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.