My brother gave me his old iPhone, now that he’s updated to the iPhone 3G (so-called for its three new gimmicks, and that’s all). This gives me a unique perspective to comment on it: I ascribe no value to it (bad for a technology review), but have no emotional investment in it (good for a technology review). Let’s just say, to begin, that I’m ready to throw my shiny piece of Apple Plastic out a third-story window.
First of all, the interface. It’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s truly a piece of Apple genius. Nevertheless–I cannot emphasize this enough–it’s something of a tall midget. If you haven’t noticed, as a rule, telephone interfaces are horrendous. Haven’t you had a friend or family member fiddle endlessly trying to figure out how to switch off a phone’s hideous predictive text function? (I cowered in horror when I realized this often needed to be done every time you send a message.) Personally, my old phone had you turn it on by holding the hang up button for several seconds. (Also, it took no fewer than four button presses to save the picture you just took with the camera; this makes for lots of fun when you ask somebody else to take a picture of you.) A telling sign of the mentality that produces these abominable phone interfaces was in February, when phone execs sat around at a table and tried to figure out why people liked the iPhone. Here’s a quote: “One direction, advocated by Lucia Predolin, international marketing and communications director for Buongirono S.p.A. of Milan, Italy, is to manipulate users by identifying their ‘need states’ — including such compulsions as ‘killing time,’ and ‘making the most of it’ — and fulfilling them subliminally.” It only gets worse from there.
So, the interface is sublime. What about functionality? Internet is nice. I like being able to look on Google Maps wherever I am, so that I may supplement my somewhat lacking sense of direction with hard information. (What is not fun is having to type my city and state each and every damn time I want to search for someplace, not being able to tell it that, absent any other information, I’d like to see things in my present city, thanks. Also, the highly useful “businesses near me” function of Google Maps seems to be absent. Bleh.) I was able to use some instant messaging app to write to my brother while at the vet, to update him on the status of our cat, and in doing so I bypassed the scam of SMS. There are nice things about the iPhone.
Now for the bad things.
I use Ubuntu Linux. It is wonderful. I have all my music encoded in Ogg Vorbis. Unlike most people (it seems, sometimes), I’m not an audio purist and I don’t have massive gigatons of hard disk space (though I think my 80 gigs is pretty hefty… whatever…), so I’m willing to rip my music in a lossy format so that I may obtain one-fifth the file size at a practically imperceptible loss of audio quality. Also, I listen to lots of audiobooks, which gently massage my ADD whenever I’m doing a repetitive task. I rip them in Speex, which gives you half the file size (or so, I think) of Vorbis if all you’re recording is voice.
According to the iPhone, this is three strikes against me. I cannot sync with Ubuntu. Previous iPod devices could sync with Linux, but the functionality was buggy and unsupported. Now, the iPhone determinedly locks out anything it does not recognize, including operating systems not locked down by proprietary technology. If I want to use my iPhone with Linux, I need to “jailbreak” it, and due to my “2.0 firmware,” I’ll need to use my brother’s Mac Mini and…
Oh, screw it. I’m absolutely bloody sick of my own personal technology treating me like a criminal. I do not want to prove my credentials to a little piece of shiny black plastic! I own it! I am a human! It is a consumer device! It does not get to dictate what I do with it! (Bitch, bitch, bitch…)
Even then, there are bugs with the support, like how Linux programs, for unknown reasons, may accidentally write over all your album art (something like that). None of this would happen if Apple–quelle shock–worked with the community to ensure its device is as widely-supported as possible. But, the Mac way appears to be an Apple-approved walled garden, impervious to any attempt to improve the device without Steve Jobs’s written consent.
Don’t even get me started about the App Store. If you want to develop for it, you must download Mac software, pay substantial fees to Apple, and then have each and every program you make approved by the company. Any reasonable developer, at that point, would feel the desire to recoup, monetarily, his or her investment, and for users that means good luck trying to add basic functionality without paying by the feature. A Linux-style package manager this is not, and Apple’s Stalinist ideal of a harmonious platform runs into the ground any hope of wide-scale collaboration on new iPhone features and capabilities. The App Store does not preclude attempts to develop open-source software for the machine, software developed and tested by the community, but hot damn it makes every attempt to stifle it. The Internet would never have been a success if every device or app used on it needed one specific party’s testing and approval.
Now, back to my file formats. If Apple opened the platform just a crack and allowed people to improve the phone’s basic functionality, you besta bet it would support every audio and video codec under the sun. When people are encouraged to hack on a popular platform and give it new features, they do so in a massive geek stampede. Instead, I’m stuck with MP3 audio, which is not only less efficient than Vorbis but is bogged down by about a billion dubious patents that I don’t understand. (Ubuntu doesn’t come with MP3 support for this reason: you must install the “ubuntu-restricted-extras” package on your own. Fortunately, it’s not hard.) What do I do with all my existing Vorbis and Speex audio? If I convert them directly, I’ll get even more loss. Besides, I don’t like the idea of Apple’s intransigence deciding which audio codecs I use. I’d much rather use the right one for the job. (Besides that, even if I did convert them, I’d have trouble getting them on the iPhone; see above.)
An example of the niceness of the geek stampede to improve your product that occurs whenever you open the specifications is Firefox. I have about a billion extensions for Firefox that I love to bits and each contribute to making my Web experience my own. In fact, I created my very own Greasemonkey script that messes with the New York Times website and makes it just the way I like. (I’ll post it soon. I have kinks to work out.) I can’t do any of that with the scaled-down Safari that comes with the iPhone. It’s certainly the best Web experience you’ll get on a phone, but again, that’s not much of a contest.
Also, I find it borderline offensive the way people coo about being able to touch the Web as some new feature. That’s why I own a tablet computer! I love my tablet and much of the reason I got it (well, besides the obvious one of drawing on it is a blast) is that it makes web surfing a dream. I even installed a Firefox extension, “Grab and Drag,” that allows you to move the page around like on an iPhone. See, I can get iPhone features on Firefox, but for the other way around I’m out of luck.
(This probably belongs in a separate post, but those of you who don’t have tablets, which is to say most of you, are missing out. Using a mouse is like speaking through an interpreter… good in a pinch, clumsy for everyday use, and maddening for any length of time. Those things ought to be banished to the 1980s forever.)
So, the idea of having a touchable portrait view of the Internet is nothing new to me… in fact, the iPhone browser strikes me as being like my computer’s browser, but with none of Firefox’s features, and you have to squint to read any damn text. The text rendering is beautiful, but then again, if you are zoomed in enough to admire it you are not able to read the page itself. Moreover, if the page, like Wikipedia, uses a wide (that is, reasonable) layout, you are screwed.
(Yes, you can use landscape view. That always feels… horrible.)
So, yes. The iPhone. Wonderful interface. Wonderful phone. Not a damn “platform.” Don’t mistake it for one. I’d like to have a front-row seat and a paintball gun the next time Steve Jobs gets up on stage so that crowds can swoon over some shiny piece of plastic that he’s holding up. I may change my mind as I use it over time, but for right now, I’m iRate.