There are moments when I really like my iPhone, yet others that frustrate the heck out of me. I finally got one a couple of months ago when my carrier, 3 Mobile, finally got the iPhone, long after nearly every other Australian mobile telco. This surprised me, since 3 Mobile were the first carrier to bring 3G services to the Australian marketplace about 8 years ago, so I was expecting that when the iPhone 3G was released in Australia that 3 Mobile would be one of the first to carry it. Not so.
Until the iPhone, I was a relatively happy user of a Nokia N95 8Gb. As phones go, the N95 was a pretty impressive piece of hardware… it did a lot of things well, including an excellent 5MP camera, decent voice recorder, VGA quality video, GPS and the ability to install a reasonably impressive number of third party apps – nothing like the thousands of apps in Apple’s AppStore – but it had quite a few that I found useful, including Gravity, and excellent Twitter client, and Geocache Navigator, an app for geocaching. The turn by turn voice navigation of the Nokia Maps app was also very impressive, although relatively expensive to enable. the downside was that although the N95 had an reasonable music player in it, it was a bit of a joke compared to an iPod, and syncing with a music library of any sort was way harder than it should have been. This meant that, although I liked the phone quite a lot, it required me to still need to carry two devices – the N95 and an iPod Touch – most places I went. The other downside was the text input method – that silly little numeric keypad and predictive text thing was a pain to use and really marred the overall user experience of entering text on the phone. On the whole though, the N95 was a decent phone with great functionality for most purposes.
It wasn’t until the recent release of the iPhone 3G S that 3 Mobile finally announced they would be carrying it, and with much fanfare they offered a bunch of special deals to existing customers, including the ability to move to an iPhone without any real penalty for early termination of my existing contract. After much mental “should I or shouldn’t I”, I decided to move “up” to an iPhone. Actually getting one from them was a whole other story, and was such a huge customer service debacle that it deserves it’s own story some other time.
So am I happy with it? Well, sort of. As I mentioned, there are things I really like about the iPhone, and others that make me a little frustrated and annoyed with it.
The positives are pretty obvious… it’s a beautifully designed piece of hardware, nice to hold, pretty to look at. The interface is intuitive, easy to use and once you get past its modal nature and the lack of real multitasking, it is extremely functional. The extensibility through the apps store is, quite simply, amazing. “There’s an App for that” may be an Apple advertising catchphrase, but there truly does seem to be an app for just about anything you can think of, and this ability to customise the phone into a true mobile computing device that runs pretty much any task, utility or game is really quite a defining moment in the history of computing devices. To their credit, Apple has redefined an entire market with the iPhone, producing a device that was unlike anything before it and that most other manufacturers are now scrambling to keep up with. There is no doubt that the iPhone will go down in history as a device that reshaped the entire mobile computing and communication platform.
The fact that the iPhone is basically all screen means that it can morph into almost any device a developer can think of. This is part of the iPhone’s genius. From a user perspective, the device is just as good at being a camera, as a GPS, as an iPod, as a notebook, as a you-name-it. The interface for any of these applications can be purpose built without being limited to a tiny screen, a hardware keyboard and the existing hardware buttons. Developers can build the ideal interface, the keyboard appears and disappears on demand, and a “new phone” is only a software update away. Pretty clever really.
So, with all of those positives, why does the iPhone frustrate me? Well, perhaps it’s just a case of the way I like to use mobile devices, but I find the lack of Bluetooth support really annoying (and more importantly, it symbolises a much bigger problem with the whole iPhone ecosystem). With my N95, I would often send files back and forth between my phone and my computer using Bluetooth networking. On the iPhone, I just can’t do that – Apple don’t allow it. Because Bluetooth file transfer capability is such a standard function of every other mobile phone on the market, I never thought to check whether the iPhone could do this… having to check whether a modern phone can do Bluetooth file transfers would seem to be like buying a car and needing to check whether it has a steering wheel – it’s just assumed that it does. I never realised this was a missing function until, not long after I got the iPhone, my daughter wanted to send me a file from her phone so she initiated a transfer over Bluetooth, only to discover that I was unable to receive it.
Surely I was just missing something obvious? Every other mobile phone on the planet can do this, even very basic ones, but not the iPhone, supposedly one of the world’s most advanced phones ? More research online and chatting to the folk at several Apple Stores revealed that this was indeed a design “feature”. Apple does not allow Bluetooth file transfer, with the commonly stated reason being that, in order for Apple to get the kinds of deals with music publishers it needs for the iTunes Store, the ability to share songs via Bluetooth had to be disabled. Sorry Apple, but that’s nonsense. If you need to protect purchased music from being shared illegally then surely some form of specific DRM could solve that? If you must, you could disable the ability to transfer only purchased songs over Bluetooth, but to just shut Bluetooth off completely? Come on Apple! Are you serious?
And what about photos I take myself? Or sharing a contact from my address book? Or a calendar item? Why should I not be able to share these things back to my own computer, or even to another phone, if I wish to? As it stands, I cannot get a photo from my iPhone to my MacBook without the need to use a transfer cable, as there is no direct way to get a photo to another phone via Bluetooth. Yes, I know I could use email to send it, but that presumes that, a) I’m in a wifi zone, or, b) I have enough bandwidth on my mobile plan to allow it. Here in Australia, mobile plans for phones are relatively limited, so using your data to send large files via email is a nuisance, and the thought of transferring lots of files is just not practical this way. Same deal for MMS or uploading it to MobileMe… it’s a slow, time and bandwidth consuming solution to a problem that is not a problem for every other phone on the market. If I’m sitting next to someone on a bus and I want to share my contact details with them, there’s no easy simple way to do that without connecting to an external network of some kind. That’s ridiculous.
The Bluetooth problem might seem to be relatively minor, and perhaps I just feel affected by it more because this was something I used to do a lot with previous phones. It just feels like a really backward step to own a phone that prohibits something that was so useful and usable on my last few phones. And I use the word “prohibits” very deliberately. Apple could allow Bluetooth on the iPhone… there are no real technical issues that prevent it. The Bluetooth stack is there, and it works for other things, such as the handsfree speakerphone in my car. No, the hardware is there, the functionality is there, but Apple have just decided to switch it off on purpose, and I’m starting to find the whole “it’s the Apple way, or no way” attitude gratingly arrogant. I’m also seeing this attitude play out in the App Store’s rather opaque approval process, where apps are refused access to the store seemingly on Apple’s whims.
What all of this has really highlighted to me is just what a closed platform the iPhone is. As someone who believes in the basic principles of openness, it’s annoying to see the level of interference that Apple is exercising over what it decides should be allowed or not. Yes, the iPhone is nicely designed, and yes it has tons of very cool apps, and yes it is light years ahead of the devices that came before it. On balance, it’s still one of the best phones on the market and I still think that if I have to own just one device, the iPhone is currently the one to have. I’ll tolerate the added inconveniences of the missing Bluetooth functions and the very average camera quality, because the iPhone’s many other advantages make up for it.
However, I’m really coming to think that in the long run openness will probably be the better strategy. In hindsight, I’m wondering whether I should have hung onto the old Nokia N95 for another 12 months and then taken a good look at what the Android platform is offering by then. Android is moving so fast at the moment, that many are predicting it to ultimately overshadow the iPhone’s dominance. Certainly, in the history of the computer business, open platforms nearly always succeed over closed platforms, and you would think that Apple, moreso than any other company, understands that.
I’m really hoping that Apple use that massive advantage they have – the software extensibility of the iPhone platform to become whatever it needs to become – to bring back some openness. The missing Bluetooth may just be one small thing, but I think it symbolises a much bigger thing – the willingness of Apple to play the role of Big Brother by telling us what we can and can’t do with our devices. I’m very much feeling that Apple is dictating to me how I should be using my phone, not based on how I want to use it, but on how they think I should be using it.
The irony is that back in the pre-Macintosh days, in Apple’s now-famous “1984” advertisement, they portrayed computer users as a group of mindless, soul-less followers, marching lockstep and being dictated to by Big Brother. Those early days of Apple were focused on building a computing experience that enabled people to break free of the imposed limitations of “closed-ness” and to work in ways that made personal sense. Turning off basic phone features simply because Apple doesn’t think they are needed is just arrogant and insulting to the user.
Just be careful Apple. Over the next few years, the competition in the Smartphone market is going to heat up and get a whole lot tougher. Users will have many more choices than we currently do. The iPhone is a revolutionary device to be sure, but Android, Nokia and many others will match or better the features of the iPhone and users will want phones that work the way they want them to work, not just how you think they should work. As you say in the video, “We shall prevail”.
Apples 1984 Commercial