[This is an official Smartphone Experts Round Robin post! Every day you reply here, you're automatically entered for a chance to win an iPhone 3G, Case-Mate Naked Case, and Motorola H9 Bluetooth Headset! Full contest rules here!]
After 4 weeks sampling Google's Android G1, Palm's (HTC's) Treo (Windows Mobile) Pro, HTC's Windows Mobile FUZE, and RIM's BlackBerry Bold, it's back, and I'm back.
A lot has happened since Dieter ripped the still beeping iPhone 3G from my cold, not-even-dead hand. Promo codes hit the App Store. iFart apps did to (and made a killing -- sigh). And, of course, Apple released a little something called firmware 2.2.
Admittedly, I cheated a bit. I checkout out the new firmware and the new Google Maps, but I really haven't had the chance to use iPhone OS 2.2 as my "daily driver", not until now.
I've reviewed the iPhone software several times now, for 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2, so I'll spare you the regurgitation, because something else has happened to: I've spent time with all those other smartphones. I've experienced some things still unavailable on the iPhone, some I've really liked, others... well, check the videos for the Android G1, Treo Pro, HTC FUZE, and BlackBerry Bold if you haven't already.
Instead, I'm going to focus on that: returning to the iPhone and looking at it again through eyes now widened by our sibling sites' signature devices. And I'm going to start after the jump!
iPhone vs. Android
When it comes to the Android, everything seems to boil down to "openness" -- unlike the iPhone, which is strictly controlled by Apple and the App Store, pretty much anyone who wants to (and knows Java) can code for Android and give away (and maybe eventually sell) what they want, where the want, and how they want. (Within reason, Google still has a kill switch all their own.)
But big deal. Android's openness is cliched to the point that that the strawman is wincing. I'm going to propose that neither open nor proprietary, chaos nor order are inherently good or bad, and more importantly, really matter to the end user. Both have advantages and drawbacks -- it is what's ultimately brought forth from each platform that matters (the iPhone, after all, has a Darwin kernel, OpenGL, and other non-proprietary code at its core).
Sure, developers want to express themselves with as little restriction as possible, but they also want to feed their families. Consumers want that next great paradigm-shifting application but they download fart gags in droves. (Unless I missed the memo saying those were one and the same?)
So I'm taking the App Store vs. Android Market off the table. Likewise, I'm ditching the infinite possible Android hardware options vs. the iPhone's singularity of form and function. Android will give developers more options but more headaches, users more choices but more confusion. Wash.
So what did my week with the G1 teach me about the iPhone? Apple needs to worry about cloud services.
Push Gmail is nice. Push Gmail is fine. Having a separate Gmail app is a dumb idea, and Gmail's IMAP implementation is so buggy, every time I get an "invalid certificate" or "too many concurrent connection" error I consider abandoning it forever, Contacts are a disgrace, and everything has been in beta beyond the point of embarrassment, but here's the thing: Google owns the cloud and they're beginning to show it with Android.
I've said before that one big advantage the iPhone has is it gets Google as well as Apple, while Android gets only Google, but that may not always be the case. Sure, Google wants the eyeballs (and advertising dollars -- never forget their core business) of the iPhone's user base, much as they do Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and every other platform mobile and otherwise, but that may only be until such time as they own the platform as well.
MobileMe is a start. We can spare the botched launch jokes -- for a few months now MobileMe has been solid, and while it provides some killer functionality for Mac users (Back to My Mac, Mac Sycn, etc.), using the Android really made me think Apple has to up its Cloud game and fast.
First, iPhone needs more robust email functionality. Skip the non-standard labels, but give me filters/rules, the ability to star/flag, and otherwise raise the on-device and web-based feature power to desktop Mail.app levels with Gmail-type power and even better usability.
Get CalDAV really rocking, let me share and subscribe to/publish calendars. Again, iCal power in my hand and on the web.
CardDAV would be nice too, with the same sharing, subscribing, and publishing abilities for contacts, with status rolled in for good measure.
And get those notes syncing, along with the Tasks already built in.
Sure, Android doesn't do all this, but I'm positive it will. Maybe not Android 2.0, maybe not even 3.0, but as soon as Google stops pulling a Microsoft and actually gets their act integrated, they'll go from owning the cloud to leveraging it. That, above open markets and variable form factors, is what I'll really be keeping my Android eye on, and that is what I want to see Apple not only compete with, but raise the bar again in terms of elegance of design and function.
iPhone vs. Palm Treo Pro/HTC FUZE
I'm putting the two HTC-built, Windows Mobile running smartphones together. Blame Palm, not me. Actually, blame both Microsoft and Palm because as much as the Palm OS was abandoned to the point that we couldn't even include it in the round robin, Windows Mobile showed me its aging platform wasn't that far from a similar fate. Sure, Palm OS 2.0 Nova, and Windows Mobile 7 are both on the horizon, but as of this writing, both are still vaporware, and both have suffered similar grand promises and heartbreaking delays to the point of asking: it's 2008, do you know where your 3rd party developers are? (Hint: browsing the AppDroid MarkStore).
In all fairness, however, I'm less worried about Windows Mobile because, well, Microsoft has a winzillion dollars to keep funding it, and like Google they're investing a ton of that cash in the cloud. So, while Live! Mesh Azure is a near impenetrable clusterfrak, with integration almost as badly broken as its branding, it won't always be. They're building data centers like QuickyMarts and Ballmer's right, they'll just keep coming and coming, and they could eventually nail it. I could very well get my ZuneBoxPhone Live! one day.
So, just like I'm taking a pass on the openness and flexibility of Android, I'm skipping the old standbys of power and configurability with Windows Mobile. Overhead and complicating clutter render them zero-sum gains anyway.
What will I focus on? Apple's 360 degree integration, from Final Cut Pro to iTunes to AppleTV to MobileMe is so far unmatched, but it's by no means unmatchable. Microsoft, with its Kraken-like tentacles, could go a full 520 degrees. We can make all the clumsy giant jokes we like, but getting crushed by a clumsy giant doesn't make you any less crushed.
Case in point, the HTC Touch HD. We didn't get it in the round robin (it's not, and won't be, officially available in North America), but it shows what type of technology can be put into an iPhone-sized package. I've repeated far too often already that I want (and fully expect) to see an iPhone HD come WWDC in June, 2009. Keeping pace in the hardware war is just one step. Others will involve some patents Apple has already filed, especially with streaming video (TiVo meets Slingbox).
Notice I'm talking about entertainment in a Microsoft segment, not Exchange, not remote device management, not office documents, because a) Microsoft is pushing hard in the consumer products space and that's where Apple dominates, and b) this isn't the BlackBerry segment, in which -- quite frankly -- those subjects would be more appropriate given market share.
iPhone vs. BlackBerry Bold
So let's not talk about Exchange, remote device management, or office documents here either, b'okay. Consider them the last of my stereotypical aversions. As well as BlackBerry handles those tasks -- and handle them well it irrefutably does -- there's something BlackBerry does infinitely better that Apple needs to consider and contend with: it's creates CrackBerry.com members.
That's not a sibling site plug. As much as the NOC and BIS/BES is an overly-proprietary single-point-of-failure, security and privacy bag half-filled with hurt, it creates an environment that once you get into, you can't easily get out of.
It's not that the BlackBerry calls to you. Having something blink at me is not nearly as compelling as having an iPhone just sitting there, not telling you if you have to pick it up or not -- ensuring you check it when you may not even have to. It's that once you get the true push, once you get the direct PIN to PIN messaging, it becomes like a community. Your sales team might all have them, but your friends and family might all have them as well.
We've seen the same thing with Twitter. People go where their friends are, and once you have the momentum of community, it creates a significant barrier of exit. Who wants to leave their community behind? It's why Pownce and Jaiku and other status engines have failed.
While Apple should be applauded for embracing open standards like IMAP IDLE and built amazing technology with OS X 10.5 Server, they've done relatively little to promote any sort of community around the iPhone, and what little they have done is handled by third parties via the App Store.
This from the company that told people to Think Different. That created the Cult of Mac. I spoke about the cloud with Android and the integration with Windows Mobile, and here Apple needs a bit of both. And come on, it's not like snooty Apple fans wouldn't jump at the chance to be "official" snooty Apple fans.
I'm not the first to suggest this. I'm probably not the hundred and first. But Apple needs to put a little addiction of their own in the iPhone. Mobile iChat would be a great start. Give MobileMe Lite away for free with every iPhone, tied to an always on, multitasking Mobile iChat (supporting not only open Jabber and proprietary AIM and iChat protocols, but Twitter as well -- Dieter's right about cross-platform presence ruling it all), and toss in a super silky smooth CoreLocation-powered social iNetwork along with it. Make PIN seem Paleolithic. Make the NOC the next Friendster.
The Smartphone Experts Round Robin was a stroke of genius. Not only does it let sometimes myopic editors experience the greater gadget world, but it hopefully brings our readers with us (and gives some lucky winners some free smartphones for their trouble). Sometimes we think our chosen device does something really well and don't realize just how well (and sometimes how differently) other device do the same. Likewise, sometimes we have gripes about our device that turn out to be far worse elsewhere.
It's a reality check of the first order. Android's potential, Windows Mobile's legacy, BlackBerry's connection, and in the end?
Thanks to everyone on the Android Central, Treo Central, CrackBerry.com, and WMExperts forums for all their help, my fellow editors Casey, Jennifer, and Kevin, and our editor-in-chief Dieter Bohn for their many insights.
A month and a marathon of reviews later, I love my iPhone more than ever, but also think I understand it more than ever as well. And most importantly, I know what I want to see from it, and from Apple, for the next Smartphone Experts Round Robin in 2009.
Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.