iPhone summary of complaints

Well, there’s certainly a lot of discussion going on about the iPhone. The Apple one, that is. After the dizzying amazement of the keynote and its introduction, it’s now time for the grumblers to come out and complain about the thing.

Depending on which day you read the news, you’d either think that iPhone will be a fantastic success or terrible failure. I’m optimistic about liking it, of course, and the 2008 Australian release date gives me an imposed buffer against buying the first generation of the device.

In no particular order, here’s a summary of complaints people have had and my general justification for them. I haven’t made an exhaustive search for the various complaints out there, but I think I’ve covered the majority.

Slow mobile data speeds — i.e., no 3G — this seems most likely due to a conflict of interests with Cingular, whose 3G service touts non-Quicktime video and audio purchasing or streaming or something. What are the carriers doing trying to get into the actual content distribution game? They should stick to charging for bandwidth. In any case, Steve Jobs announced 3G plans himself in the keynote; expect 3G with the first iteration of the iPhone. This is especially likely as the iPhone migrates to Europe and Australasia, where 3G is apparently much more widespread than in the US.

Software keyboard — this is a non-issue, I think. This requires some explanation.

Finally, the dubious merits of sticking to the QWERTY keyboard layout over the years since the typewriter have actually paid off. Let me explain. The iPhone has predictive text, like a regular phone keypad. But how inefficient is a numeric keypad design, when there are many overlapping words for the same input? (home/good, fairy/daisy, golf/hold, among others more comical…) This happens because the statistical distribution of alphabet letters were not taken into account when assigning their positions on the keypad. E.g., a single key shares both S and R, two of the most common consonants in English.

By contrast, the QWERTY keyboard was designed to have adjacently used letters (statistically) at least two keys away from each other — because typewriter mechanisms would jam if two adjacent keys were pressed near simultaneously. (Note that comparisons with the Dvorak keyboard have shown that the QWERTY keyboard is no slower than any other design; it just makes your fingers move more, thus making its users more prone to RSI-like problems.)

Now consider the iPhone keyboard. Each press you make, unless you’ve tiny fingers, will likely cover a few letters inside some sort of blob shape. Spatial averaging will pull a single letter from this group. But not only does the iPhone have predictive text, to speed up entry (I hope it’ll have “pre-emptive” text, a term I coined for when you enter “unfort” and it auto-completes the “unate”), it also auto-corrects spelling mistakes. It should be able to do this very reliably because (a) it knows a subset of letters to look for replacing (i.e., around the letter it recognised with the press), and (b) words are statistically not very likely to have two adjacent letters in them. Words like “damn”, “through”, “poop”, and “qwerty” might be harder than most to spell correctly. Just slow down.

To round off the keyboard commentary, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of convoluted 3rd party case that has a flap with little actual buttons to overlay the keyboard. In any case, I’m sure that the iPhone is significantly better than keypad predictive text typing; the advantages of having a software keyboard outweigh the downsides in my opinion at the moment.

That combination music player/phones are fundamentally flawed — That’s the worst argument I’ve ever heard for why the iPhone will fail (no link for the attribution). The argument is that phones and music players don’t mix; taking out earbuds to answer a call or swapping earbuds with a Bluetooth headset are unacceptable options, apparently. How do you reckon people currently answer their phone while listening to their iPod? This is actually a killer app for me — I frequently miss calls because I’m listening to music on the walk to work, and having the player fade out when a call comes in is one of the most practical things about this phone. (Not that that’s unique to the iPhone, of course.) It's not that music phones haven't been popular before now because there's anything wrong with the idea, it's because (a) they haven't been iPods (the ROKR doesn't count, either), and/or (b) because they've had crappy implementations.

No wireless syncing — Duh. You have to plug it in to charge, right? Until Apple starts using Splashpower or something, this is such a non-issue.

No modem capability — This feature would be obsolete in a year or two with ubiquitous EVDO and wifi anyway. The point of the iPhone is that it’s useful when you’re away from the computer. This is too much of a niche feature to worry about, considering the consumer market.

Non-replacable battery — Geez, I wish this “iPod crappy battery” meme would die a swift death. Are people saying they want to carry around a spare phone battery with them? Or even that they would? And this just isn’t a device that will live long past the lifetime of its battery (unlike, say, a digital camera these days). If it does, Apple will be more than happy (as with the iPod) to charge you for replacing the battery in their support centres. A closed case makes for a much cleaner design, both figuratively and literally. I’m more than happy with this so-called “downside”.

Poor battery life — I think this is too early to call. The thing isn’t even out there yet. And this is a first generation product. Having said that, I’m surprised to learn that the battery life of the (hard drive) iPod has only doubled over its 6 year lifetime. Although the modern IPods do sport a much bigger, brighter, and higher res screen. In any case, I have absolutely no problem with docking my phone every day for syncing purposes (in fact, I can’t wait have unified syncing/charging as the iPod).

Consider also what you get that partly causes this battery life. The three sensors that everyone loves; the 160 ppi display that text and video has never looked so good on (here’s baby steps towards resolution independence; especially see the zooming pinch that works in emails and web browsing as well as photo viewing). This is a screen the same physical size of the Zune’s, but with double the number of pixels.

And this thing is only 0.03 inches thicker than the current iPod. Motorola proved with the RAZR that pockets can fit objects that have significant width and height (like a wallet, surprisingly enough) but if you make it thin, it disappears. And the iPhone is thinner than the RAZR by more than a couple of millimetres! It could have a larger battery, but it’s not worth compromising the design.

And finally, most importantly, no 3rd party apps — Take a look at the main screen of the interface, with all the buttons. Down the bottom there are the “big four”: phone, email, Safari, iPod. (The icon for the iPod is going to need changing eventually: I predict iTunes-like music notes.) The top majority of the screen is taken up by other apps and widgets. Or are they all just widgets? There’s the rub. If the number of widgets were fixed, there’s no way that they’d be organised as a group of 11 in almost three rows with space for five more on the screen — without the intention of the possibility of adding more.

Apple has said no 3rd party applications, but widgets fall in a grey area. I’m predicting that when this thing’s released, or thereabouts, Dashcode will be able to create restricted widgets for it. (By “restricted” I’m saying no Cocoa.) Apps are a different story; Apple’s clearly tied that down to the four at the bottom of the screen. A very poor man’s Dock, if you will. But the Dashboard exists to be filled (currency conversion, anyone?) and it’s the addition of extra widgets that will provide the sufficient expandability of the device to be useful enough that the clamouring for additions is abated.

Perhaps, though, that this will only come in time with faster processors and more memory; who’s not to say that Apple’s totally maxed out the capacity of its resources? They might like nothing more than to let you add widgets, but maybe there’s literally only enough RAM for what they’ve already got on there. In any case, time will tell. The killer apps for this device are simplicity and interface; the built-in functionality really is enough for most people. I don’t think the lack of expandability, at this stage, is going to hurt sales one bit desipte anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

In closing, I think that people are misconceiving the iPhone because it is truly the first of its kind. There have been expensive smart phones before, but they have been marketed not as consumer products but as business tools. Work while you’re not at your desk. A very, very small minority of consumers have ponied up the cash and been excited by the prospects of developing Java apps for their phone. Consumers in general don’t want to spend money for their phone, and Apple is changing that. They already spend the money on an iPod. An iPod that makes phone calls and does sms-ing better than any phone they’ve used is a novel concept, but one that is a logical upsell on an iPod by itself.

Ten million units in the first year is a big number to be aiming for, but I think they’ll do it, and more. After all, 1% of the phone market is much less than than the Mac market share. The only stumbling block I can see is if Cingular tie the phone to some ridiculously expensive plan than simply won’t justify the consumer nature of the device.


Wherefore art thou iPhone?

“Wherefore art thou …” is the most incorrectly quoted piece of Shakespeare I know. In this short piece, I wonder “why is the iPhone thus named?”.

A couple months back I wrote some thoughts about the rumoured iPhone. To be honest, after Cisco released their own iPhone product, I thought it a fair chance that the Apple iPhone was non-existant. Some of the rumours were sketchy enough that Chinese Whispers) would account for the confusion. Obviously not.

In my original post, I wrote that “it would be ludicrous to put aside the huge mindshare behind their most successful product and supplant the iPod with a superior device.” My prediction was that an Apple phone would be branded as an iPod. I was wrong, evidently.

I understand that Apple thinks that the iPhone is the next Big Thing. I don’t blame them. Considering the differences between the iPod and the iPhone — hardware, operating system, interface, design, the people working on the thing — I can understand why the product is viewed in isolation and introduced to the world the same way. It’s totally new, and deserves a totally new name.

But it’s not just a phone. Steve Jobs touted that fact during the keynote — (paraphrasing) “we’re introducing three new products today…a touchscreen iPod…a phone…and an internet communicator” (whatever he meant by that last one — perhaps it will end up having iChat installed as well).

Here’s my argument in a nutshell: the iPod has a wonderfully ambiguous product name, and it does more than one thing (now; i.e., play movies). The iPhone, by contrast, already is more than a phone, but its name does not reflect that. In five years time when we’re all carrying around iPhones but using them more for web access and music, won’t that be a little weird?

The fact that most people carry mobile phones and many people carry iPods should make it fairly evident that one day the functionality of the two devices will merge. I’ve heard of some very new mobile phones with hard drives that give a classical iPod a good run for its money. As it stands, the iPhone will now (very slowly) cannibalise iPod sales until the iPod brand no longer exists. By calling its new product the “iPhone” and *not the “iPod phone”, Apple has doomed its most popular product line ever. This echoes the demise of the Apple II after the Mac was introduced in the eighties, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Has “iPod” become such a generic term that people view it exclusively as a music player and wouldn’t warm to the idea of also using it as a phone? Perhaps. On the other hand (to use a word that John Gruber popularised) the parlay from iPod to “iPod phone” is a piece of cake. And like I said, the iPhone is more than a phone, so why not call it an iPod?

My secret desire is the whole Cisco lawsuit thing will end up forcing Apple to change the name of their device to something like “iPod phone”. (Reports from the expo say there isn’t actually a brand name on the demo units.) I just makes more sense that way when you look at the device in its historical context. And many people will be using the thing more as an iPod anyway. But I can live with a bad name. It’s the actual product that counts, and, well, I think it speaks for itself.


Why I want to buy an iMac

A few years ago, I bought a 12 inch PowerBook and said it’d last me until I finished my PhD. That is, I wouldn’t buy a new computer until I got a job. Well … I changed my mind. And over the last year or so, I realised I don’t want a laptop. As a Mac user, my choices are nicely limited: Mac Pro, Mac mini, or iMac. And it’s the latter that I am keen on. Here’s some of my thoughts revolving around this decision.

Why a new computer?

Firstly: why do I want a new computer now? Since I bought this 867MHz processor + 640 MB RAM machine 3.5 years ago, Apple has switched to Intel processors, and a comparable machine now is something like dual core 2GHz processor + 2GB RAM (and around $1000 cheaper). That’s approximately following Moore’s law with a fourfold increase (two doublings) in performance. And boy, does my computer feel pokey these days.

With Leopard coming along, I want to buy an iMac with the next product line refresh, in order to get the OS update “for free”. My notebook is simply insufficient these days and I’ll use two examples of why I think that: iPhoto is too slow and the lack of USB 2 makes transferring photos painful; and iTunes is compromised by not enough disk space, and exhibits poor performance — there’s nothing worse than iTunes crashing while streaming music during a party. I’ve also got an iPod shuffle lying around that I’d love to be able to use.

Which desktop?

Regarding the choice between those three computers, the Mac Pro is completely out of my league. The things I do at home don’t require the price premium for the best performance of the day. And yet I find the Mac mini distinctly underwhelming. Upgrading the mini to match features of an iMac yields a more expensive unit that is still inferior. I don’t want to go into the details too much, but for $2100 (iMac) vs. $2500 (mini) — rounding to the nearest $100 at education prices — the comparison just doesn’t match up, all else being equal with 1 GB RAM and a 20 inch display:

  • 2.16 GHz vs. 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo;
  • 250 GB, 7.2 rev/s vs. 160 GB, 5.4 rev/s hard drive;
  • Embedded graphics vs. some sort of ATI graphics card.

I can see why Apple sells the Mac mini. If people are buying them, they’re making a killing. For $400 more, I can buy a Mini that’s slower, holds less, has worse graphics, and has no keyboard or mouse. Let’s be fair and shop around for a cheaper display and say the prices are equal. I’m still not seeing the attraction of the mini. It’s just not for me — or for anyone else (in my opinion) also buying a display.

So why not a notebook?

Several factors have led me to dismiss the idea of using a notebook as my primary computer. The first is data loss: Mac OS X 10.5 will have in-built backup (“Time Machine”, probably not a permanent link unfortunately), requiring an external hard drive for mirroring purposes. I hardly backup at all at the moment. I’m scared of Bad Things Happening. Unless they start selling notebooks with two hard drives, I’m not using one as my main machine.

Rigging up a notebook with an external hard drive ties it to a desk (and is tedious as hell for various reasons), which brings me to my next point.

Notebooks cannot be used ergonomically. Either the keyboard’s in the right spot and the screen’s too low, or the screen’s at eye level but the keyboard impossible to type on. This means bad backs and headaches for long stretches of work. If you don’t understand this point, you’re younger than 25.

Another point is noise. My laptop is louder than most because the fans are old and need cleaning or replacing. But the fact that they drone on hasn’t been mitigated in the Apple’s current lineup — the CPUs used run too fast and too hot to be used without fans (but it would be marketing suicide to downclock them). I was very impressed reading an iMac review at silentpcreview.com (linked to page four):

With a maximum power draw of 63W, the iMac certainly qualifies as a low power system. At idle, the system drew 46W, which will qualify for approval from EnergyStar if their current draft computer spec makes it to the planned 2007 release. Even better, the system falls back into a low power mode after being left alone for a few minutes, dropping the power even more to just 33W. By way of comparison, the lowest idle power consumption we’ve ever seen from a custom built system is 36W — and that doesn’t include an LCD monitor.


The energy efficiency of the iMac solves the mystery of how it is able to get away with so little cooling. At first glance, the numbers don’t look that impressive, but keep in mind that all of these numbers include the power required by the LCD screen. Stand-alone LCD monitors typically draw between 30~40W from the wall, so we were quite impressed when the entire system managed to draw this little power.

(The low noise from low power consumption is equally appealing to the side of me that is concerned about the environmental issues of running a computer 24/7.)

Their testing showed negligible noise increases even with hard drive seek and full CPU activity. Especially when iTunes is running the music in the living room, I don’t want my computer making creating white noise. That simply isn’t the case with notebooks these days. Correct me if I’m wrong as I’ve had essentially no experience with the MacBook line.

Finally, screen size. This is a big one for me. I’ve never really used a Mac with more than 768 by 1024 pixels. A 20 inch LCD just sounds like a dream.

As an aside, I really like the idea of some sort of future portable that syncs data with a home computer, is very small, and doesn’t do too much. I might manage to critique people’s desires for an “ultra-portable” Mac notebook for Macworld before the event, but this post is taking long enough already.

So, in summary: with an iMac similar in price to a MacBook, the advantages of good ergonomics, easier data protection and a big screen easily outweigh the portability advantage of a notebook for me. I’m hoping for an iMac refresh sooner rather than later (moving to quad core would be better than I can dream) so I can justify buying one as soon as possible.


The Prestige, by Christopher Nolan

A few years ago, I had a folder containing two things: in one side descriptions and instructions on magic tricks, generally sleight of hand card tricks; in the other, printouts of articles written about and more often authored by Nicola Tesla. They were my two biggest obsessions of the early 2000s, I’d say.

Imagine my excitement to hear of a movie that literally revolved around these two concepts! Unfortunately, it was then approaching five years later, and my obsessions had moved on. I would like to be able to say that I am always a little ahead of my time, but modestly and, moreover, common sense prevents me.

In any case, Christopher Nolan is my favourite “new director”, and his previous movies that I’ve seen (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins) I’ve found, respectively: amazing; interesting; and, the perfect superhero movie. As it happens, 2006 was no good for me actually getting the time to see or read about movies; that particular obsession has been replaced, and by the time I got around to seeing The Prestige, I had actually forgotten who made it. Foolish me.

Similar to Memento in that a second viewing will reveal a wealth of information missed in the first sitting, the story of The Prestige (based on a novel) remains simple despite layers of narrative that could have overwhelmed it. As a character study, it fits my idea of a perfect story of revenge by showing that opposites can be very similar indeed. The less said about the story, though, the better; a general rule that film reviewers should more often abide by.

Christian Bale and Michael Caine (of course) both act wonderfully, and Scarlett Johanssen (of course) provides relief for sore eyes. Hugh Jackman, I’m afraid, was competent but didn’t develop enough of this own character in the role. He’s often just “Hugh Jackman” to me in many of the movies I see him in; frankly, he should stick to theatre and musical work, where I hear he excels.

The highlight of the visual design for me was the backstage peek at the intricate mechanical designs of the magic tricks. There’s a certain nostalgia I have (and I don’t know where it can from) for purely mechanical design; before relays, electronics, or plastic, I love the idea of hand-crafted gadgets with springs, levers, gears, and linkages with shiny brass finishes. Elegant mechanical design embodied by delicate and robust construction.

The film is full of details that I missed the first time. I can’t wait to see it again.


The Mountain Goats, Fowlers Live

I’m embarrassed in a way to admit that I only recently listened to the Mountain Goats, because they’ve been around since their albums were released on cassette. It appears our artists are the crazy type that bring out records every year or two. Anyway, after hearing they were coming to Adelaide again (I’d missed them previously), I bought their most recent album “Get Lonely” a few weeks back and have been listening to it since. I guess it’s my type of music. Feel free to read about them on allmusic.com; it seems a fair introduction.

I would say that their live performance didn’t surprise me very much. But it did impress me a lot. This is the first acoustic performance I can remember to have no drums, just guitar and bass. The write-up above calls them “militantly lo-fi”, a term that suits. Even more so than on their recording, their music is stripped back but doesn’t feel empty. Quite the contrary; the energy put in by the lead and his bass player easily kept the gig trundling along nicely.

A highlight for me was the incredible lengths the singer went to introduce his songs. Eloquent, verbose, and witty, you could easily see the clever lyrics of the songs echoed by the composer.

While it’s common to see the lead rocking out to his own music, I was really impressed by the bass player, who played like a king, drunk Jameson’s from the bottle, and had an awesome time doing it.

The song lineup was predominantly from “Get Lonely”, but featured older songs frequently. I know this because I didn’t know them. I had the misfortune to stand in front of an avid fan who sung along to most of the songs… luckily he was generally in tune and in pitch, and drowned out by the actual performers I went to see.

While I can’t say that I’m going to thoroughly investigate the Mountain Goat’s prodigious back catalogue, I would like to check out a couple of their more well respected works. You can’t go through 16 years with almost as many albums without some cracking work. A good band for me to keep an eye on in the future.