6 platforms -- Google Android, RIM BlackBerry, Nokia S60 and Maemo, Palm webOS, Microsoft Windows Phone -- 10 devices, and almost as many weeks later and the final week of the 3rd Annual Smartphone Round Robin brings yours truly back to iPhone!
And I won't lie -- I'm loving it. It's great to be back. All the other platforms have their strengths and highlight a few of Apple's remaining weaknesses, and this is the first year I can honestly say that if there was no iPhone I could find a device on each and every one of them to live and work with. The iPhone, however, remains for me the most fully realized, most user friendly, most consistent, most convergent device on the market.
What has my time away taught me? What have I learned to appreciate more about the iPhone, and what have I come away wishing Apple would straight out steal from the other platforms?
I've already reviewed the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3.x OS before, but now I'm going to take a broader, wiser, look at it again -- and I'm going to do it after the break.
5 Years Ahead -- What the iPhone still does best
When he introduced the original iPhone 2G, Steve Jobs (in)famously said the technology was 5 years ahead of the competition. Back then that competition was the Treo 650, BlackBerry Curve, and Windows Mobile... something? And in many ways, he was right. The industry was complacent and unimaginative at the time. No one was driving them to innovate. Then the iPhone brought multitouch capacitive screens to the mainstream and revolutionized smartphone user interfaces and user experience. Sure, the original iPhone was missing a lot of basic "smartphone" functionality -- the list is now etched in our cultural consciousness -- no apps, not copy and paste, no MMS. But you know what else it was missing? Crashy, buggy, management-intensive software that was, frankly, hostile. Most of those missing basics have since been filled in (3rd party multitasking remains the most visible exception), but over the last 3 years something else interesting has happened -- the competition woke up, Google jumped in, and the game got serious.
Has the iPhone stayed 5 years ahead? No. But herein lies the crux of this section:
That the iPhone 3GS, released in June 2009, can stand toe-to-toe with devices from Android, BlackBerry, Nokia, Palm, and Windows Phone that were released months later -- an eternity in gadget innovation time -- was one of the big surprises of this year's Round Robin. That the iPhone 3GS could still hands down spank the best and the brightest and the latest the competition had to offer in certain areas was astonishing.
I mean, all we've heard for years was "iPhone killer", right? Nokia's had one brewing since the iPhone 2G launched. BlackBerry called the original Storm the "Apple killer". Palm's Pre was going to knock the iPhone off the top of smartphone mountain. And don't even get me started on the hyperbole some media outlets spout every time a new Android device lands.
Again, each of those devices has something I'd like to see in the iPhone and we'll get to that in a moment. First, however, I want to remark on just how remarkable the iPhone remains now 3 years later. Some may call it dated and in a purely fashion sense maybe it is, but when we get down to the bare metal and compiled code, what Apple introduced in 2007 and sped up to the nth in 2009 is still unmatched.
No multitouch experience is yet as good. Maybe it's precision, consistency, responsiveness, or just the use of plastic instead of glass, but while the competition is gaining they still haven't caught up. Of course, Apple was working on it secretly for years before they released the original iPhone, and it was the cornerstone of that release. Everyone else started at zero and had to play catchup -- in public. But at the end of the day, it's a huge part of Apple's edge in user experience. On the iPhone 3GS interaction is almost transparent.
The iPhone's virtual keyboard still sets the bar. It sets it so high, I think sometimes iPhone users take for granted just how completely Apple nailed it. It's been 3 years. Three. Years. And despite some amazing work by brilliant companies like Google and HTC, and again factoring in the sheer quality of the iPhone's multitouch experience, no other virtual keyboard has caught up. And on a full-screen device (or a device with a mediocre hardware keyboard, ahem) the keyboard is key.
Mobile Safari Browser
The iPhone is the best iPod Apple's ever made, and that should tell you how good the media experience is. Other platforms support broader formats (containers and codecs) for video and audio, but in terms of buying, managing, syncing, and enjoying media on the go, the iPod + iTunes ecosystem is the 900lbs gorilla in the market and for good reason. It just works, and so well this might be one of the hardest elements for the competition to ever catch up with.
The App Store is the elephant in the Smartphone Round Robin room -- it really is that huge. Approaching 150,000 apps and well over 3 billion downloads, it's often made fun of but it remains unequalled even by platforms that have been in the game far longer. Sure, no one is ever going to need 150,000 apps, but having that many, on a device with a user base as big as the iPhones, means there's a better chance of finding those few apps you do want, and having a robust set of alternatives to choose from. The top 5 iPhone Twitter clients are often held up as examples and with good reason -- not only can you find the type of app you want, you can often find one that really suits your tastes and needs. (Unless the type of app you want is Google Voice, then you're out of luck!)
That last little shot there at the end? Yeah, that's the transition…
A Year Behind -- Where the iPhone needs to catch up
There are few important caveats that need to preface this section. First, what power-user/geek-blogger thinks is a missing feature may not be what Mr. and mom average even realizes or cares is "missing" and guess where Apple's attention is focused? Second, even in cases where missing features are irksome across the board, Apple has shown time and time again they feel no need to rush out a short-term fix -- they'd rather take their time (their frustrating, tear-your-hair-out-time sometimes) and present a polished solution. Third, even a company as big as Apple has limited time and resources. If they'd taken the time and effort to fill in a missing feature last year, this year it would just mean a different feature would be missing. Sure, Nokia had copy and paste and MMS back in 2007, but the iPhone has it now and Nokia doesn't have the user interface or interactions Apple introduced back then. Pick your example. Apple chose some priorities over others. Say what you will about them, but from Steve Jobs down they have a laser-like focus and are absolutely ruthless about leaving out what they don't consider to be vital -- even if just "for now".
All that being said, here's what I came to love about the other platforms, and what I hope Apple shamelessly steals for the 4th generation iPhone and the iPhone 4.0 OS.
If you're thinking I'm going to say multitasking and notifications, you're going to need to skip down a ways to the entry on Palm. What I'd love from Android are exactly what Google does best -- services.
MobileMe is... okay... ish. Google is taking services to a new level, starting with Google Voice and Google Maps Navigation on the Droid and kicking it up a notch with the just-a-tad-too-late-to-be-officially-included Nexus One and it's pervasive voice control.
Maybe Google will just bring their services to the iPhone -- and maybe Apple will let them into the store or we'll get them as WebApps -- but it's something that we need filled out.
As for the Hero, be it on Android or Windows Phone, Sense UI brings the widgets. The iPhone Lock Screen is screaming out for an Apple-esque version, a Dashboard.
Big Mike, RIM Co-CEO, center stage at WWDC, announcing BlackBerry connect for the iPhone. No? Not going to happen? Okay, so I agree with Dieter that proprietary communication protocols are non-ideal for everyone except RIM, and sure there are iPhone IM clients that try to give the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) experience, but what really makes BBM is that everyone has it built in. It's a ready-set-go community,
We've spoken about the near criminal lack of an official Apple Mobile iChat client on the iPhone before, and while it wouldn't be BBM, it would be a start. Make a MobileMe IM account free for every iPhone user, and use open IM protocols just like iChat does already. Instant instant community.
Oh, and if I could get that 9700 battery life...
Nokia is strong in the customization. Very strong. The ability to put what you want where you want in the way you want is incredibly well supported. I don't see Apple doing anything like that, but starting with the Home Screen wallpaper in iPad, we are seeing a slight move in that direction.
Apple implemented Mobile Safari Pages in version 1.0. Palm did something similar with Card but made it a system-wide multitasking metaphor. And it works really well (especially on the Palm Pre Plus with its extra beefy RAM). Does the iPhone need that kind of multitasking? Power-user geeks certainly think so, and Apple could certainly adopt something similar.
For mainstream users, however, is the functionality worth the complexity? The typical complaint is "I want to listen to streaming internet while browsing the web". Sometimes the aforementioned geeks will add in "I want to tweet/IM/SMS while surfing the web without existing and coming back". But so far Apple's approach has been to expose web views, email sending, and iPod controls as APIs for developers. They want to let you do basic stuff inside an app rather than multitask a... a bunch of unitaskers.
Could the reverse work? Could iPod offer a hook to your internet streaming radio and then run it in the background just like any other iPod music? And even if they did, it wouldn't answer the Twitter/IM/SMS problem. So we're back with the Palm-like solution.
And while we're at it, we need something like their alert handling as well. There's just too many push notifications coming in for a single, modal alert box to handle. Even a simple Push Notification app that showed a cue of Recent Alerts -- like the Phone app's Recent Calls -- would be a start. A robust, system-wide service that, again, used typical Apple elegance to handle new alerts as they come in without obliterating older alerts, would be a better start.
Palm's doing it, so is Android. Here's hoping iPhone 4.0 does it to.
I mentioned HTC's Sense UI widgets under Android already, but I'll pay lip service to an iPhone Dashboard here as well.
Mostly -- and I'll be delicate here for Phil's sake -- it's the HD2's hardware I covert. I asked for an iPhone HD last year, I want one this year. Spec for spec it's a monster, and it's 480p (480x800) display with a 5 megapixel camera -- and throw in some 720p video recording.
And the Winners of the 6 Smartphones are...!
And now for the part you've all really been waiting for... the winners! Just for posting on the Round Robin forum threads across the Smartphone Experts Network of sites, we gave members the chance to win a new smartphone! Each of the participating sites is giving away a phone to a member who got their lucky post picked from among the thousands posted.... and at TiPb the lucky winner is
And here are our other winners:
Android Central: droid00
Nokia Experts: David
Congrats to the winners! Note to the winners on getting their prize: It's Mobile World Congress craziness right now... so you'll have to wait until it's all over at the end of next week. You'll receive an email from Dieter Bohn folllowing up with you to pick your prize and work out the shipping logistics. Thx for the patience and congrats again!