MacWorld Review: iPhone Firmware Update 1.1.3 Makes Icons Dance, Lets You Find Yourself
As expected, Jobsy took center stage at San Francisco's Mascone Center, pouring glasses of Kool-Aid to a thirsty yet doe eyed audience. MacWorld, for those of you unfamiliar, is Apple's annual conference and keynote that is part State of the Union address, part infomercial, and part Renaissance Festival (minus the period costumes and jousting) all rolled into one. Jobs gave his usual PT Barnum performance with product announcements and demos to wow the crowd. This is MacWorld after all, so iPhone took a backseat to a major new product added the portable line, MacBook Air. More on that later.
What came from today's big event was the vacuous sound of what didn't. For starters, no SDK was announced, nor any update given on its inevitable release. What we got instead was a firmware update that offers a few really nice features, but barely chips the surface on what is by now a mountain of feature requests from users. No copy/paste. No Exchange support (not that Exchange IMAP fiddly bits we get now). No Flash support for Safari. I keep hearing that song from OneRepublic playing in my head... "Stop and stare. I think I'm moving but I go nowhere."
But all is not for naught. Firmware 1.1.3 gives us a few decent featureware additions sure to pacify even the most puerile cynic, like myself. To begin with, control of icon placement in the dock is finally wrestled from Apple's totalitarian grasp. The phone app, Mail, Safari, iPod, can all be relocated to the homescreen, repopulating the dock with any app you choose, though I strongly advise leaving the phone app where it is, unless you enjoy making calls from the homescreen. In fact, all homescreen icons can now be rearranged around as you please simply with one finger by tapping and holding on any icon, at which point all the icons begin to dance and gyrate like Brittany Spears staggering to her car after a night of bingeing.
And when you run out of screen real estate for all those icons, the homescreen paginates, represented by a series of small white dots depicting the number of viewable "pages" that scroll from left to right. If that sounds suspiciously similar to the multi-page implementation found on SummerBoard, you're correct. A little too similar. So much so in fact that I can't shake the feeling Apple is using the very community of iPhone hackers it shuns as free outsourced R&D. When what appeared yesterday as a hack from community sources now appears today from Apple, your mind begins to ponder where the real magic of software design is happening; Cupertino or somewhere in the cloud. All I can say is, if Apple is going to ahem "barrow" innovations from hackers it damn well better open the door good and wide for developers in the coming (presumably) SDK, offering unfettered API support. That's all I will say on that subject. Now back to the firmware review.
Meanwhile, Apple puts the fun back in function with Safari in the form of a handy new feature allowing users to pin webpage shortcuts, called Web clips, to the homescreen. This is where the new homescreen paginate feature comes into play. After launching Safari, post-update, you'll notice a new "+" sign at the bottom of your screen display. Tapping this brings up a dialog panel offering a choice of bookmark options. Tap on the middle selection; "send to home screen" and whoosh! Well actually there is no whoosh, per se. Another prompt screen appears allowing you to name your soon-to-be icon, at which point you get dumped back to the homescreen to admire your lovely new icon. If you want to delete a user-generated icon, just tap and hold, wait for the gyrations to begin, and now a delete emblem appears in the upper left corner of the icon in the same way that Dashboard widgets are handheld in OSX. It's that simple.
By now you're asking yourself... damn, why doesn't Kent post screenshots of all this so we can see what it looks like? Ah, well that's where we go back to that whole "dude! where the hell is my SDK you lying bastards?!" thing. With this latest firmware update, as with all others before, iPhone gets sent back to prison, behind barred doors and razor wire fences to keep out unwanted
developers hackers. And with that goes the breadth of applications and useful utilities developed by creative and telented people. One tool in particular I use for taking screen captures for posting. So goes that. Now it's back to blurry photos of my left hand holding iPhone for image capture. If you sense that I'm growing tired of this game, you're right. Apple, it seems, devotes more effort taking features away from me than it does providing them, and that just kills my inner child. Ok, so I lied about dropping the whole Apple vs. Developers thing. This time I will, I swear.
Beyond the dancing icons ala Brittany, and Safari bookmarking, there are two other notable additions sure to leave you leaning forward in your chair and reciting biblical proverbs. From the book of Jobs, Verse 21: And Steve said..."Let there be group SMS messaging." And behold, from the towers of Cupertino poured forth multi-party SMS and it was good. Well it's not a burning bush, but having the ability to send one SMS to several friends or group members is a much needed feature. The tendons in my thumb splintering to shreds from having to peck out the same message for different recipients. Thankfully that ends now.
Those above features, while tasty, are mere potatoes compared to the real meat of the update. The signature feature to this firmware update has to the revamped Google Maps application which now integrates some rudimentary location aware functionality that enables iPhone to perform some form of GPS mimicry. By using crude cell tower triangulation, the new and improved mapping app is now able to locate your current location on a map, in proximity to the nearest tower. It works well and might even help you find the nearest town or borough, but I wouldn't trust this app to help medical personnel locate me should I fall into a deep crevasse while hiking through Middle-of-Nowhere Montana. When I tested this feature out twice today it did find my location, but was off about... oh... one square mile. That's one hell of a margin of error.
Beyond that astonishing feature introduction, the mapping app still works and looks largely the same. Apple did clean up the UI quite a bit, and concealed function buttons that were previously at the forefront behind a page layer that displays interesting page curl effect when activated. Again, nothing overwhelming here, just nice touches to fit and finish. A disturbing revelation came during today's keynote when Steve Jobs announced that users of iPod Touch, iPhone's cellular-castrated cousin, have to pay Apple a tax of $20 to download the firmware update. That doesn't bode well for iPhone users as this is no doubt a harbinger of things to come. We can now look forward to the prospect of one day paying for software updates as well. Sucketh!
And that ladies and gentlemen pretty much wraps up this otherwise underwhelming update. In the long history of firmware updates, this one won't receive any special honors. No statues will be erected in its honor. But 1.1.3 still stands head and shoulders above 1.1.2, which I best described as the DDS release for "Doesn't Do Shit". And that's the kindest compliment I can pay today's firmware update, believe me. Yet this release offers so little and I find myself, as always, wanting so much more. Like someone who has crawled through a hot arid desert, with Apple offering me only a thimble of water to assuage my parching thirst. Just one more layer of the onion peeled back, so many more to go.
Keep updating your software Apple, you're getting closer.