Charles Engelke's Blog

August 17, 2008

iPhone’s Great – and Grating – UI

Filed under: Gadgets — Charles Engelke @ 12:46 pm

I’ve been using my iPhone 3G for a bit over a week now, and I’m impressed with it.  But it can be pretty annoying, too.

The lousy cellular radios have been widely documented, and that’s certainly annoying.  But it’s the user interface that’s grating.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s amazing and very easy to pick up.  But it’s not always easy to use.

The biggest problem comes when trying to use it in the car.  Yes, I use a hands-free headset, but the “soft buttons” (instead of real ones) make dialing dangerous.  You have to look at the phone while dialing, and the form factor even makes doing that one-handed nearly impossible.  It’s not just dialing, even answering or hanging up is very difficult.  In fact, hanging up is particularly hard because there are about eight different soft buttons on the screen, and you’ve got to hit the right one or something undesired will happen.

At the very least, the iPhone needs voice dialing.  There’s a free add-on app for that, but getting it launched is harder than manually dialing, and then it doesn’t seem to work very well.  Good voice dialing and headset integration are vital.

The other UI issues are just annoyances.  The iPhone is optimized for brand new users, and it is very easy to just start using it.  But lots of operations should have alternate navigation options.  For example, if you’ve got multiple e-mail accounts on the iPhone it takes six clicks to go from reading a message in one inbox to another.

If the iPhone were truly an open platform I’m confident that fixes for these problems would come from somebody, even if not Apple.  But, though it’s more open than it used to be, the iPhone is still a closed platform.  I’ve got high hopes for the Android platform.  Maybe I’ll get an Android phone once Sprint or Verizon has one.


August 10, 2008

iPhone 3G First Impressions

Filed under: Gadgets — Charles Engelke @ 7:56 pm

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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