concerned about EDGE network data-transfer speeds, remember: The iPhone also offers Wi-Fi connectivity for faster browsing when you can access a wireless network.

Are there any deal-breakers? Not for me. The iPhone is a wonderful and thoughtful product that will only get better. To quote someone on an iPhone forum, "Think of the iPhone as the least powerful, lowest memory, worst battery life, worst screen you can buy, because from now on, it's the minimum bar." Think back to the original iPod and consider the difference a few updates and changes can make. The future looks bright for the iPhone.

As for now, we have a solid product in Version 1, a phone that does what it says it'll do with an interface splashy and functional enough to make even the coolest Star Trek interface look dated. While tomorrow's technology will no doubt surpass that of the present, with the iPhone, a piece of tomorrow has arrived today.

Michael DeAgonia is a computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macintoshes for a decade and working on them professionally since 1996. His tech support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry and Apple. Currently, he is working as an independent consultant at YourMacTek specializing in all things Macintosh.

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