As I post this, the iPhone goes on sale in slightly less than ninety minutes (Pacific time zone). I write this without benefit of any hands-on time with the iPhone whatsoever... but I'll certainly try it out as soon as I get the chance - at an Apple store.
Regular readers might be amused at my speculations of an earlier handheld Wi-Fi device - the Palm Tungsten C (PDF, starts on page 4 or Google's HTML translation)
Every other writer in the tech, PC, Mac, and wireless (especially wireless telephony) industries has weighed in on the iPhone... so here are my thoughts from, of course, a Broadband Wireless Internet Access perspective... as well as some personal observations.
I personally won't be buying in, though I'll probably take a drive tonight to see if my local Cingu... er, AT&T stores are swamped by the iPhone-atics, especially in nearby Redmond, the late, now largely deserted headquarters of AT&T Wireless. At least as of last night, the closest AT&T store didn't have a rabid line forming, possibly because they just barely made the branding transition with what looks like a hastily-erected banner draped over their Cingular lighted sign (that'll probably look a bit muddled in the dark - the Cingular logo trying to shine through the AT&T banner).
What I think is right with the iPhone:
- It's beautiful, pretty, sexy, and looks remarkably easy to use (overall).
- It's a real Internet device with real access to the real Internet - no walled gardens, no not-quite-real-Internet browsers like on almost every other wireless telephony handset. It just gets you onto the Internet, with some neat gadgets to speed things along, like Google Maps.
- It has Wi-Fi built-in, and it "prefers" it (defaults to it when available); it seems like a nearly-ideal handheld "webpad".
- It "does the right thing" in regards to music and other media that you have- if you can get it into iTunes on your desktop/laptop computer, you can get it into the iPhone, with no compromises, no hassles, unlike every other wireless telephony handset that made it damn difficult to load your media and often force you to purchase media through their obscenely expensive walled-garden, use-up-your-minutes virtual stores.
- There don't appear to be any AT&T "walled gardens" content issues on the iPhone; AT&T only provides data and voice transport and associated services like voice mail, Caller ID info, etc. For most of the functions of the iPhone, your primary relationship is, like all Apple products, is with Apple (including great in-person support at the Apple Store, if you're in a reasonably-large city.) It sounds Apple doesn't allow AT&T to get in the way of, or take a cut of content downloads (which is a point in favor of using iTunes on a desktop/laptop computer, not wireless networks for content downloads).
- On a Mac (Yay! Heh!), the iPhone "just syncs" with your Address Book, Calendar, Music, (Safari - bah) bookmarks, documents (?), etc. so you have usable (as opposed to "marginally usable" on an iPod) access to all of that on your mobile device.
- The associated AT&T service plans all include unlimited (wireless telephony) Internet access, as opposed to inane metering by transfer or minutes... nor do there seem to be any restrictions on what you can do with your Internet access.
- Power / recharging "interface" is USB 2.0... very, very nice, but I'm sure that charging the iPhone will require a "dedicated" USB 2.0 port on a (powered) hub or computer... but it IS nice to not need yet another highly specialized charging brick that you'll have to lug around.
The main things I think are wrong with the iPhone (a slightly longer list):
- What gripes me most... I think it's completely odious (I'm sorely tempted to use much stronger invectives)... is that Apple cripples the non-phone functions such as the iPod functionality of the iPhone so that it's useless until you activate it by signing up for an AT&T iPhone service plan. If... and only if... the iPhone were being sold at a discount with activation, I may see the point of this decision. But the iPhone is being sold at (what apparently is) full list price - $499 and $599. Not only that... if you discontinue your AT&T iPhone service plan, you again lose all functions of the iPhone. This is Apple's arrogance at its worst.
- Apple's decision to use AT&T as the launch carrier. How can I say this... bad mistake! I've personally switched away from AT&T, back when it was AT&T Wireless (yes, way back before they were Cingular) when they made the decision to start screwing over customers whose recently-bought handsets used AT&T Wireless' TDMA network. What they did was, in essence, "starved out" the TDMA users by "robbing" TDMA channels from base stations for their new GSM network, all without even trying to persuade (at least with me) TDMA customers to convert to GSM. AT&T Wireless, Cingular's, and now AT&T-formerly-Cingular's service, at least in my experience, can be described at best as "service with a snarl", and my pleasant experiences with the retail customer service personnel of my current carrier was an absolutely night versus day contrast with the personnel at the nearby AT&T Wireless / Cingular store.
- No Instant Messaging / iChat; what looks like iChat on the iPhone is actually the iPhone's client software for wireless telephony Short Message Service (SMS) messaging... not exactly useful for chatting with your friends on Instant Messaging networks (which can really help pass the time.) I certainly applaud the usability improvement of the iChat interface applied to SMS... but I should be able to use IM and SMS interchangably. (I'm guessing the [lame] reason there's no IM client is because it would cause too much EDGE traffic, and have to keep the iPhone connected full time so you don't miss an IM message. It's not widely understood that to communicate on a wireless telephony data network like EDGE, a "session" has to be "initiated" and then "torn down"; we're talking about a circuit-switched network, not always-on packet-switched; it merely transports packets - over a circuit-switched connection.)
- Integrated, not-user-swappable battery; non-elegant or not, I predict that the very next iPhone, due out within months, will feature a user-swappable battery. That's just a necessity for the heavy users. The early adopters will put up with a non-swappable battery, but the masses won't.
- The AT&T iPhone service plans don't include any Wi-Fi "roaming"... even on AT&T-owned Wi-Fi HotSpots (formerly SBC FreedomLink). Dumb, DUMB, DUMB!!!! I agree with Glenn Fleishman that AT&T, despite owning Wi-Fi HotSpots, just doesn't get the utility of Wi-Fi at all (and haven't, ever; the most spectacularly clueless-about-Wi-Fi "professional" in the wireless industry that I've ever had the displeasure to talk to in my entire decade of writing about Broadband Wireless Internet Access... was an AT&T Wireless middle manager in Redmond, WA (pre-Cingular, pre-SBC takeover).
- No VOIP, including on the non-existent iChat client. Demand for this may well also get initially buried in the feeding frenzy, but soon enough the early adopters are going to start howling for their favorite VOIP client, especially Skype. I'm sure that "Absolutely NO VOIP, dammit and-we're-deadly-serious-about-that" was a primary condition of Cingu... er, AT&T coming onboard with Apple for the iPhone, so it will be interesting to see how the battle for VOIP on the iPhone shapes up.
Things I'm neutral about:
- Basing the iPhone on using EDGE Broadband Wireless. I part company with the rest of the pack in saying that (sight unseen), EDGE at least gets you on the Internet wherever you are. It sure beats no connectivity, or resorting to something like having to hunt for a Wi-Fi HotSpot (sometimes tough in a small town or remote area) or (shudder!) having to fall back to using dialup. So... yes, EDGE isn't as good as 1xEV-DO Rev. A or HSDPA... but, for me, it would probably be good enough, especially since I wasn't really paying extra for it on the service plan.
- YouTube... couldn't care less!!!
- Price - there's a lot of cool, new, expensive technology embedded in the iPhone, and at least we're not playing the subsidy game with this device. Price isn't going to really matter initially - Apple will easily sell out the initial production run in record time.
The Nokia N800
I've talked about the iPhone with some colleagues, and not surprisingly, they're passing on the iPhone (even some that have stayed with Apple during its darkest days of incredible "crappiness"). Their handheld Internet communications device of choice at the moment is the Nokia N800 Internet Tablet. It's reasonably priced, has lots of expansion capability (USB, memory card slots), completely unencumbered by wireless telephony service plans (it's Wi-Fi / Bluetooth only), runs on Linux, and experimentation and third-party applications are actively encouraged by Nokia. There's a very triving community building around the N800; enthusiasm that might well have been directed to enhancing the iPhone. I can't see myself buying this generation of iPhone, but I'm looking forward to buying an N800 in the near future.
As to the odious locking of the iPhone until activated, two workarounds have been discovered to get you a "non-cellular" iPhone:
- Deliberately fail the credit check during activation by typing in 999-99-9999 as your social security number and then sign up for prepaid service, then cancel. From what I've read, the non-cellular functions of the iPhone remain active.
- It's unclear if you have to first activate the iPhone, but a non-iPhone or "no account", old, etc. SIM card will allow the non-cellular functions of the iPhone to be used.
I hadn't realized that prepaid service was an option for the iPhone (and then choosing not to add minutes). Hmmm... the iPhone is looking better.
The Nokia E90 Communicator looks like a worthy, at least in some respects, competitor to the iPhone.
Then there's the ever-helpful DVD Jon's approach to unlocking the iPhone (again, the cellular functions aren't active, but everything else works).
I probably should make it clear that I'm in no way encouraging or cheering cellular theft-of-service. I just feel that, for the (full, unsubsidized, as far as anyone has been able to determine) price one pays for the device, you should have the ability to use the functions of the device that are not involved with the separate, and as far as I'm concerned (should be) optional purchase of cellular service that enables the cellular functions of the device.
By Steve Stroh
This article is Copyright © 2007 by Steve Stroh