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Top 5 Things the iPhone Could Learn from the Competition - Wait-a-Thon!

What the iPhone Could Learn From the Competition[Note: This a a Wait-A-Thon post! Comment on this post -- or any post tagged "Wait-a-Thon" -- for your chance to win a $100 iTunes Gift Card! Note that you must post with a valid and real email address so we can send you your prize -- no switching!]

No need for double-takes. You didn't click the wrong link. Just breath, dig deeply, and stick with me for a moment. Yes, you really are still reading the iPhone blog.

For a 1.0 device, the iPhone knocked the ball -- if not out of the park -- soundly into the fence, and sent a complacent industry fumbling and flurrying to catch it. But no device, not even from Apple, could get everything perfect the first time at bat. Now, I've pretty much staked my turf here by playfully poking a little bit of fun at the competition but, truth be known, when they're not wasting their time on iClones every platform and handset has some great -- even killer -- features to recommend it. In that spirit, here's my top 5 list of what Apple should seriously consider stealing... er... learning from the competition if they want to hit a home run with 2.0 and beyond...

5. Blackberry's Email Management

RIM is the undeniably #1 in smartphone market share, but they come in at #5 on my list for the simple reason that, while what they do well they do phenomenally well, as a platform I think that very maturity has led to little innovation, and hence little (and narrow) potential to mine for iPhone improvements.

That said, they are the email monster for a reason. With one major caveat, nobody does email bigger or better than Blackberry and while Twitter, IM, VoIP, video chat, and other technologies old and new battle it out for communication domination, email remains the mainstay of the mainstream, business and consumer alike, and in that regard Apple has something important to learn from Blackberry.

What Blackberry Does Right

Blackberry does email to the point where the two are almost synonymous. Push notwithstanding, when it comes to managing email, the Blackberry is a beast. It's simply the best there is at what it does.

What Apple Could Do Better

RIM uses a centralized Network Operations Center (NOC) to handle all Blackberry messaging everywhere, providing true, near-instantaneous "push" to thousands and thousands of Crackberrians each and every moment. But here's that major caveat: it's a single point of failure. Outages, from carrier to regional to network-wide have increasingly plagued the service, as have privacy and security concerns.

With the upcoming 2.0 update, the iPhone will support the ActiveSync "push" technology Apple licensed from Microsoft. ActiveSync eschews the "one NOC to manage it all" and instead simulates "push" between local Exchange Server and mobile client -- in this case, the iPhone. If someone else's Exchange Server -- even Microsoft's in Redmond -- goes down, it effects your iPhone service not one bit.

That just leaves the iPhone MobileMail app itself. Fairly easy to set up and use, it still remains a challenge to manage multiple accounts and messages. Better mass-mail handling, especially for important functions like delete, is imperative (and is rumored to be coming with 2.0 as well).

Beyond that, however, better organization is needed. A single, unified inbox, like the one on the desktop Mail.app would be a great first step, followed by the ability to hide selected, seldom-used IMAP folders to clear up some clutter.

Speaking of IMAP, since MobileMail can "see" IMAP folders for Calendar, Apple Mail To Do, etc. better integration with the iPhone Calendar and Notes application (and dare we dream -- Task app?), seems natural given what's been done in OS X 10.5 Leopard's Mail.app.

And since the spammers seem intent on mail-bombing the internet back to the stone age, some client-side anti-spam filters would also be most welcome.

Taken together, these improvements would go a long way to making the iPhone king of the next email generation.

4. Palm's Click Counting

We want powerful, we want beautiful, and -- dangit! -- we want drop dead easy to use. Great design is functional design, great user experience is intuitive, almost transparent experience. Apple nails this to a large degree. I've said it before, but my two-and-a-half year old godson can pretty much navigate his way around the iPhone, from pictures to camera to notes (his ABCs) to calculator (his 123s) which unbelievable ease and accomplishment. But there remain a few problem areas.

Palm OS, dinosaur that it is, has legendary ease of use. Rumor has it that early Palm developers, like co-founder Jeff Hawkins, literally counted each and every "click" it took for a user to accomplish a task, and did everything possible to optimize and minimize that number. It has failed miserably to keep up with the times, but in a few key ways (no pun intended!) it's still timeless.

What Palm Does Right

Palm understands moving around a mobile device like nobody else. Almost every task can be accomplished with just a few touches, clicks, or key presses. Brian has already covered the ease of entering appointment/calendar data on in the constantly-saved model of the Palm OS, and I'd add past innovations like photo speed dialing (which seems a natural for the iPhone, and ironically was a Palm innovation for their first Windows Mobile device, and requires a 3rd party add on for Palm's own OS!). TreoCentral.com no doubt has many more examples. Though perhaps not as practical on an all-touch device, even little things like typing to begin a contact search or call are all time-saving techniques mastered by the Zen of Palm, and a spirit the iPhone could easily learn.

What Apple Could do Better

In addition to being so old its joints creak and crack every time it turns around, the Palm OS lacks the power to deliver a modern user experience, and bizarrely lacks standardization even across its own device platform (besides the aforementioned lack of photo dialing on the Palm side, GSM and CDMA phones have sported different dialing apps, some modernized while others are left to languish in whatever layer of hell 1990 monochrome aliased bitmaps are condemned).

Adding photo dialing to the iPhone would be trivial. All the Quartz and Core Graphics/Animation services are there, just begging for an Apple take.

Likewise improved calendar entry: tapping on an empty slot should bring up a New Event editor the same way tapping on a filled one brings up a viewer. And data should be saved automatically unless specifically cancelled. The mobile world is both more prone to interruptions and less forgiving of them, after all.

The sideways flick currently used to move between photos, Weather app cities, and other information surfaces could be leveraged more widely as well to speed up functionality. Let me flick between album lists while a song is playing, or email folders from one account to the next.

Digging down into, and backing up out of stacked screens is so iPod Classic.

3. Windows Mobile/HTC Speeds, Feeds, and Divergent Needs

As any WMExpert would tell you, Windows Mobile -- in Microsoft's most favoritist model -- is not a product but a platform. So, I'm adding in stalwart hardware manufacturer HTC to round out the reference. Before we get too deeply into that, however, it's worth remembering that the Microsoft model makes for an almost diametrically opposed situation to Apple's. At the time of this writing, there is only 1 iPhone model, from 1 manufacturer, on 1 US-based carrier. Last count, there were 3.2 gazillion Windows Mobile phones across a plethora of OS variations (standard, smartphone... er... purple?) and innumerable manufacturing SKU's not only from HTC, but Palm, Motorola, and even Symbian co-founder Sony Ericsson, among others, which run on every carrier and it's multitude of resellers.

But Apple's end-to-end control of the device, while giving it an undeniable edge in stability and user experience, comes at the cost of variety and individual configurability.

Back in the dark days of tech support we used to joke that if you were in Mac support, every question had a simple "yes, here's how..." or "no, sorry" answer, while if you were in Windows support, every question inevitably started with "maybe" and led to hours and hours of digging, tweaking, and testing. And in many ways, the same holds true with the iPhone today: One feature set and a limited range of settings. And in very narrow ways, that leaves room for Apple to learn something from Windows Mobile.

What Windows Mobile Does Right

Again, I'm including HTC in this equation, and from that standpoint, they deserve credit for upping the game with a VGA quality screen and a release schedule that allows them to continuously field the latest and greatest mobile processors.

On the Windows Mobile side proper, the beast is so infinitely tweak-able it might as well be a hobbyist kit. Dig deep enough, and you can find settings for how you'd like your settings, and settings for those settings as well.

What Apple Could Do Better

While my heart remains set on a Nano-esque 202dpi screen (the current iPhone is 160dpi) bringing 720p to the mobile world, I would realistically expect VGA's 640x480 in the next revision. The iPhone, with the video-out cables, is already capable of pumping 640x480 to your TV, why not to the iPhone screen? And while a yearly, single product release cycle doesn't give much room for proc bumps, going beefy from the start, and getting the new chips early like Apple does with their laptops and desktops, would keep up the cutting-edge tradition and reputation, and help see devices healthily though their annual life cycles. (This might even be something proprietary chips via the recent PA Semi purchase could help with...)

On the configuration side, while Windows Mobile has 'em, they've also left them pretty much scattered every which where but under under a unified Settings area, which is precisely where the iPhone sorts them. However, though its certainly understandable that Apple is focusing on the casual user, surfacing some lower-level options a la Windows Mobile, organized and implemented with Apple's fit and finish, would go a long way to appeasing power users who currently turn to jailbreaking in a desperate attempts to get closer to the metal. On the Mac side, there are 3rd party apps that create GUIs for otherwise Terminal-only settings, and while I'm not suggesting (though maybe pipe dreaming a little...) that Apple should provide an official way to get Terminal up on the iPhone, an Advanced button that allowed for more options and deeper tweaking would be a happy medium for many users.

(What, you thought I'd beat the dead horse of cut and paste?)

2. Nokia's Mobile Video Creation

"I'm streaming live right now, come chat!" is pure Twitter bacon (like spam, but you opted in to it). Many tech pundits, who are also iPhone users, love the Web 2.1 ability to stream video from anywhere and everywhere, whether it's Robert Scoble shoving a camera in front of economic powerhouses, or the infinitely better looking Cali Lewis demoing Wii fit for the good of the masses, or the first lady of Apple (and self-confessed Jobstalker) iJustine zooming down the highway, live streaming video, especially live streaming mobile video, is the latest IT thing.

Many (most?) of these bleeding edge technojournalists are also Apple fans and devoted iPhone users. So, the fact that they're all using N95's to stream their mobile videos shows that Apple could learn something from Nokia.

What Nokia Does Right

Say what you want about Nokia's Soviet-military design aesthetic and their rather pathetic North American release schedules, they know how to throw a camera at a smart phone. The N95 sports a massive 5 megapixel Carl Zeiss lens and DVD(ish) caliber video capture. This compares to the rapidly obsoleting 2 megapixel cam on the iPhone, which also fails to enjoy any Apple-provided video capture (which means jailbreaking and loading unsupported third party apps are your only current option).

So, while Apple and the iPhone's built-in iPod rules the roost when it comes to consuming mobile media, the N95 can't be touched when it comes to creating that media on the go. This is why all those aforementioned iPhone toting blogerati, when they clog my Twitter feed with their live streaming announcements, are streaming live via the N95.

What Apple Could Do Better

There have been rumors of an upcoming iChat Mobile application, and even video conferencing, and that's a start. Apple, however, stands alone in 360 degree spherical integration, and while they don't have as massive a footprint in most of them the way Microsoft might, they at least have a toe in all of them, from hardware, to software, to services, from production, to processing, to deployment, to consumption. You can fire up Final Cut Pro on your iMac, create a movie, upload it to .Mac and sync a copy to your iPhone. Imagine that power harnessed around mobile media creation?

Right now, QIK and Nokia need each other to produce streaming video (while the N95's battery lasts, that is). Imagine an iPhone with a decent camera and video capture that could stream live via, or send recorded clips to, .Mac gallery. And imagine if Apple took the much-needed step of enabling support for UstreamTV, stickam, Flickr, and YouTube.

Coupled with seamless integration with the Mac, iMovie 08, and higher end apps, and -- BOOM -- the king of mobile media consumption becomes the king of mobile media creation as well.

Everyone could be a life-caster.

1. Android's Cloud and Location Based Services

I know. Android is still somewhere between vaporware and the eternal beta tag that hounds so many of Google's initiatives. How could they be my #1? Here's the thing: with a few notable exceptions (we'll get to those in a paragraph or two), they're batting nearly 1000 on all "cloud services" right now. And the cloud is the future.

What are cloud services? Most of us run applications locally on our computers. We buy software, install it, and use it to save files on our hard drive. Cloud services change that game entirely. They run applications on servers (often huge data centers) that we access via our browser (Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox), or through a dedicated client (iTunes, Sidebar Objects, Dashboard Widgets, etc.). Instead of buying them, we get them for free, sponsored by advertising, or via paid subscription. And instead of saving files locally, we have the option of saving them on the same servers (and data centers) the services themselves run on. We may lose some potential privacy and control, but we gain the advantage of multiple backups scattered over many geographies to preserve our data. If you think this doesn't sound too different than the old server-client model, or the Sun and Oracle predictions of the network being the computer, you're right. Just on a far greater scale.

What are location-based services? According to Google, the next gold rush. It's tying the cloud in to your current location, based on WiFi, and better yet -- GPS coordinates.

Apple provides some of these services already, with .Mac mail, iDisk storage, .Mac galleries, Back-to-my-Mac, and Sync, and rumors indicate they may be amping it up with IMAP IDLE-style "push" email and PIM sync, and maybe even a complete revamp with the next release, but they still could learn a lot from Google.

What Google Does Right

Confession: I'm a .Mac subscriber. Yes, it's buggy and overpriced, but Back-to-my-Mac and the Sync features alone were enough to lure me in. Nevertheless, Google owns this space. They're predicted to earn more than Microsoft's Windows + Office monopoly soon, and some say that's only the beginning. Indeed, the entire raison-d'être for Android is to give away an OS in hopes of getting Google's services onto more phones and thus, into more hands.

They want you to meet an old friend over one of their Open Social powered networks, use their email to contact the old friend, their search to find a great diner near the both of you, their calendar to schedule a lunch, their Docs suite to get some work done while you're waiting, their Blogger to write up the event, and their Picasa gallery to store pictures of your reunion. (All with tasteful text and banner ads, tuned per your interests and location, served up along with your results and data)

What's more, many of their cloud services allow for easy collaboration. You can share your calendar, work on your spreadsheet along with some colleagues logged in back at the office, and publish everything online for the world to see.

And the most important piece -- indeed the missing link up until recently -- Google Gears allows for offline persistence; you can keep using many of your cloud apps and cloud-stored data even when you don't have a WiFi or cell connection. If you have to get on a plane to see your old friend, you can keep typing away, and when you land everything will sync back up.

What Apple Could Do Better

Where Google strikes out is integration. Their offerings are a disjointed and sometimes disoriented mishmash of homebrews and buyouts, with nowhere near the cohesive user experience or inter-offering leverage Apple could provide. Until recently, some services didn't even work under a single login. There are also huge holes in their offerings, like Amazon S3- or Microsoft Skydrive-like storage (yes, you can rig up gDrive, but I'm talking official offerings here).

Apple already has some of these holes filled (iDisk), but are missing many more pieces themselves. There are suggestions Apple doesn't "get" social networking (or doesn't want to get it). But an easy to use blogging service built into .Mac and the iPhone would be an excellent start. And given Apple's existing "Cult of Mac", a social network tied into that admittedly snobbish demographic would be an easy sell as well. Tie it into the location-based services (opt-in, of course) and suddenly the cloud network takes on physicality as well. Instead of "Steve's Twittering: Meet up at the Mothership after Keynote", Steve can see how many of his friends and contacts are already at Keynote, and tying into search, calendar, IM, and other services could make for a very easy workflow to set up the meet.

This brings me back to the integration. The way Contacts flows into the Apple client for Google Maps gives a hint at how it should "just work". The iPhone Maps app in general shows that Apple can make hybrid client/cloud software better than anyone on the planet. Imagine that leveraged across the device?

Get an email with a spreadsheet, and instead of just a preview, you could launch iWork Online, make your edits, and have them available to all team (or family -- Apple's consumer focus!) members instantly. Still working when you get on that plane? Newer versions of WebKit promise offline modes with database support for just such an eventuality, and WebKit is the foundation of the iPhone's MobileSafari browser, and much of its data rendering in general).

And once the iPhone scales, and iPhone data starts to get aggregated and leveraged (with firm privacy and security policies!) for the benefit of other iPhone users, watch out. Today's social networks and sharing proof-of-concepts will looks positively anemic.

Apple (or an Apple/Google alliance even?) could get an immediate edge going into the next great paradigm shift in computer technology.

Conclusion

So there you have them: better Blackberry-style email management, Treo-centric focus on click counting, Windows Mobile-ish configurability, Nokia inspired mobile video production, and Google Android beating cloud services are my top 5 things the iPhone could learn from the competition.

Is Apple already thinking along these lines? We'll have to wait for WWDC -- and likely Macworld 2009 -- to know for sure. How about you? If Apple could take 5 things from the competition to improve YOUR iPhone, what would they be?

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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There are 29 comments. Add yours.

Tomer says:

I think this is a great post and I thank you for posting it.

Tom says:
  1. BlackBerry style email management is only worth having if it can be changed with settigns. I personally have all my email addresses separated into different mailboxes on my Berry, and I never use the "Messages" catchall; as a matter of fact, I have the Messages icon hidden. I even enable to option to separate my MMS and SMS into yet another mailbox of their own. I just like my different emails separate because they all serve different purposes and I don't need them getting all jumbled up in one inbox. Just so long as the multi-purpose inbox was optional, I wouldn't mind this change.

Push, of course, would be a very welcome addition (for us non-Exchange users that is). That said, the iPhones beautiful rendering of HTML email makes waiting 15 minutes almost worth it when compared to the ugly as sin way Berrys handle stripping down HTML email to plain text.
I do need to say that when I had my iPhone, I never had more than one email account on it, so I don't know the difficulties it presents. I just know that if I was forced into a catch all mailbox, I would be irritated.

  1. Completely agree. Some things just take too many clicks.
  2. The problem is that Windows Mobile usually ends up with TOO MANY settings, and it can become extremely overwhelming for majority of the users that couldn't care less about the aforementioned settings and just want it to work. Windows Mobile is one of the most overwhelming and confusing mobile OS's for the non techie user ever created and a large reason for that is the settings for EVERYTHING. It can be nice to have such control, but it can also lead to problems galore; so I agree that if this change were to be made, it would need to be at the discretion of the user through the toggling of some kind of "advanced" switch.

Also, the configurability of the WinMo platform also relates to how it is just that, a platform that is shoehorned into thousands of different devices. Some of those settings are required to make it a more stable and usable OS, others are required to de-uglify the GUI, and some are required to break out and around the carrier placed limitations. The problem is that all this mixing and matching of different settings and different customization are part of the reason WinMo is so unstable. Granted, a competent user doesn't usually have the same problems the not so competent have, but if you ask me, you should have to study the OS, and how to work it, of your mobile phone to have a decent user experience. For that, Apple should be praised and there lack of customization is probably why the iPhone is such a stable and joyous thing to use.
I agree with you to a point, because of my WinMo-tweaker roots, but I don't think its worth risking stability and usability over.

  1. I personally have never had the pleasure of using an N95 for any picture taking/video taking goodness, so I can't really comment. I do, however, agree 1000% that the iPhone needs a better camera w/ flash and video recording capabilities, as well as an MMS client to send these pics and vids with. Integrated ability to stream to the net is extremely subjective though, and if it was never added, I wouldn't even notice. Not saying that is a reason to not add it, but it really is a subjective addition that some people will love and many won't look twice at.
  2. Aren't the cloud services essentially the same thing as Web Apps? I am not 100% following you on this one, so I won't go too far on comments. I get the location based stuff, but the cloud services stuff I don't. I personally think anything that relies on a data connection is iffy. I know you said it can be accessed without the web, but it is going to be limited access, otherwise there is no reason to not just install the app on the device. I will stop it there though, because I am not "in the know" about these cloud services enough to really talk about them, but they do sound strikingly similar to the existing Web Apps.
Tom says:

I haven't the foggiest idea why my comment formatted like that...

Dave T says:

Worth reading, thanks! I'm not sure I have 5, but here goes.

  1. My biggest surprise from using the current iPhone is, I can't tell it's in my pocket. Light + small + flat = POCKETABLE. Don't lose this indispensable feature of the current phone.
  2. I downloaded some of my favorite music videos to the iPhone, but it was pretty pointless. Definitely need a VGA screen. Also, I will never put this phone in a case, but I would be interested in a landscape-oriented dock. I don't want to hold the phone while watching a video, and it is pointless to watch a video in "portrait" orientation.

3 and 4. I would love to see better iPhone-Google apps integration, along with a better "data terminal" experience. For starters, give me a landscape keyboard.

  1. The iPhone's camera sucks. 2GB sensor, decent lens, auto-focus, flash, auto-white balance are minimum requirements for a camera phone. I am not sure you can do this well without building a separate "camera phone" model, but I would upgrade to a decent camera iPhone in a minute. I do not need a video iPhone.
carsly says:

Well done! Saw a palm centro ad on TV this weekend and they just now are finally advertising that it has a touch-screen? Took them long enough, that's why they are about bust.

ScottS says:
  1. Mail, 2. Mail, 3. Mail, 4. Mail, 5. Mail

I MUST be able to use exchange...and since I have more that one e-mail account that is critical to my daily activities...a simpler interface to toggle between e-mail accounts.

burnsaa says:

How about a removable battery and mms? That's a lesson they could learn from every other phone maker out there.

deda says:

Excellent post, but what about instant messaging and texting? Apple has a LONG way to go to improve these features.

Dyvim says:
  1. push email that works
  2. MMS- any free with contract feature phone can do it, why can't iPhone?
  3. Better mail organization and management as you said. Batch delete and move are a must. Swipe sideways to switch between accounts would be great.
  4. Higher res screen (just dreaming here).
  5. eBook reader (I guess that's what 3rd party apps are for)
  6. Chat
JordanB says:

I agree with Dave T, landscape keyboard would be a big plus.

Victor says:

eBooks are on the rise. I agree with Dyvim. eBook reader must be considered.

WatersWest says:

Interesting ... very interesting. Definitely needs to have (but probably never will) a removable battery. By the end of this year, we should be seeing some of those original batteries start to die. It will be interesting to see what people have to say then . . .

Bad Ash says:

When was the last time someone actually won one of these Wait-A-Thons...? It's been a long while. :-\

will says:

very interesting a removeable battery will be nise as steve said. mabey 3g iphones will come out becuase at&t put there canclation fees down.

dane says:

I'm waiting, along with everyone else - so why not jump in the Wait-a-Thon?
1 - Cut and Paste
2 - MMS
3 - Landscape keyboard
4 - Real mail support
5 - Functional camera
Aside from the removable battery (which will never happen) the rest (eBooks, LBS, etc.) are just apps - I'm sure there'll be another Wait-a-Thon for the big post-3G-app-drop, so we can all predict those...

ayzee says:

being a previous WM6 HTC Kaiser owner I'm glad to this day I made the switch. But if apple could take some features from it? Hmm where do I start, lemme me start with the most obvious:
1. Cut/copy & paste
never noticed just how much I used this feature..until I couldn't
2.search function
this is needed especially for contacts, & would be nice in the iPod mode.
3.megapixel camera similar to nokia's with video recording
4.copy & paste !!
5.gps navigator
6.flash...
7.IM app

Dieter Bohn says:

@Bad Ash et al: Will be announcing an update to the wait-a-thon and a ton of winners today or tomorrow.

Andi Blija says:

I swaer to god, I'm gnawing on my keyboard for the new iPhone to come out, but this was very informative!

Rene Ritchie says:

Bluetooth keyboard and A2DP support would be nice. I typically can last 2 days on a charge, unless I'm pumping heavy video out to a TV, so replaceable battery hasn't been an issue for me. (My old Treo 600 didn't have one, and my 680 ran down so fast even the double-sized didn't help much!)
Cut and paste is the holy grail for some. Personally, I want remote Front Row/iTunes/Apple TV control! (Remote like over the 'net!)

smileyboy says:

Great article. I personally believe US Americans.........
just kidding.
I think cut and paste will come out soon, so I won't bother with that.
A2dp would be nice too, but I think to e more competitive better email management is a must, a mms app and at least a 3.2mp camera. Also the ability to tether via USB or Bluetooth.
Those are my thoughts.

tschertz01 says:

Great post. There are lots of things that iPhone could learn from the other guys and frankly I have always felt that a lot of these features have been superficially held back by Apple. Hopefully with impending 2.0 update the true capabilities of the iPhone will finally be realized.

jasonact says:

I think the biggest drawback of the iPhone for me is the number of steps it takes to make a phone call. Granted, I don't use it as a phone very often, but when I do, I'd like to do it with few steps. Also, the lack of voice dialing is annoying.

teejayhanton says:

@Jason: Two steps to dial a number ... unless you've got the phone locked. Then it's four steps.
Hmm ... that does seem a little off, doesn't it?

will says:

will all iphones be onlocked when the app store comes out?

Ryan says:

All this is swell... I just want the iPhone to come to Canada!

Sean310 says:

nothing, i love the iphone :D.. i know sad right.. the anticipation of the 3G iphone is getting to me. omg WWDC in 3 days.