Thursday, January 11, 2007

Top In-Denial Comments Overheard about the iPhone

1. What's the big deal?! It's just a touchscreen phone, like numerous PowerPC phones!
2. My Nokia already has WiFi and an Opera browser, where's the innovation.
3. Way too expensive
4. Non-replaceable batteries kill any chance of success
5. But my phone already has a camera, photo management, and email
6. Either you have a great music player or great phone, a combination device can't possibly be good at both.
7. Battery life is too short!
8. No UMTS/3G! No EVDO.
9. Multitouch is nothing more than a gimmick
10. You can't install any third party apps
11. It doesn't support Exchange!
12. Won't view MS Office attachments!
13. Cingular! Wahh!

Those are just a few. Yes, another year, another MacWorld, another flurry of contrarian naysayers trying to bash holes in the reality distortion field. Yes, some of the comments have some merit, but many of them are plainly based on unproven assumptions for which no real facts exist.

I used to be a big Apple basher. Macs are for non-technical clueless people. Apple sells inferior overpriced hardware. I mean, are iPod users brainwashed zombies? You go to COMDEX or CES, and you'll see a bazillion Chinese no-name MP3 players offer similar technical specs to the iPod for far cheaper and smaller. What's so special about the iPod that justifies its price? It's obviously going to be a failure and offers no innovation. That was before they sold 100 million of them. I couldn't understand it either, until I started using one. When the iPod arrived on the scene, it simply offered a better UI and desktop integration experience compared to the myriad of PC market players (go back to the year it was introduced and try to find something as easy to use as iPod + iTunes) Later, a huge add-on market emerged around it, that increased the value of having one. I wouldn't deny that there is an "incrowd" fashion/sexiness aspect to them, but it can't explain away the iPod's success.

Is the iPhone different? Yes, because the iPhone actually has alot more innovative hardware features that no one else has at the moment, which I'll get into later.

Let's talk about UI. People who often compare Macs to PCs exclaim that the Mac WIMP interface is easier to use and more consistent than Windows, which it may be, but it's hard to prove, and subject to aesthetics. On mobile devices however, UI and ergonomics are the number one most important issue, given the really poor screen size, pointing, and data entry capabilities.

A good way to visualize your interaction with a mobile device is to visualize the interaction of a disabled person with a real PC using accessibility tools, like huge fonts, a screen reader, magnifying glass window, or perhaps a menu based input system for the paralyzed. The speed at which you can navigate menus using a 1-9 keyboard and softkeys is not much better than the speed at which Stephen Hawking can navigate word lists, in fact, Stephen would probably kick your ass.

And that's exactly how I feel using the vast majority of smartphones today -- handicapped. The applications are typically poorly designed for numeric keyboards or joysticks, the information display makes you feel like you have tunnel vision, and to top it all off, many of the devices have serious UI latency issues. You know, you go to your address book, photos, or calendar and about 500ms to a full second pass before you see the result. One of my favorite things to do when I pick up a new phone is to rapidly jump around the menus just to see how bad the UI latency is.

I don't have any inside information, but from the keynote, let's try to see how the iPhone attempts to address many of these issues:

1. UI latency - From the keynote video, the iPhone appeared not only capable of keeping up with UI events, but it appeared to render UI transitions at atleast 30hertz. It looked super smooth and didn't appear to have many issues. Jobs is a stickler for perfection, and I doubt he would tolerate a laggy device.

2. Tunnel Vision (Small Screen) - Some data is best viewed in portrait format, some in landscape. The iPhone first and foremost appears to offer the user a choice. It also appears to have designed many of common apps like contacts, to be optimized for the most common display attributes and operations. The high resolution screen helps with smaller fonts to pack more information on the screen and remain readable. The fast rendering speed allows rapid switching between different screens and zoomable user interface techniques. Zooming only works if it can be done in real time. Fast screen switching provides a sort of "virtual desktop" which expands how much information can be displayed. If you can't keep up however, you'll start lagging behind user inputs. Using zoom/scroll when it takes you a second or more to get where you want is frustrating.

3. Input - different applications call for different inputs. I think we can all agree that a keyboard is best for text entry, or that a mouse rocks at First Person Shooters, or that a pen-tablet is better for architectural drawing/painting, but on small devices, a mapping application works best if you've got absolute pointing capability. (Try Mobile Google Maps on any non-touchscreen phone to see what I mean) I think the touchscreen is a nice compromise, since you get a recofigurable input, but of course, you lose tactile feedback. Maybe the next-gen iPhone will have some kind of Haptic feedback, or the ability to raise parts of the touchscreen at will :) (maybe using smart materials) Apple appears to have done something smart. The multitouch sensor opens the doors to much better accuracy (yes, if they are using FTIR it provides multitouch as well as better accuracy) as well as being able to discard accidental touchs of other fingers easier.

Moreover, Apple appears to be using contextual clues to enhance touch recognition. So for example, if you typing the word "PHONE" and when you're about to type the 'N' you press the the J and the N simultaneously, it uses statistical models to predict the more likely intended key. This differs considerably from the way stylus input keyboards on PPC and other smartphones work.

4. Context - many phones don't have all their little applets integrated very well, so when inside of these applets, you can't see whats happening elsewhere. What I liked about the iPhone was how when you were on a call, the caller-ID information was omnipresent and one click away. Some phones do better than others. Can we trust Apple to be consistent here?

5. WiFi and Browsing - Kick ass. I've used Opera Mobile and PocketIE on smart phones. Scrolling around and zooming is painful (as well as laggy and slow). The iPhone "double click to zoom" feature was extremely nice, and it's amazing no one thought it this before! The browser's live DOM/CSS information has an already calculated tree of bounding boxes for each screen element. All they have to do is start on the DOM node the user touched, and walk up the tree to find the biggest box that fits. Analog scrolling and zooming with the touchscreen IMHO is far better than pressing digital scroll-up-down buttons on most phones in the same way that a mouse is better than joystick. If I know I want to jump really far, I flick my finger faster or further, rather than trying to work those horizontal/vertical digital scroll buttons.

6. Seemless WiFi<->EDGE roaming. Um, yeah, if they can make this work seemlessly, it will be incredible. I've tried PocketPC Phones and Nokia phones with WiFi, for which they are supposed to offer automatic failover, but which never worked properly.

7. PIM (Address Book, Calendar, etc) - One of the problems with PocketPC and Palm phones that I've used is that they still assume people want their PDAs to be miniaturized versions of desktop apps. Microsoft is the biggest offender. Their contacts on PPC is atrocious, and impossible to dial from with one hand. There wasn't any integration between the Phone dialer and Contacts, so if you entered a number on the dialer, there was no 1-click "add as new contact" option. Maybe that's changed in recent revisions. Apple appears not to have followed this route. The iPhone address book is not simply a hacked port of OS X Address Book, but apparently totally new app optimized for touch navigation.

8. Photos. Nuff Said. Who's kidding who, you think any of the smartphones in the iPhone class will have better UI for doing this?

Future Directions

The multitouch screen's true potential seems barely tapped on the iPhone when you consider it's pedigree . I think Apple should also look at Zoomable User Interfaces. In any case, this feature is most definately not a gimmick, and one that sets the iPhone apart from any other device on the market.

The accelerometer potential can be further exploited as well. See Smackbook for example. Games could take advantage of the yaw axis detection, such as steering vehicles, for example.

The WiFi inclusion seems to offer the potential for iChat and VOIP, as well as seemless switching between SMS and Jabber/Bonjour. Since in some countries, both the receive and sender pay, this would cut costs for many.

Summing up my opinion:

1. It really is innovative hardware, period. The best smartphones on the market don't have everything this device has.
2. The user interface seems more reactive, faster, and easier to use
3. The browser especially seems nice
4. Jobs is right, interplay of hardware and software design is important. Many uber phones make the mistake of designing a good hardware platform and filling it up with crappy non-integrated applications and saddling it with bad ergonomics.
5. It's only too expensive if you don't want a video iPod. it's not really that much more expensive than other highend smartphones.
6. Talk time is comparable to other smartphones
7. fixed battery - legitimate issue for some, but probably impractical given the design of their case/screen
8. Don't support Exchange? Talk to your system administrator about supporting internet standards like everyone else: IMAP, SMTP
9. Cingular. Yeah, sucks for people who are not Cingular customers. Apple is clearly trying to grab the largest market, and that means GSM. In the US, the largest GSM carrier is Cingular.

What is it missing?
1. AGPS would have been AWESOME incombination with Google Maps
2. Non-adjustable camera/non-forward facing means no video conferencing
3. No 3G UMTS/EVDO (IMHO, not a big issue given WiFi. I imagine I'll be browsing mostof the time at the airport or at a cafe which has a WiFi hotspot. 3G data services are often congested and expensive anyway) Would be nice to have tho.

As for the reports of it not displaying PDF or Word attachments, and Apple not allowing any third party app development, none of this has been officially confirmed by Apple at the top level, and I suspect that Apple is still evaluating how they're going to do it, but I don't doubt that they will eventually allow it. If not Cocoa apps, then Java J2ME and JavaScript widgets.


Blogger The Bode said...

Steve Jobs confirmed no third-party apps for the iPhone:

“We define everything that is on the phone,” he said. “You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers.”

11:49 PM  
Blogger Ray Cromwell said...

I think that depends on your definition of "third party". Do game consoles allow third party development? Yes. They just don't allow third party distribution.

What bloggers are calling "third party apps", I call "homebrew apps". The iPod doesn't allow third party apps. Or does it? I can download games through iTunes for the iPod today that were not written by Apple.

What Steve is saying, I think, is that they will control what is licensed to be on the phone, not that they won't disallow third party development, they just won't allow you to upload it into an iPhone without being digitally signed by Apple first. (and of course, if the software is sold through iTunes, they will take a cut of the revenue)

Apple is not the first phone manufacturer to do this. At various times, Smartphones have had their installables restricted, especially by the carrier. The carriers of course want to charge you for ringtones, games, wallpapers. However, I distinctly recall several years ago somecarriers requiring permission to distribute apps on platforms like BREW, PPC, even J2ME when first launched.

If Apple's policies turn out to put it at a disadvantage, they'll change them. My interest in the iPhone is not development, but using it. I've owned several smartphones over the years, and I've never really used any installable software outside of games, and im/maps.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Slava Pestov said...

People who complain about the iPhone aren't taking into account the fact that this is a first-generation product. Unless Apple decides the iPhone is a complete failure and drops it, future revisions will of course address shortcomings and improve upon existing functionality.

3:05 PM  
Blogger The Bode said...

This is both interesting and relevant:

The initial reactions to the unveiling of the original iPod in 2001 are priceless. My personal favorite:

"Sounds very revolutionary to me.

hey - heres an idea Apple - rather than enter the world of gimmicks and toys, why dont you spend a little more time sorting out your pathetically expensive and crap server line up?

or are you really aiming to become a glorified consumer gimmicks firm?"

Love it.

12:18 PM  
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10:37 PM  
Blogger foxinfosoft said...

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Thank you
iPhone application development

2:47 AM  

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