Are You Out There, Steve? It’s Me, Wes
O Steve, who art in Cupertino, I must ask Your forgiveness. I doubted, and yet you brought forth unto us the iPhone. You did not even insist that I eat my hat in contrition; you did not even remind me that I remained skeptical long after just about everyone else on Earth. You have not barred me from buying one for myself—unless maybe it’s like the No-Fly List administered by the Grand High Priest of the TSA, i.e., in secret—and you have even allowed me to go about my business slavering after one since then.
I was blown away when Stevie the J. announced the iPhone. To be more precise, the first words out of my mouth were, “Holy cow!” It was so startling even curse words wouldn’t come forth. (Channeling Harry Caray can have its benefits, like hearing “Cubs win! Cubs win!” much more often than in real life…though as of this writing they’re riding a four-game win streak and Alfonso Soriano’s come alive.)
So, in thankfulness, I have catalogued here all of the times that I denigrated the very idea of the iPhone. Who has ever volunteered to go take a sit in the stocks for their sins before? Enjoy it while it lasts, folks, Plymouth Rock’s just a national monument now.
Anyway. I wrote, in January 2005, that I did not believe that Apple would ever release a cell phone on their own. My exact words were:
My bet instead is on a mid-range co-branded Motorola-Apple GSM phone with flash RAM in it that can synchronize with selected iTunes playlists from your computer. It could use Bluetooth or, more likely, a wire to sync. Three things I’m betting against: a CDMA version, unless Verizon shells out big time; proper functionality for American users, since cell vendors here cripple all the cool stuff; and more than 256 MB RAM.
It gets worse. (“Worse? How could it be any worse?”) In August 2005, I said, “I’m not holding my breath, though; Steve Jobs seems like too much of a control freak to put the Apple brand on an infrastructure as disastrously spotty as any of the major cell networks’. (Can you hear me now?)” And in March 2006, I gave my elusive LBJ Shot By JFK award to someone who thought the iPhone would bring ubiquitous Internet connectivity… although I stand by that one more than anything else.
Let’s just say, knowing that I have about a year left on my existing contract with T-Mobile is probably penance enough.
Normally I don’t like starting at the end of the month and working my way backwards, but I know the reason most of you all are reading this column is to see what you can find out about the iPhone. Then, I’ll follow up with some other links, and my own thoughts (!). The iPhone is due out on Friday, June 29, and this column will publish on Sunday, July 1, which means that by the time you read this, you might have an iPhone already. If so: I hate you. Die a painful death.
If not, read on!
David Pogue, Walt Mossberg, and Steven Levy got their hands on review models of the iPhone. I don’t know who else did—can’t be all that many, or I’d have seen some links by now—but they’re all varying degrees of impressed. Any device which Walt Mossberg, particularly, finds impressive, must be, since he’s much less of a technophile than either Levy or Pogue, and he is far more critical of the ease of operating the devices he reviews.
Rather than just tell you that they were impressed, I’ll give you a little taste of what they have to say. We’ll kick it off with Pogue, who is probably the funniest tech reviewer I know of. He writes that, although it has flaws and lacks some basic functionality, it’s basically what we expected it to be…that is to say, revolutionary.
[T]he bigger achievement is the software. It’s fast, beautiful, menu-free, and dead simple to operate. You can’t get lost, because the solitary physical button below the screen always opens the Home page, arrayed with icons for the iPhone’s 16 functions.
You’ve probably seen Apple’s ads, showing how things on the screen have a physics all their own. Lists scroll with a flick of your finger, CD covers flip over as you flick them, e-mail messages collapse down into a trash can. Sure, it’s eye candy. But it makes the phone fun to use, which is not something you can say about most cellphones.
But even in version 1.0, the iPhone is still the most sophisticated, outlook-changing piece of electronics to come along in years. It does so many things so well, and so pleasurably, that you tend to forgive its foibles.
Mossberg does exactly what we always expect from his reviews, and does a terrific job of focusing on the nuts and bolts of the experience of using the iPhone. It’s a long review, but his conclusion is that the device is a “breakthrough,” and on the whole as easy to use as you expect from an Apple product. He adds that its single greatest feature, its phenomenal screen, “makes other smart phones look primitive.” (Not that that’s hard—he must not have used my T-Mobile SDA, the UI of which makes “primitive” sound like a compliment.) The greatest drawback to the iPhone, Mossberg concludes, really is the AT&T network, which everyone on Earth agrees needs improvement. A quick round-up of his impressions about the various facets of using the iPhone for a couple of weeks:
The iPhone’s most controversial feature, the omission of a physical keyboard in favor of a virtual keyboard on the screen, turned out in our tests to be a nonissue, despite our deep initial skepticism. After five days of use, Walt—who did most of the testing for this review—was able to type on it as quickly and accurately as he could on the Palm Treo he has used for years. This was partly because of smart software that corrects typing errors on the fly.
Keyboard: The virtual keys are large and get larger as you touch them. Software tries to guess what you’re typing, and fix errors. Overall, it works. But the error-correction system didn’t seem as clever as the one on the BlackBerry, and you have to switch to a different keyboard view to insert a period or comma, which is annoying.
Web browsing: The iPhone is the first smart phone we’ve tested with a real, computer-grade Web browser, a version of Apple’s Safari. It displays entire Web pages, in their real layouts, and allows you to zoom in quickly by either tapping or pinching with your finger. Multiple pages can be open at the same time, and you can conduct Google or Yahoo searches from a built-in search box.
Expectations for the iPhone have been so high that it can’t possibly meet them all. It isn’t for the average person who just wants a cheap, small phone for calling and texting. But, despite its network limitations, the iPhone is a whole new experience and a pleasure to use.
And Mossberg gets the detail that I haven’t seen reported many places (and that I don’t expect the usual Everything Apple Touches Must Be Evil crowd to pick up on), that, like the iPod, software updates will resolve some of the missing features that Apple needed to get the phone out the door.
Levy, Newsweek’s reviewer, gets what I think makes the iPhone so seductive almost immediately: its interface is far more intuitive than most cell phones’, precisely because of the absence of hardware buttons. He goes on to note that this is in character with Apple’s other product developments:
Apple has a history of using cutting-edge technology, slick design and friendly software to break the common logjam in which our machines have the capability to perform certain tasks, but developers haven’t figured out how to make the experience easy.
In more detail, he writes:
During my travels and airport delays, I was able to keep up with my e-mail, negotiate my way around the downtown, get tips on the city from an old friend whose number I don’t normally have handy, check the weather conditions in New York and D.C., monitor baseball scores and blogs, listen to an early Neil Young concert and amuse myself with silly YouTube videos and an episode of “Weeds,” all on a single charge before the battery ran down. Now, just about all those things could have been done by devices that are already out on the market. But considering I’d had the iPhone for just a day, and never taken a glance at a manual, it was an impressive introduction. In contrast, I’ve had a Motorola handset for two years and am still baffled at its weird approach to Web browsing and messaging. What’s more, with the exception of learning to type on the iPhone, which requires some concentration, doing all those things on that five-ounce device was fun, in the same way that switching from an old command-line interface to the Macintosh graphical user interface in the mid-1980s was a kick.
Here’s someone who sounds like he’s used Windows Mobile before. I know how he feels. As awesome as it is that I have an incredibly powerful cell phone at my fingertips, it took me a couple of days to figure out how to use Pocket IE to access anything that wasn’t already bookmarked, and I still can’t get ESPN’s Web site to load. YouTube? Video? Was ist das?
Then Levy writes a series of bullet points where, like Mossberg, he runs through each of the various functions of the iPhone and how they work. For a quick summary: There are flaws in each, but it’s just so darned easy to use! He concludes (in the middle of his article), “The iPhone is the rare convergence device where things actually converge.”
What do you think? I spent a lot of time watching Apple’s videos on how to use the iPhone, and I’ll admit that I was impressed. It was a scripted demo, of course, but you can’t fake, “Press the ‘Swap’ button to switch to the other call,” or “You can press the home button to bring up the home screen during a call.” I can’t even predict whether the left or right button is going to be ‘Swap’ on my phone! It doesn’t always work! And this is an improvement over my last cell phone.
And, readers: if you have an iPhone, send me your (short) review, and I’ll wheedle my editors into postfixing it to this column. We can round it all up this month!
The Doubt, Susan! The Doubt!
In spite of this, it’s true that expectations are very high for this device. I can’t remember any Apple product being this eagerly awaited…ever. It’s a sign of how far the company has come from the Original iMac Era that ordinary people seem genuinely excited about this device without having seen it.
That brings out all of the usual suspects, the people who are always convinced that every Apple product is sort of a failure-in-waiting. You know who I mean.
And I suppose, in a moving-the-goal posts-back-to-the-back-of-the-end zone sort of a way, the iPhone is at very real risk of failure. Every smartphone designer from here on out is going to have to make its phone at least try to be as simplistic and straight-forward as the iPhone, and the iPhone, as the first entrant into the market, might not be the best device.
But I think it will be a success on its own—and not everyone does. John Gruber’s got a couple, and I’ve got a couple more, for you to enjoy, especially since as far as I can tell exactly zero people have held the device in their hands.
The first of Gruber’s gems is a New York Times article about the iPhone, which mostly quotes a couple of industry consultants and Verizon’s chief marketing officer. It’s a doozy—Verizon seems to think that they can compete with AT&T, née Cingular, and the iPhone by offering even more phones!—but I think my favorite line is the one Gruber quotes:
[O]lder customers who can afford it, he said, will not care about all the fancy features of the iPhone, while younger ones who are excited about the device will not like the cost.
On some level this is true, because my grandparents, who are in their 80s, are the sort of people who turn off their cell phones when they’re not using them. But, on the other hand, my dad is 49 and called me just a few months ago, ecstatic that he had just figured out how to use the WAP browser on his Samsung cell phone, and he’s bouncing with the kind of enthusiasm for the iPhone that usually he just shows for new cars.
The other is one David Platt, a former Microsoft software engineer, who pans the iPhone without having used it or, as far as I can tell, having even watched one of the ads. He writes:
[U]sers will find it essentially impossible to use one function of the tiny box without disrupting the operation of another. A few dedicated technophiles might, just might, figure out how to do so, but it will require far more dedication than an ordinary user is willing to invest in learning and then remembering. This combination condemns the iPhone to a tiny niche at best.
Uh. Huh? Is he really saying that if it doesn’t have keys and can do anything other than place calls, people won’t be able to figure out how to use it?
Now, to our other few doubters. Some of them are less brazen than Gruber’s, but they all share one common thread: they all believe there’s something less than meets the eye about the iPhone, and that consumers will either be frustrated by a lack of features or unable to figure out how to maximize the device.
- The Daily Mail’s Rob Waugh says the iPhone is doomed by its lack of 3G Internet connection and keyboard, at least in the first generation, although he admits to being impressed by the straight-forward UI.
- Ad Age’s Al Ries believes that convergence devices are a set-up for failure. Period. He lists a variety of convergence failures, without mentioning the single biggest success, the BlackBerry. I sometimes think what holds back the BlackBerry is that even technophiles like me don’t use e-mail voraciously enough to justify the cost; but he sees devices that do more than one thing as a failure almost necessarily.
- Slate’s Jack Shafer comments on the unusually ridiculous hype about the iPhone, and wants to know why no one is talking about Helio’s button-less Ocean phone, but seems to miss the entire point. First of all, Helio? Who? I’m a tech geek. I had forgotten about their existence till I read his article. Second of all, the fact that the iPhone has only one button isn’t really what makes the iPhone such a big deal, right? Anyway. He thinks that, since it’s just a cell phone and has been set up to save all mankind, it’s doomed.
- Glenn Fleishman—that Glenn Fleishman?—apparently has a column in the New York Post. He wants you to remember that the iPhone 2.0 isn’t that far away on the horizon. Don’t buy one yet! is his counsel. He seems to be in the divergence crowd, which I’ll admit I’ve usually agreed with, here, but it’ll be interesting to see how easy it is to use all of the convergence features.
- Last, John Podhoretz also wants you to hold off on buying the iPhone, at least just yet. He writes, also in the Post, that the people buying the first-gen iPhone are beta testers paying $500 for the privilege of testing the phone. Without comment…John Podhoretz? On technology? Huh?
All right, folks, that’s a wrap for this month. What do you think of the iPhone? Just drop me a line, and we’ll spread the word around. Bloggers call this an “open comment thread.” Happy calling!