Round Robin: iPhone, Long Live the King

After a month without the iPhone, it's good to be back. I got used to a lot of things in the 6 months of use with the iPhone that just aren't possible with the other devices. In using the iPhone, I got used to having 7GB of music handy. I got used to carrying around headphones so I could slip into the world of music at a moment's notice. I got used to looking whatever I needed on the real web. I got used to checking voicemails individually whenever I needed. I got used to how I checked email. I got used to threaded SMS. I got used to viewing videos. I got used to not charging my phone religiously every night. I got used to the seamless syncing with iTunes. On my return to the iPhone, I was astounded how quickly I was spoiled with syncing information. It was downright nasty to get all of my information onto a lot of these other devices. After 6 months of using the iPhone, what would have pleased me now frankly shocked me.

That's not to say that the iPhone is perfect. No, there are a bunch of things that I realized I'd miss once I got back to the iPhone. I'd miss to-do lists, I'd miss installing programs, I'd miss the culture of openness that most of the other smartphones possess. I know that I'll have some, if not all, of the features I've been wanting in a few months once 3rd party applications arrive; I'm sure that others will arrive as carrots in the future whether they come from Apple or whether they come from the hacking community.

The future is really why I went for the iPhone in the first place. I wanted to use a device that has a future, not one that has a past. All of the other smartphones, they come with what is best described as baggage. There's a history to how they do things, and when they do something that's probably wrong in terms of how a smartphone ought to work, there's an excuse for it, or some obscure technical reason that was relevant years ago but isn't relevant now. They were designed to work around older technology, and all of that cruft builds up, and that cruft takes battery power. Why else would those thicker devices have worse battery life? In a lot of ways, the other smartphones pioneered the way, but it doesn't seem like they kept up. The iPhone, even with its shortcomings, is a fresher look on what it means to be a smartphone than any of the other devices out there, and I'm pretty sure that it will continue to be that way. Who is going to be able to keep up with what Apple has started?

I'm not trying to dig on anyone that uses these devices. I'm just trying to illuminate why they don't work for me, and see what I can take from the experience of using them.

RIM's BlackBerry

RIM? RIM is worried about Microsoft's Windows Mobile eating into their profit share to focus on the iPhone -- the BlackBerry and the iPhone are pretty much in different worlds. The BlackBerry is buried in this small email world. Sure, email is important, but what about the web? The web opens up an entirely new world, and BlackBerry seems poised to miss it. There's no touchscreen either, which is a real bummer for me. Their operating system is its own alien world too -- buried settings, multiple icons, carrier branding all over the place, their own special version of mobile Java that isn't fully compatible with other versions of Mobile Java... they require their own special data plan that goes through BlackBerry... I just don't get it.

There are some things that I like about BlackBerry, though. Even if it's not the greatest version of mobile Java (J2ME, MIDP2.0), it's still Java, and it provides a lot of access to the device. If you want an IM app, you can have an IM app. If you want to play a game, you can play a game. If you want FaceBook, you can have FaceBook. And the push factor is another great aspect to the device -- it saves on battery life, and notifies you when it has something for you. The unified inbox really allows you to schlorp the emails through.


With Palm, the software is good. It's just that I can't bring myself to invest money into it -- it's like betting on the oldest horse in a horse race. Put the horse out to stud -- it's not going to win any more races. Its offspring, maybe they can win. To mix metaphors, the phoenix first has to die before it can be born anew, and I'm not in a rush to wait almost 2 years for that to happen. I don't want to wait two years to see what my new smartphone can do. I want to see what my smartphone can do now. When I upgraded from the 680 to the iPhone back in June, I got what a lot of Palm users had been anguishing over for years: a modern looking user interface, a new launcher, a better web browser, wi-fi, better battery life, and a thin form factor. Palm OS shows its age -- it's tough to use with MP3 ringtones... or profiles... or wi-fi... it's web browser is pretty bad...

The fact that Palm is still around is testament that they did a bunch of stuff right. If one of their next-generation operating systems had panned out, they might be in a different situation than they're in, and it's unfortunate that they are where they are. Everything is easy to use, there's a bunch of apps out there, it's simple, quick, and easy to use whether you install extra apps or not, and everything is well thought out. There are tweaks that make things even easier, and for the methods that I'm aware of, they're less expensive than the tweaks for Windows Mobile.

Microsoft's Windows Mobile

Microsoft? Microsoft isn't going to worry so much about the high end of things. They have a platform to worry about, and they're going to slug it out with all of the other platforms out there. They're going to target the spacious middle. They don't care about the top 1%, they care about the middle 50% and up. They'd like to compete with the iPhone someday, but they can't even compete with the iPod yet. Microsoft is worried about Linux, about Google's Android, about Symbian -- they have enough to think about, and their software, though ridiculously powerful, requires a bunch of tweaking to get it to work right. And not only does Microsoft have to get it right, but the device manufacturer has to get it right too -- how many buttons is enough? How many is too much? What kind of navigational gimmick will it use to set itself apart? Who is going to build a car kit that's designed to integrate seamlessly with a no-name Chinese Windows Mobile OEM? When will Microsoft ship a decent mobile browser? When will Microsoft figure out their music and ringtone store and make them worthwhile for use? Not soon enough for me. Microsoft will be where I would want them to be when Palm's Linux OS comes out, and there's no way to tell if Palm will be worth the wait or not.

So what's okay about Windows Mobile? Well, the sky is the limit. The only thing it demands is your time. And that you be a super consumer, that you're willing to research the 100+ various models to see which one is right with you. Then you have to hope that the model that meets the stats you want has the same software updates you want, because Microsoft is essentially spineless in terms of how they set up the user interface -- they won't put their foot down and say "no, that goes too far." It's a lawless world of inconsistency, which serves to make it harder to use. The flip side of this coin is that some handset makers know how to get it right. You just have to do the research to get it right. It's going to take a lot of time. A whole lot of precious time. It will also take a lot of money.

And Windows Mobile is really the jack of all trades in this regard. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, but bridesmaid is better than nothing. Windows Mobile has push technology, easy integration with Exchange, the weight of a zillion dollar monopoly behind it, Don't get me wrong, if I had to pick a 2nd horse in this race right now, it's Windows Mobile. If you're going to make a safe bet on the future right now (that isn't the iPhone), this is probably the one.

Apple's iPhone

So where will the iPhone go? What direction will it head? No one can say. The iPhone, just scant months after its release, is already ahead in so many categories. Web browsing, movies, entertainment, music, web videos. Apple has come so far in so little time, and it's only going to get better once the SDK comes out in February. Then the itches that remain will be scratched. It is a shame that the SDK wasn't done when the device came out, though. The first 7 months of the iPhone feels a lot like a pre-release or a beta period -- without third party apps, you really don't see the full picture of the platform's capabilities.

And since we don't have that SDK yet, there's no good way to scratch the 3rd-party app itch. To get 3rd party apps, you've got to hack your iPhone. And while that's not a barrier for some, it is a barrier for others, to be sure. If you can't get anyone to scratch the itch, the itch remains and drives you crazy. This is Apple's fault, and it's why you'll hear a lot of people say "the iPhone is amazing, but...." It's the lack of 3rd party apps that causes the "but," that forces the qualification.

Even if they were able to ship with little widgets on the iPhone, that would have ameliorated the itch. It would have been a balm, if programmers could store some javascript on the phone so we could run little mini-apps that talked to the web.

But here's the rub of it all: even the gripes showcase why the iPhone is such a crazy awesome device. I'm griping about the lack of desktop widgets on my phone. That complaint isn't even possible on the other devices. Apple set the bar very, very high, and they made an entirely new set of rules common. If you're looking to buy an iPhone, the worst case scenario is that Apple stuff generally has a lot of resale value if you don't like it.

The Smartphone Round Robin has been extended to Sunday, Dec 9 at 12PM PST.

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