Agreed that iPhone 4 is the most advanced cellular phone / pocket computer available right now.
Update: I finally got to use an iPhone 4 myself with no restrictions (unlike in the Apple stores, where they're "theft-tethered"). The display is really gorgeous, it feels good and solid in your hand, and I like the changes in the various buttons. Thanks Ren!
The display is gorgeous. The iPhone 4 does a lot of things right, especially with the new iOS 4, like finally being able to use Apple's very nice and very portable Bluetooth keyboard. With iBooks there finally seems to be a native way of handling PDFs, kept locally, which is something I've wanted for a long, long time.
But there's a number of showstoppers that, for me, add up to not buying an iPhone 4, at least for a while, or perhaps ever, given the rapid rise of the competition.
Apple now consistently runs ahead of any other mobile phone vendor. It comes out with features that take years for competitors to match. The trouble is... not all of Apple's advanced features are all that useful or appreciated. But important features, like an App store, get emulated quickly when their worth is proven.
The first showstopper for me getting an iPhone 4 is, simply, AT&T as the carrier. I was a Verizon Wireless customer and ported my number over to AT&T to get an iPhone 3G, and I've been disappointed with AT&T's coverage and capacity issues at least in the Seattle area. The former is pretty sad considering that AT&T inherited the remains of the McCaw Cellular empire (Cellular One) here in the Pacific Northwest, which was early in the game and so should have ample sites to provide coverage. Of course, that was back in the days of 800 MHz.
I've had so, so many irritating moments with the iPhone / AT&T where I'd be trying to download something and the download would just STOP. There are other times when I'm in a "good coverage" area, but still can't get any data through. Then there are the many times where I'll lapse into EDGE mode from 3G in a very urban area (well within AT&T's stated 3G coverage area), or I'm in an area where only EDGE is deployed. Then there are all the times where the phone doesn't ring at all, but suddenly I have a voicemail message show up, or it will give half a ring and then cut out and the caller reports that they let it ring. When I'm on a long call on a long drive on freeway (where I'm holding the phone with two fingers above the dash so it has the best chance to get good coverage) I routinely disclaim that I'm using AT&T so we'll probably get cut off at some point. Etc.
So, if I'm tempted by the iPhone 4, the thought of putting myself into another 2 years committed to AT&T is enough to damp my enthusiasm. I've seen mention that the Apple / AT&T agreement for iPhone exclusivity in the US will end in December, 2010 so perhaps we'll see a new iPhone with other carriers announced in January. If Verizon Wireless is in there, that will help a lot.
But there are also lingering issues with the iPhone 4 itself. The biggest is that they put the antennas into the metal bands around the edge?!?!?! As an RF (Radio Frequency) geek (Amateur / Ham Radio Operator), that's an incredibly poor design choice. The entire point of an antenna is that it needs to radiate and receive RF energy "in the clear". From the point of view of a handheld radio (which any cellular phone really is, in the end), our bodies are bags of water - great attenuators of RF, especially RF in the range of typical cellular - 1900 MHz. Even worse, our hands emit sweat - salty water, and salt is an even better conductor of electricity than plain water. So it seems to me, from my amateur analysis, that the iPhone 4's antennas being metallic strips on the edge of the phone, where you'll be gripping it (at least I will be gripping it there with my oversized hands) will, of course, severely attenuate both the transmitted and received RF energy.
OK, maybe that's a bit harsh. Conceptually, it is a good idea. Even elegant - take a design element (metal band) and make good, secondary use of it as an antenna. That was clever. But I'm at a loss to imagine how such an elegant design wasn't vetted against the real world of "people will naturally hold it by the band" and thus the antennas will essentially be shorted out or severely attenuated.
Update: Consumer Reports has definitively (RF clean room, controlled conditions, engineers who really know what they're doing) confirmed this flaw. Apple's explanation for the problem now looks lame at best and outright deception at worst. I believe that this will be another low point in Apple's much-vaunted design expertise, that it apparently ignored usability over elegant design. It does happen sometimes, even to mighty Apple. The class action lawsuits have already begun.
Other, lesser factors in my decision not to get an iPhone 4 (current design) on AT&T:
- Apple and AT&T are just clueless about Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and voice should switch over to VOIP (and those minutes should be free) whenever you're in range of good Wi-Fi. VOIP works just fine over all those femtocells (see below), and you know how to do it from the videophone chat.
- Apple's videophone chat is also elegant, but it being purely iPhone 4 to iPhone 4 is a non-starter. Apple has this really cool thing called iChat on Macs, with some of the best videoconferencing you can get outside of HP and Cisco's video suites costing $100K and up. Imagine two-way video chat iPhone 4 to Mac iChat?!?!?! That would sell a lot of Macs and iPhone 4s. Not doing so just seems clueless and greedy, unnecessarily restricting it to iPhone 4 to flog sales of iPhone 4.
- Continuing irritation that the iPhone 4 doesn't have any kind of a memory card slot, or the ability to easily move my files onto it via Wi-Fi. Perhaps iBooks can do this now.
- Continuing irritation that Apple insists that the iPhone has to be docked against a computer instead of iPhone being a "cloud" device with its data stored both on the device and in (Apple) cloud storage. I mean, how tough could this be in this era of advanced cloud services? Apple is just completely missing what people really want. And if I do have to dock it with a computer... why can't it be done over Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cradle instead of a USB connection directly to the computer?
- Continuing irritation that Apple never "finished the job" and made an app that allowed interoperability between iChat text messages on Mac (and PCs - Jabber, etc.) and the iPhone. That would really be nice to be able to text chat Mac to iPhone.
- Clueless AT&T #1 - now that AT&T has implemented transfer caps, it ought to make tethering available and free. Now that we cannot abuse the AT&T network without paying for excessive use... wouldn't it be in AT&T's best (financial) interest to make it easy for us to go into excessive use, with secondary customer convenience being able to tether when that's needed?
- Clueless AT&T #2 - I'm still at a loss to understand it make sense to make customers pay for femtocell usage. I'm perfectly OK with making customers buy femtocells - they cost money to make, ship, and support. But, really AT&T, considering that femtocells 1) use the customer-paid-for broadband connectivity for its backhaul, and 2) take traffic off your cellular network, and 3) provide coverage in areas where (your customers have determined that) you don't have good coverage... just make femtocell usage free. More femtocells can only help.
I think I'm going to do long term is to move to an Android phone on another carrier. There are several Android phones that look really promising, and the recent Froyo software update fixed a number of fundamental irritations with Android.
Update: Lifehacker is way ahead of me, as usual, with Jumping Ship from iPhone to Android: A Switcher's Guide.
One of the things that I really like with Android is that Google services work really, really well with Android. That means that I can access email equally well from Gmail on a desktop browser or the phone. I can finally have one (Gmail / Gvoice) contact list. And I think best of all, Google Voice, once fully implemented with an "origination" option, would be a godsend on an Android phone.
Android phones do have data card slots. Android phones do have tethering. Android phones sync with cloud services (Google). Etc.
A friend has an Android phone that he bought unlocked. He inserted his SD card from a prepaid phone and it just worked. The data mode only works when the phone is in Wi-Fi coverage, and the voice costs are minimal, but he has the ability to make and receive calls over the cellular network when that's needed.
Your mileage may vary.
Disclaimer - I'm an Apple shareholder.
By Steve Stroh
July 7, 2010