The iPhone

It’s really, really, really, really, really fucking fun, and a big disappointment.

The “fun” part should not be dismissed. The UI is possibly the best resolved of any I’ve ever seen: it all works flawlessly, intuitively, so effortlessly that you want to do stuff just for the sake of doing it.

Let’s be clear about something: the iPhone will change the shape of business, and it will change the shape of life.

On the life side of the equation: it’s the first device that will become as organic and as helplessly necessary to ordinary – i.e., non-Blackberry-wielding – Americans as mobiles have always been to Europeans and Asians. So far this morning, I’ve used my iPhone as an alarm clock, a timer, a phone, a map, and a handy means of getting the answer to a question that came up in conversation. I wondered if there were any laundromats handy, got a map of a few likely candidates, and clicked on the nearest to call them and ask them if they were open yet. (They were.) In other words, it’s performing exactly as intended. I have questions about the wisdom of shoving it heedlessly in my pocket, as is generally my wont with phones, but that’ll be dealt with one way or another.

On the business side, though, I did something I have never, ever done before, in my twelve years of mobile-device consumership – signed up for unlimited, all-you-can-eat access, with all the bells and whistles – because a few minutes playing with Cal‘s convinced me that I’d be using the thing utterly nonstop. I will not be the only consumer to have come to a similar realization, and I’m entirely sure the results will show up in Monday’s Business section.

A happy picture

Now for the bad news. You knew it was coming – in fact, almost everyone paying even a smidge of attention had seen it coming way back in January. And it’s just exactly what you thought it would be, too: while just about everything Apple about the iPhone is flawless or nearly so (and yes, I include the keyboard, for reasons I’ll get into), a similar proportion of everything AT&T about the experience is ass.

The provisioning process is a drag, the EDGE service is every bit as slow as you’d heard it would be, the coverage (even from, say, San Francisco down to San Jose, which you’d think would be a gimme) is spotty, and call quality is likely to remain what the spinmeisters call “an issue” for the foresseable future.

And then there’s the fundamental, underlying, root-deep flaw with the iPhone, the one thing which can and should be laid at Steve’s door, and regarding which it’s impossible for anyone with integrity to pull the wool over their own eyes about. The UI is so seductive and so accomplished that you almost forget it, but in the end there’s no getting around it: this is a closed shop. A locked-down device. What Jonathan Zittrain calls a “non-generative” piece of kit.

You can’t code on it. You can’t hack on it – not without a lot of effort, which is to say, more effort than all but a very few will devote to the attempt. By and large, you cannot make culture with this device, not unless you construct “making culture” as everything you’re doing when you use the iPhone. Consume, yes – painlessly, pleasantly, engagingly. But not produce.

That’s a problem.

Putting aside for the moment how utterly pwn3d I was by the Spectacle around this thing – and that’s not a trivial thing, but it’s grist for a different mill – the iPhone as it stands now is in the end more likely to disempower than to give rise to other outcomes. Despite what I had naively imagined here, I couldn’t even use its WiFi before registering it with AT&T. Registered, it sure seems like a king-hell everyware device, but before provisioning, it was an inert brick. And that sense of playing footsie with the status quo left a nasty, nasty residue.

So, summing up: truckloads of fun. Effortless. Elegant. Seductive. Bound to become indispensible. Far and away the most beautiful experience of unboxing and of use of any mobile device I’ve ever laid a finger on. Destined to redefine what we think of as a “phone” – if, that is, it hasn’t already. Will definitely get you lots of attention; will, in fact, trigger the most wonderful conversations, with perfect (and, if my experiences so far are any indication, highly attractive) strangers, in the middle of the street. You will learn to know and love the cloth with which you wipe away greasy fingerprints. Instantly makes everyone else’s device look dowdy, to the point that your friends will all be forced to hide their N95s and whatnot. Not nearly as non-Evil as I’d like. Make of all this what you will.

27 responses to “The iPhone”

  1. Michal Migurski says :

    I predict that they will prove you wrong about the closed shop business for two reasons. First, they’ve given it a real browser that also exists on Windows and Mac platforms, so all the the ajax + web developers out there can have a crack at it. There’s got to be two orders of magnitude more of these people than “real” programmers (C, Cocoa, etc.), and right now in the world of development, web applications matter most. Take a look at what Google’s doing with Gears and Firefox for a hint of the future. iPhone-specific web apps are going to be important. Second, I don’t see any reason why Apple wouldn’t release a development kit for the phone in the future. As hard as it is to get a consumer product like this out the door, it’s doubly-hard to simultaneously do it for all the 3rd party developers out there.

  2. speedbird says :

    You know I hope you’re right. Sometimes, for credibility’s sake if for no other reason, I’m compelled to wear my pessimist’s hat.

  3. Gen Kanai says :

    Has anyone tried that web-based IM client, Meebo? If that works on the iPhone, you’ve got your IM.

  4. Chris says :

    A caveat is that it’s v1, a beta.

    But I am surprised at the lack of “playing nice” – no file system, no way of really using the browser for uploading anything other than text you’ve just typed in, no useful Bluetooth, no IM, no wireless iTMS, no saving for later, no use as a modem… and no way to really improve any of that.

    Launching a phone means doing deals with devils, but it seems there’s a lack of will on both sides to do the right thing.

    (insert standard competitor disclaimer here)

  5. Alex says :

    You summed up my reservations (and excitement) pretty well.

    One thing will sell the iPhone for me: Location. I figure Apple could [probably?] get ATT to open an A-GPS API for at least the GoogleMaps app on the iPhone. Really trying to suspend my cynicism.

  6. speedbird says :

    Alex: Yeah, that would be superneat, huh? This phone kinda needs to know where it is to make the Google Maps feature not merely useful but supremely, industry-upside-downing so. (I’m already impressed by the realtime traffic status overlays, though I’m thinking they could use some aesthetic Stamenizing.)

    Gen, I’d had that same thought and hadn’t had the time to look up any such apps. Will be giving Meebo a shot tonight.

  7. Klintron says :

    It sounds like you’ve had the exact same reaction to the iPhone that I had to the first Sidekick in 2002. But 5 years later, I’m living pretty happily w/ a regular cell phone. I guess the Sidekick has opened up a bit since I owned one, so I guess there’s some hope for openness for the iPhone as well.

    These days I’m more interested in ditching the Baby Bell cell grid for wifi/VOIP. The Sony Milo ( and the Gizmo phones (, for example. None of these seem quite “there” yet, but I think we’ll be something more worth spending $600 on in the near future.

  8. Mike W. says :

    Stamenizing? Except for three flickr pages, google has no clue. Perhaps a photoshop effect simulating the soft haze given off by moist plants in the hot sun? Perhaps this word occurs in Everyware.

  9. speedbird says :

    Klint, agreed completely w/r/t the WiFi/VoIP platform. This is, of course, where I had wanted and expected Apple to go, and I think before the day is over we’ll see iPhones used in just that way – whether officially or otherwise.

    As to other possible choices, I know I’m not alone in saying that, with the explicit exception of cameras, I will never buy a piece of Sony digital hardware again. Sony just does not get it, and I’ve been that road with them too many times to set myself up for disappointment again. For slightly different, and certainly softer, reasons, I have similar feelings about Nokia’s ability to deliver an acceptable mobiquitous UI. Either way, my feeling is still that Apple offers me personally – me, with my particular blend of needs, requirements, predilections, and dealbreakers – the best alternative.

  10. Klintron says :

    Looks like there’s already a VOIP workaround for the iPhone:

    And yeah, I’m not a Sony fan (and the Milo looks like a Fisher Price toy). I have more confidence in Nokia, and they seem to be committed to decentralizing communications networks. But none of the current offerings is very appealing. It’s just interesting to see this sort of thing already on the market.

  11. speedo says :

    Can you use it with one hand only?

  12. Mark says :

    “You can’t code on it. You can’t hack on it – not without a lot of effort”

    Here’s a link to some who are trying:

  13. Abe Burmeister says :

    Hey Adam have you taken a look at what Helio is doing, especially with the Ocean? GPS in every unit and tied to mapping. The Ocean is no iPhone, but from my few minutes with it is pretty impressive. It’s like someone finally got the whole sidekick/treo thing perfected just when that model got blown out the water. But that whole “no one is paying attention anymore” situation sometimes can be where the most interesting innovations happen.

  14. Abe Burmeister says :

    fuck, that buddy beacon made me regret getting the iPhone for just a sec. Then I realized it’d only work for friends who actually have Helio as a provider…

  15. speedbird says :

    I feel you on that, Abe. Three things, though: (a) I can’t see any way iPhone 1.1 doesn’t feature some kind of real-time location awareness; (b) whether that “1.1” comes ex cathedra or results from some clever hack is immaterial; and (c) my money says it’s live by the end of next week.

    Helio may, in fact, do some clever things, but they’re going to wind up like those dudes always going on about how their Zen has .ogg support and FM radio when the plain fact is that nobody gives a rat’s ass. When I walked past the other evening, the Helio store across the street from the Apple Store was, y’know, tumbling tumbleweeds…

    The Achilles heel in all this, of course, is AT&T’s manifest failures across the board: “We didn’t anicipate this level of demand,” (!) and so forth. They seem intent on proving me right.

  16. mieses says :

    Helio Ocean looks superior to iPhone but both are closed platforms. For example, neither can be tethered to a laptop as a bluetooth modem. you can’t write software for either device. it’s the classic “walled garden” – too controlling and distasteful – a little like what AOL was trying to do with their version of the internet.

    nokia’s n800 and 770 tablets are generative – an almost completely open platform. there are rumours the tablets will support wimax (4g?) in a future revision. for now, only wifi is supported (to not to upset any of nokia’s real customers). a tablet can be paired with a data phone (as long as it’s not a restrictive iphone or helio service plan).

  17. speedbird says :

    After a full week working and playing with my iPhone, I honestly can’t conceive of any sense in which the Helio Ocean would be superior. The Ocean may have some eye-catching features, but it’s still basically more of the same. The iPhone really is different.

    How different? In my week of use, I’ve used every function it has. How many people can say this about their Nokia phones? How many people even know all of the functions their Motorola supports? The elegance and intutitiveness of the interface, the ease of use: I suggest you give iPhone a try before calling anything else “superior.”

    As for the Nokia tablets, my answer has to be “yes, but they’re not really phones, are they?”

  18. mieses says :

    > I honestly can’t conceive of any sense in which the Helio Ocean would be superior.

    Ocean uses EVDO, which means it’s many times faster at surfing the web. Sprint’s EVDO is supposed to be a decent network. ATT is apparently not. Ocean has a keyboard and can be used while driving without crashing the car (not an official selling point). Texters may appreciate a tactile qwerty keyboard. Will the Apple touchscreen last 2 years? Helio has GPS integrated with google maps. Buddy minder is neat. The plan is a little cheaper.
    more comparisons:

    Regardless, both iphone and ocean are too restrictive. i’m avoiding both, but would take the ocean if forced to decide.

    > In my week of use, I’ve used every function it has. How many people can say this about their Nokia phones?

    i don’t see how this is an advantage. i know the simplicity argument. but i’d like to be able to install vnc, ssh, pidgin, and whatever else I, not Apple, decides is important. For example, check out Canola. Such apps are les likely to emerge in apple platforms. When they do, they will be broken by design, like itunes.

    > yes, but they’re not really phones, are they?”

    think different

  19. speedbird says :

    …but i’d like to be able to install vnc, ssh, pidgin, and…

    Putting you in 1000th of 1% of all mobile users. Remember, if you can parse the above sentence, you’re really almost disqualified from understanding what this technology’s like from the perspective of most users. These are the folks whose needs and requirements I try to keep in mind when designing.

  20. mieses says :

    > if you can parse the above sentence, you’re really almost disqualified from understanding

    other users may have other needs. and the device should accommodate difference. it’s not a folksy populist game they’re playing. it’s all about control and keeping folks stupid. i think it’s possible to have good design without architectures of control based on corporate interests. nokia tablets come closer. perhaps it’s a cultural difference.

    the “non-generative” term Zittrain came up with is perfect. (i need to read more of his stuff). designers are often slow to understand the transformative potential of technology. iphone is the same old cake, new icing.

    i completely agree with all your adjectives relating to the iphone’s sexiness. it has some wonderful design elements. but it has no radical potential. it’s pure entertainment. it will keep trailing open frameworks, releasing barely enough features to sell to the mass.

  21. Klintron says :

    Here’s an open alternative to the iPhone and Nokia tablets:

  22. speedbird says :

    Yeah, but come on, that’s no alternative at all! It’s prima facie hideous, and I don’t even want to imagine how the UI feels. It seems to me that here, yet again, developers have made the mistake of thinking of design as something you apply to an object after its functionality has been worked out.

    IMO, the only way we’re going to get an open iPhone is via…an open iPhone.

  23. Klintron says :

    “That’s no alternative at all!”

    Obviously it depends on what your needs are. As you’ve stated, the iPhone is what meets your needs best – and clearly the need to have a good looking device is an important need to you. But it is an alternative to having a 2 year contract with AT&T and a crippled-by-design-device.

    “I don’t even want to imagine how the UI feels.”

    I think it’s too soon to be passing judgment. I’m not likely to buy the first gen of any device (learned my lesson with the Sidekick), but considering the general advances in UI design in the Linux world, I’m not ready to dismiss this out of hand (please note that I’m not a Linux user, I’m a wannabe Linux user).

    “IMO, the only way we’re going to get an open iPhone is via…an open iPhone.”

    I know it’s a radical notion to Apple users but… some other company just *might* come out with a comparable product someday.

  24. Cell Phone Researcher says :

    Is the EDGE network slower than wifi on the phone?

  25. Jason Poste says :

    Thank you for the excellent post. I bought an iPhone recently and still figuring out how to grasp the full potential of this marvel.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Stuntbox - Yes, I Bought One - 2 July 2007
  2. Blackbeltjones/Work: » Design is seedy - 16 July 2007

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: