iPhone at two months: It's all about the interface

Rivals all too often deliver clumsy hardware, lousy software

When I first walked into the house the day I bought my iPhone, I had a moment of panic. After six months of media frenzy and amongst all of the excitement, I had lost sight of the fact that the 8GB iPhone I bought at a nearby AT&T store had set me back US$600.

Not that I hadn't been warned; the price information was everywhere, sensationalized and vilified, even, by people who thought that the price tag outrageous. In my determination to pick up the phone as soon as they went on sale, I discounted the cost -- until I got home with it and realized that I spent serious money on something that might not live up to the hype.

A bit of background: I hate cell phones. They're a necessary evil in terms of convenience, but with each latest and greatest model I bought, I became increasingly critical. The last straw came after I was suckered in by the thin design of the Razr a couple of years ago.

While it was nice that the phone slid in and out of pockets with ease because of its size, using the Razr's software for anything other than making calls was an abject exercise in exasperation. Potentially useful features were hidden underneath menus and submenus and sub-submenus, it couldn't autosync with my Mac, Internet access was mediocre, and the user interface clunky. The only thing that prevented me boycotting Motorola products after buying the Razr was the fact that the company wasn't alone when it came to disjointed design.

As I waited for a worthwhile phone to appear, it dawned on me that cell phones were adding more and more capabilities, while the physical design and user interface continued to rely on unwieldy physical buttons. That alone seemed to limit what you could reasonably expect a phone to do well, even as music and media player functions were being added.

The problem seemed obvious: They were trying to be everything to everyone using an outmoded design that relied on keypads. The software, in turn, had to work with the layout of the physical buttons. And for anyone looking to watch movies and video, the screens were almost always too small. The result: clumsy hardware married to lousy software, new features without a new form.

On stage for his January keynote at MacWorld San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled his answer to the problem, touting the iPhone as the ultimate phone, the ultimate iPod and the ultimate Internet experience. It looked like the iPhone might really be the first useful and user-friendly convergence device and, more importantly, might actually be worth my $600. But I had to wait six months -- until it went on sale June 29 -- to find out.

Best. Phone. Ever.

Now I know. The iPhone is the first phone I've liked in well over six years. To call the iPhone the best phone I've ever used is the biggest understatement of the decade. It's like saying Jupiter is big, or infinity a long time. From the moment you pick it up, you can feel the weight and sturdiness of the phone, inspiring the sort of confidence you get from a quality build. The display is gorgeously integrated, the streamlined face covered by glass. Finally -- a design worthy of being called a design!

But the attention to detail doesn't stop there. The iPhone as a phone is actually remarkable, given that you can easily swap between multiple calls, connect them, separate them, put some on private ... all without hanging up on any of the parties. I couldn't do that with any other phone before and always assumed that feature was faulty. These are among the details I've discovered with constant use of my iPhone over the past two months.

However, the beauty of the iPhone lies beyond its deliciously simple shell and goes way beyond being just a phone. That beauty -- and the iPhone's success -- lies with the way you interact with it. Use the multitouch screen, along with the changing set of "buttons" and icons that adjust themselves to the task at hand, and you can't help be reminded of classic science fiction, in which devices are so easy to use anyone can pick up anything and begin operating it. That's what the iPhone is.

That point hit home when my mother picked up my iPhone. Over the years, not a single device ever made it through my mother's hands without being returned to me with a frustrated laugh and a shrug. With the iPhone, once the screen lit up and my mother discovered that Swipe to Unlock really did mean swipe to unlock, she was sold.

And so was I. This is the first device to successfully integrate multiple layers of functionality with hardly any compromise on quality or ease of use. With the iPhone, you're not left wondering what this button does in that app. With its full-screen interface for every function and its incredibly simple iTunes integration and updates, it's easy to see why the iPhone looks to be a huge hit. After all, it isn't just the first convergence device to be brilliantly useful; it's also the first convergence device to be useful without requiring its user to be brilliant.

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Not that it's perfect -- yet. But with Version 1.0 of the iPhone, Apple laid a solid foundation for future advances. As you read this, multitudes of developers are working to extend the functionality of the iPhone, some using Web 2.0 applications, others building native applications.

And there lies the true genius of the iPhone: OS X. Even with no official software development kit from Apple, because of iPhone's OS X foundation, the open-source community has been able to provide solutions to gaps in software that Apple has yet to release itself. Save for a couple of software updates labeled bug fixes, there hasn't been much in terms of major software announcements from Apple concerning the iPhone. The single exception was the addition of the Send to Web Gallery option, loosely tying the iPhone with Apple's recent iLife '08.

While it's clear that Apple is working to make the iPhone better, speculation about what Apple has up its sleeve remains just that: speculation. But the prospect of new applications and updates from Apple and independent developers is what makes the iPhone exciting to those who shelled out money to own one.

What needs fixing

That being said, there are a few tweaks that need to be made. The biggest issue for me is the inconsistencies in the user interface. There are certain capabilities that are available only in certain locations, yet not in apps where you think they'd make sense.

For instance, the landscape-mode keyboard works only in Safari. As nice as that is for browsing, wouldn't it make sense if all apps gained that function? I don't have any trouble typing on the virtual keyboard when the iPhone is in portrait orientation, but I could see how the larger-finger-friendly landscape keyboard mode would be beneficial to others.

Also peculiar: How come I can use the swipe gesture to delete e-mails, Short Messaging Service messages and even videos, yet I can't do the same with notes or bookmarks? This isn't a deal-breaking problem, but some consistency would be nice.

Another thing that bugs me is the inability to select multiple e-mails for deletion. Since the iPhone doesn't have spam filtering, I often find myself waking up to e-mail accounts filled with junk mail. Swipe deleting is fun for the first three e-mails. But after a bit, I found myself wondering why Apple didn't allow you to select multiple e-mails from within Mail and delete them all at once. Right now, you have to navigate to your in-box, click "edit," click the little red button next to each e-mail, and click "delete." Try doing that 25 times and see how long it takes.

And speaking of e-mails, I'd like to check one place for all of my e-mail accounts listed on the phone, yet the iPhone's user interface makes you go into each e-mail in-box individually. Certainly, the option for a universal in-box similar to the one in Mac OS X's Mail would be useful.

These quirks stand out because of how thoughtfully designed the interface is overall. After spending time with the iPhone, I've run into many more "ah-ha!" moments -- where the interaction surprises you with its intuitiveness -- than those "oh no" moments where the user interface falls short.

The beauty of the iPhone's design is that these interface quirks can be fixed because the entire interaction is based on a touch screen. When users call out these details to Apple, Apple can do something about them.

What can't be fixed (yet)

There are some shortcomings that can't be fixed in software, though, which may be a deal breaker for some. I'm referring to the lack of Global Positioning System (GPS) and 3G networking support. Since I don't live in a 3G area and most places I end up at have wireless anyway, I've not run into many issues.

Generally, AT&T's EDGE (enhanced data rates for GSM evolution) network is acceptable for Maps, e-mail and, surprisingly enough, YouTube. It's with Web browsing that EDGE falls a bit short in terms of speed. But it's still good enough for light surfing.

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The lack of GPS is offset by the functionally handy turn-by-turn feature in Maps. For some, this might not be enough, but for me, it does the job of getting me from Point A to Point B. Though lack of GPS hasn't stopped me from finding Maps enormously useful, I'd be one of the first in line if Apple ever released a separate GPS add-on, perhaps not unlike the Nike+ sports kit.

Another thing that can't be fixed in software is AT&T. While I haven't had as many dropped calls as I did with the Razr, there have been some dropped call issues. It's not to the point that it's annoying, but it does happen on occasion. Here's hoping that AT&T takes the cash it's receiving from the new members that have come on because of the iPhone and uses that money to upgrade and expand its networks.

The multifunction nature of the phone, along with the use of the touch screen, means there are some functions that actually require more steps than other phones. For instance, with my Razr, I'd flip open the phone and dial the number I wanted. If I was feeling brave, I'd even use the built-in contact manager, which was only a shortcut key away. In other words, making phone calls from the Razr didn't involve putting it into a "phone mode" as its primary function by default was making phone calls. (It was all of the other "features" that made me miserable.)

The iPhone requires a couple of extra steps. To make a call from the iPhone's default sleep mode, you have to first press the top button or the Home button to wake it up. Then, a swipe of your finger lets the iPhone know that you woke it intentionally, therefore unlocking the phone for use. From there, you have to click on the Phone icon before you can access your favorites, contacts, visual voice mail, recent phone calls or the keypad.

This might be an issue for some, but, personally, I've never really noticed. The extra steps -- a click, swipe and a tap before you're in phone app -- just give you more reasons to touch the screen.

And what about that screen? Mine looks as good and works as well as it did the day I brought the iPhone home. Even after two months of constant use, it looks new -- no dings, scratches or worn areas have shown up yet, a testament to the overall hardware design. Yes, the glass screen gets smudged from your fingers, and from your face when you hold it up to talk. But it's as easy to clean as any other glass surface, especially with the cleaning cloth supplied by Apple.

Convergence with thoughtfulness

In the end, Apple's latest device continues the company's tradition of rocking industry complacency, with the brilliance of the iPhone shining brighter the more you use it. The iPhone is physical proof that convergence with thoughtfulness really does work, actually making me -- after all of these years -- optimistic about the future of computing devices.

Watching others with the phone, you can see how its design seems to rekindle the joy people had for gadgets when technology first moved into the mainstream. Apple's efforts promise a future where technology works intuitively, making manuals -- and frustration -- a thing of the past.

Michael DeAgonia is a computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macintoshes for a decade and working on them professionally since 1996. His tech support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry and Apple. Currently, he is working as an independent consultant at YourMacTek specializing in all things Macintosh.