Tuesday, July 10, 2007

iPhone Phooey

It's 90 degrees in Pittsburgh and Allegra, my faithful, but clearly overheating Compaq Evo D500 is laboring in the heat. So I'm gonna try to make this brief so that I don't end up making silicon soup of her CPU.

What makes otherwise sane, logical, rational people take days off from work to camp out in front of a store battling linejumpers, boredom, linemates with questionable personal hygiene and the possibility of disappointment in order to have the latest techno doodad? When the Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Wii went on sale at the end of 2006, there were lines formed up at game stores and WalMarts all over the country filled with early adopters and fanboys of all shapes, sizes, genders, and bathing habits all waiting for the precious consoles to go on sale.

Some used the line waiting experience as many Americans would...a chance to throw a party. People were dressing up as their favorite video game characters which had to raise a few eyeballs seeing Princess Peach snuggling up to the Master Chief. There were incidences of violence as some lucky buyers were relieved of their gifts by thieves and muggers. Some people straight up said that their reason for purchasing the devices was not to play them, but to sell them on eBay. That didn't always turn out to the be the wisest idea because of a concept of economics called flooding the market. Even though those PS3's and Wiis were still quite rare in the greater marketplace, the sudden emergence of such products on enclosed markets like eBay tended to cause the prices to drop, which was small consolation for those who were expecting to make a killing on their PS3 only to see their console only selling for slightly more than they paid.

But the latest device that had people doing the urban camping experience was the long awaited Apple iPhone. Apple announced the rollout of the phone at their annual tradeshow and lovefest, Macworld in January and had a mockup of the phone sitting on a pedestal under glass in the middle of the exhibition hall, and to see the Apple fanboys surrounding that thing slack-jawed and mesmerized, you'd swear that the phone was going to change water into wine, heal the sick, raise the dead, and ascend to the heavens in a cloud of angels. According to the various Apple rumor sites and the reality distortion field emanating from One Infinite Loop Drive in Cupertino, California, the iPhone was to be the greatest cell phone ever built, one that could do every possible thing from surf the web, to send and receive email, to change your babies' diapers, do the laundry, solve world peace, and oh yeah, make phone calls. The runup to the eventual launch of the iPhone was filled with speculation, analysis, and naked rumors about this wonder phone and its capabilities. Blogs, podcasts, and news sites catering to technology were falling over themselves to dissect any tidbit of information, fact or otherwise, pertaining to the iPhone. And as the day of launch drew near, even the mainstream media started to take notice.

Apple is known for two major things: doing the pretty, and fostering a devotion amongst their fans/users that rivals religious zealotry. Apple products have always been known for not only their functionality, but also their elegance and industrial design. Back in the day when your's truly was learning how to use computers, the IBM PC's I cut my teeth on used DOS, an operating system that required users to enter arcane commands from a prompt to get the computer to do what they wanted. Apple came out with an interface that was based on icons and using a mouse to "drag and drop" folders from one "folder" to another. No more did users have to remember stiff unforgiving commands like "xcopy c:\foo\morefoo\fubar.txt c:\bar\morebar\fubar.txt" If they wanted to copy files. With the Apple machines, all they had to do was drag a picture of the file they wanted from one folder to another. Amazing!!! With few failures, Apple has always held the notion of usability, beauty, and efficiency of its products as top priority. While Window users could count on their rigs crashing at the worst possible moment and reboots became a common ritual, The Mac operating system was clean, elegant, rarely crashed, and wasn't afflicted by the various viruses and worms that plagued the Windows OS. As a result, the company built up a user base who's brand loyalty is almost second to none. Apple people looooove their Macs. They keep them in hallowed places in their houses. They build shrines devoted to founder Steve Jobs in their backyards and pray to them daily. A Mac user would rather sell their closest female relative into white slavery than willfully use a Windows PC which they see as a pale imitator that doesn't quite get it right.

Apple is about the only company that could put ten pounds of dog crap in its signature white boxes with the minimalist font wording and the signature bitten apple and have people line up around the block to buy it. The annual Macworld Expo trade show is part tech paradise and part revival meeting amongst the Mac faithful and Steve Jobs is their high priest. His keynotes are the stuff of legend. Women have been known to orgasm, and men have been known to swoon. It IS that big. If there is anything that Apple can do, is manage and work the buzz.

But let's look at the iPhone, and see what it is that gets all the technorati all geeked up about it. What does it have that other phones don't have? Admittedly, the phone is quite attractive. It has a beautiful hi-res glass touch screen with a gorgeous display. It shows its Apple roots by having a minimum of buttons and switches. The display changes views with all sorts of cute special effects that never fail to get the fanboys all weak in the knees. The phone runs a full, yet modified version of Mac OS X, it's thin, it's sexy, it's all that the hip, young, and cool trendoids and trendettes hunger for in a cellphone. Like practically all phones sold today it has a camera, can access the web, and uniquely can double as a iPod. The Safari browser renders web pages natively and has the unique feature of zooming in on a spot of a page when touched on the screen. That's unheard of on any other phone and leave it to Apple to come up with it.

Now let's talk about what the iPhone doesn't have and why anyone in their right mind should pass on it for now. One, the phone only comes in 4GB or 8GB storage capacity. For those music lovers who own 60 and 80GB iPods and like taking all their music with them, this could be a deal breaker from the get go. And 700MB of the available flash memory is consumed by the OS!!! Ouch. A little bloated are we???

Two, Apple has chosen to lock down the iPhone by not allowing third-party application developers to create stand-alone applications for it. If app developers want to get their code on, they have to do it by designing interactive web apps accessible by the browser. I don't know about the hundereds and thousands of readers who frequent this blog, but I like to download and run apps directly from my phones. Web apps just don't have the same feel and response that stand-alone apps do, and what happens if, God forbid, the network goes down. Your apps go with it. Nice!!!

Three, Apple struck an exclusive deal with Cingular/ATT/ATT Wireless to be the exclusive cellular service provider of the iPhone for 5 years. That means that if Jessica Apple Fangirl wants to get her paws on an iPhone, and she's not a ATT customer, she'll have to pay the $500-600 for the phone, the $175-200 early termination fee charged by the carrier to get out of her contract, the $35 activation fee to start service on the new carrier, plus the monthly access fees for service, and because Apple people are always looking for the coolest accessories to keep their pricey toys from getting scratched or dinged, she'll spend a couple hundred on multiple cute leather cases to match her various outfits, and a set of audiophile quality headphones so she can hear every word Avril Lavigne is singing in perfect high fi-delity. That's a lot of cabbage to spend on a souped up cellphone. But remember, this is an Apple iPhone, the price of admission to this latest bastion of cool is high, but you'll be part of the techno elite.

Three, There are any number of minor, but no less important things that the iPhone does not do that it's less enlightened brethren can do. Like I said, this phone can take pictures, but the white balance can't be adjusted. My cheap well worn Nokia 6101 can do that. The iPhone doesn't do video, well, my Nokia scores another goal in that department. Snap a picture or a cute video of a cat trying to crap in a jug, and wanna send it to your buddies as an MMS message? My 2 yr old Nokia can do that. Bupkes on the iPhone. How many phones made in the last two years do not come with the capability to shoot video? I could probably could count that on both hands and maybe one foot. The battery on my various cellphones can be replaced by the user when it conks out. The iPhone? Well, you gotta send that puppy to Apple with a check for $85.00 and live without it for the 2-3 days it takes to replace the battery. Quel Horreur!!! And that'll be torture for those spoiled by the iPhones good looks and sexy graphics. Once you go iPhone, all other phones look like skanks from the Tenderloin, or from the Hill if you're from Pittsburgh. The iPhone is saddled with the EDGE wireless data radio. EDGE is only slightly faster than the old as dirt GPRS protocol, but HSDPA leaves it in the dust. Then again HSDPA has not been rolled out to most of the nation as of yet. The phone does have Wi-Fi capability and will automatically switch to Wi-Fi if it detects an access point, but Wi-Fi does not saturate the country to the extent that the cellular phone network does. Those people used to Verizon and Sprint's EVDO network which provides near-broadband data throughput won't want to spend the cash to convert to ATT until they get nationwide HSDPA rolled out.

Well, it's time to conclude and what have we learned. Simple, the iPhone is a 1.0 device that would not have gotten a second look had any other phone manufacturer like Motorola, Samsung, LG, or Nokia made it. It's feature set, while impressive in terms of eye candy and the cool factor lacks some functions that many cellphone users would find crucial. The lock in with ATT turns off many who'd love to buy an iPhone but not deal with ATT's reputation for customer service. $499 and $599 for a cellphone with a contract? That's insane! But the opening weekend of the iPhone launch, Apple sold over half million of the little gems, and created a hype and buzz machine that is still going strong almost a month after release. According to various tech podcasts I've listened to like Buzz Out Loud, Mac Break Weekly, and TWiT, people were going out to lunch, saw a nearby ATT or Apple Store and walked right in, plopped down the plastic and walked out with the phone strictly on impulse. I heard one story on TWiT about some kid who raided his life savings just so he could get an iPhone!! That's bad. There are those who have graded the iPhone as one of the greatest tech devices to come out in the last decade. Despite its faults and shortcomings, they may be right. Apple has once again shown that they can bring the wow like no other company. And I am not an Apple fan. I admire their ability to bring out products people want, and can get away with charging a premium price for them. But I can't do the "Cult of Mac" fanboy thing. Apple zealots tend to be young, cool, and hip, and they know it. I'm not young, don't do cool, and think hip is that big bone that holds my legs on.