Charles Engelke's Blog

August 10, 2008

iPhone 3G First Impressions

Filed under: Gadgets — Charles Engelke @ 7:56 pm
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It’s seemed to me that developing specialized business applications for hand-held platforms was a losing game.  The hardware’s got plenty of power, but not enough physical size for a decent UI for a complex application.  The platforms are always changing, and your code has to keep changing as a result.  And there’s never been a single platform universal enough to cover our prospective user base, so we’d have to support a lot of incompatible devices.  We’re doing that now, but only for very limited kinds of functionality.

When handhelds got merged with phones and started sporting web browsers it looked like it might be the solution to this problem.  We could provide web applications and regardless of platform all users could connect to them.  But the web browsers all stank, and you still had too little screen space to put your UI in.  I used a Blackberry for a few months to evaluate it for this purpose, and I couldn’t stand it.

Then Apple brought out the iPhone with what looked like a seriously good web browser.  But it was marketed as a consumer entertainment device, not something a business could use.  So even if we built web apps that gave a great experience on it, our customers wouldn’t be buying iPhones to run them.

And then the second generation iPhone was announced with features aimed at businesses.  And Google’s been working on the Android platform that will have a very similar web browser.  So I decided to get an iPhone and try it out.  It took four weeks to get one, but it finally arrived Thursday and I’ve been using it since.  Some early impressions, in no particular order.  Well, that’s not entirely true; I’ll start with the bad:

  • Apple’s marketing to businesses, but not making it very easy for us to get iPhones.  We can’t buy them at an Apple store for our business account, and we’re not going to have employees wait in line for hours to get them in any case.  And Apple seems to have shipped a lot more units to their own stores than to AT&T, which kept telling us they’d have a phone for us in a few more days.  We need to be able to just place an order and get it filled in a timely way.  I hope to see this get better, but I’m not sure it will.
  • I don’t like being stuck with a single carrier, but if I have to be I sure wish it wasn’t AT&T.  Their high-speed coverage area is pathetic compared to Verizon or Sprint.  We only have EDGE here in Macon, though our Gainesville office has 3G.  And our customers don’t spend most of their time working in big cities, so they’ll also have only EDGE until AT&T gets its act together and makes 3G universal on their network.
  • The cellular radio in the iPhone isn’t very good.  In my house I get cellular service on it only about 10% of the time.  My wife’s old Motorola (also on AT&T) always gets service, usually two bars strength though sometimes dropping to one bar.  Since I’m starting to tell people to call my GrandCentral number to reach me, not having cellular service in my house isn’t a big problem, and I can always hope it will improve.
  • Another damn cable to carry.  The iPhone sync and charge cable is USB at one end, so why didn’t Apple make it USB at the other end, too?  I have lots of USB devices so I’d always have the necessary cable.  (I suppose I know why Apple did this; the cable is the same one as used for the iPod.  I don’t care.  I’m sick of incompatible connectors.)

Now the good:

  • The overall user interface is seriously good.  Really impressive.  There are a few rough edges where simplicity is favored over efficient use (such as navigating between e-mail accounts).  That’s good for users starting out, but I’m already wishing for more ways to navigate in a hurry.
  • The web browser is powerful, relatively standard, and has been fit into the small display area very, very well.  I particularly like how double-tapping a logical part of a web page magnifies and centers just that part.  Our existing web applications work just fine on it, and a little bit of design work could make them absolutely fantastic on this platform.
  • Cisco VPN connectivity works perfectly.
  • There’s some nice integration between the different applications, usually via the web browser (even if the starting application is a native one).
  • Some of the applications available are amazing.  The Maps one is great.  Midomi lets you hum a tune (very badly in my case) and then actually figures out what the song is.
  • Every Internet-connected application I’ve tried, other than heavy duty web surfing, works just fine at EDGE speeds.  Even streaming music works.  I don’t think streaming video would, but there’s very little capability for that on the iPhone anyway.

And there are things that aren’t bad, but I want to be better.  I expect them to get better, too:

  • It’s an ever more open world.  It’s nice that Apple supports Microsoft Exchange, but it’s not enough.  I can sync my Contacts with Google, but not my Calendar.  (The Google Mobile applet for the calendar is so good I hardly need it, but I’d still prefer to have the native Calendar sync.)  I can’t sync my Notes anywhere at all.
  • I can read PDF files, but not easily and not well.  Trying to read a 10MB PDF book freezes the iPhone completely.  Putting it on Google Docs gives me a 404 Not Found when I try to read it.  Opening it from a Google e-mail attachment via the web browser (not e-mail application) finally worked.
  • I dislike web pages that use Flash for normal functionality, but there are some things Flash works very well for.  The iPhone doesn’t have it.  It needs it.  It’s probably the minimum requirement for any kind of web conferencing.
  • I’ve used AT&T international roaming before, and it’s not bad.  The price is outrageous, but it’s a lot more convenient than getting pre-paid local SIM cards everywhere I go (and the iPhone is locked, so I couldn’t do that with it anyway).  But international data roaming prices are completely unacceptable.  AT&T offers an unlimited International data plan for their Blackberries; they need to offer it for the iPhone, too.

It looks good for the iPhone to replace my Palm PDA and Motorola cell-phone as well as providing a ton of new capabilities I’ve never had before short of a laptop.  I’ll live with it on the road for a while and see.

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2 Comments

  1. …continuation on the incompatibility issue… the iPod cable does not work on the iPhone. I think the MO is more on the order of selling more accessories.

    Comment by Jeff — August 11, 2008 @ 2:30 am

  2. Today is 8/11 – the day I need to decide whether I’m keeping mine that I got exactly one month ago. I’m in total agreement on the following:

    Coming from Verizon… AT&T absolutely and thoroughly sucks. I gave up my Treo 700w on network that totally rocked from Florida to upper Michigan and everywhere in between except in areas where there is more livestock than telephone poles.

    And those AT&T commercials need to be more like:
    – More dropped calls in more places
    – 3G is typically where you’re not – hell we’re still looking for it ourselves.
    – We’re hiring some geeky guy in black rim glasses to go find it for us.
    – AT&T Scavenger Hunt – If you can find 4 or more bars on 3G call us we’ll give you one meeelion dollars

    Flash is must!!! Just a simple use-case – I’m totally into the Olympics and I Googled ‘medal counts’ on my iPhone tonight. Over half of the 10 hits had some kind of Flash on it – NOT on the iPhone! I never realized how many sites had Flash on them until I got an iPhone. It’s a great Flash detector. I sure would like to see Flash on the iPhone.

    And one that isn’t on your list that is incredibly annoying… no cut & paste. Maybe Job’s is waiting for someone to develop it in the App Store? Who knows!

    Summary – great hardware, innovative UI, horrible network. To save my marriage, I’m keeping the phone(s) (wife can’t do without the flashlight app and I’ve got to have that iPint app :P). But if I could move it to an EVDO network, I’d be there in a New York minute. Sorry, Jeff Burton.

    Comment by Jeff — August 11, 2008 @ 3:09 am


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