The iPhone worries me

I’m not an Apple fanboy per se, but I have a PowerMac G4 laptop which is an integral part of my home network. I have an iPod (actually there are three in the house), I use iTunes (albeit my iPod syncs with my Windows machine ‘cos its hard drive is bigger – although I am trying to work out how to host the library on a networked drive so I can use the Mac for iTunes sync-ing).

I’m also a gadget fiend and sometime early adopter. I’m Apple’s target audience, a convert, in the choir ready to be preached at.

But I probably won’t be buying an iPhone (if that’s what they end up calling it), even when it eventually makes it on to these shores.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful device. A real exercise in nicely done HCI. There are just too many niggles which have been wondering if this could just be the start of the next slide in the fortunes of AAPL.

Let’s start with the obvious usability issues: batteries, screens and personal data.

The battery life is rumoured to be dire: just five hours of talk and 16 hours of audio playback. There had been rumours of two batteries (at least according to Kevin Rose), but that wasn’t mentioned by Lord Jobs. Sharing a battery is going to mean that if you’re a power iPod user you’re going to struggle to make it from one end of the day to the other. I listen to my nano commuting, at work, possibly exercising, then travelling home again. I have a power cord at work. 8 months old and my phone barely makes it through the day either. If I forget to charge either device I’m basically stuffed. I expect more of newer generation items.

And to make it worse, it’s not user-replacable. Every phone on the market today has learned that lesson!

The touch-screen has some fabulous features. The multi-touch zoom in and out, the proximity sensor to disable it are just two. I can understand the stylus free aspect – my Palm suffers, mainly in the oft-used areas. If you play any games you can see the moves you often make. That said, touch-screens rarely live up to potential. It’s not just fat fingers – but have you tried to type on a touch screen keypad? This this is not going to be an entry device.

That’s not even covering the accessibility of a touch-screen only device. I’m not even talking about those with partial sight or bad near vision – what about when it’s in a pocket or a bag or on the seat next to me while driving? Next track or drop the call to voice mail is acheivable with the iPod or my phone without my needing to look at it.

The killer for me for my phone is that I must be able to synchronise it with my home machine: contacts, diary, to-do lists, even passwords and notes. This has to be seamless and easy – and with bluetooth it is. My Mac’s iSync connects with my Palm and phone over Bluetooth trivially and makes backing up and updating easy. So why has the iPhone got Bluetooth and WiFi yet can use neither for synchronising? That is madness. I’m sure that this will be reviewed between now and release. It has to be.

These three are enough on their own, but there are more:

  • The data transfer is not going to be 3G. Sure, EDGE’s 2.5G rate of 100Kb/s is decent – but not everyone can get that. Not everyone can get HSDPA’s 1.8Mb/s but wouldn’t 3G (for video calls and MMS)
    have made more sense?
  • Push email offers massive benefits to the server – you can tailor precisely what you send on, so score big wins on compression of attachments. This functionality is less achievable with
    the pull for IMAP. Your data plan might be unlimited but you watch this suddenly get reviewed when you start maintaining your IMAP mailbox online with your iPhone.
  • The exclusivity is a necessity for the voicemail to be implemented – but that’s not going to win many friends. There’s no talk yet of who’s going to be involved in the UK, but if it’s not
    my carrier, then will I want to move?
  • There’s no video calling!
  • There’s only 8Gb so any video I watch is going to be really short!
  • How much? $600 for 2 year plan, with something like a data plan of $80 a month? You have got to be kidding.
  • Camera. Why? 2MP isn’t bad, but there are phones out there with 3.2 (and rising). Either do it will or don’t do it at all – that is an ethos found throughout the Apple line, why not here?
  • No user-installable apps and widgets? So it’s not really OS X, then.

For all this, it is a lovely looking device, but will it be a better phone than, say, the Nokia N73 which is available now? Or LG’s KE850, announced at CES. Will it be a better audio player than even their own nano, or video player better than their own iPod? Is it a better PDA than my Palm (or the smartphone)? If the best of breed devices are really all in the same box, then woot to the max. But they aren’t.

I don’t need my phone to be a camera when the pictures it takes are rubbish. I don’t need my phone to be a walkman if it can’t play nice with my jukebox application (ok, so the iPhone wins this point). I don’t need my phone to be a PDA if I can’t quickly input notes and edit data. The widescreen, touch controls will be awesome on the video iPod, so let’s hope the technology does spread through their whole product line.

The iPhone that eventually gets delivered will be very different to the one jobs demonstrated. If the muckup with Cisco and the name proved anything it was that they’ve not finished the specification and were rushing to complete enough to show off. So while you’ve got to admire their secrecy, you have to wonder about their direction.

Apple is increasingly aiming at the design conscious, cash-rich, under-30s and while this is a strong market, it is fickle. But if you make a product and do it well you will succeed. Apple’s recent track record is strong on this, but let us not forget that the iPod only really took off with iTunes became available for Windows. The first batches of the Intel MacBooks had major fabrication issues. The first gen shuffle wasn’t flying off the shelves.

The iPhone is going to be a success, but without some critical changes it won’t change the world in the way the iPod has. There’s too much not going right for it to win through with what it has hit out of the park.

Update: and, of course, the Tao of Mac goes into more detail, hits more nails and is generally more on the ball than I was aware you could be.

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