Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Apple's iPhone: Caveats, Concerns and Ideas

Everyone's covering Apple's iPhone so I won't bother to repeat what they're saying. Instead, I'm going to first address things people should have learned from previous Apple dealings. In the second half, I'm going to go over my personal concerns about the phone's design and give some ideas on how to get around those concerns. If anyone from Apple's listening, no charge for these ideas. I promise I won't sue if you use them.

Standard Apple Operating Procedure
The iPhone is a new product, but at the same time it's also an iPod. And anyone who's followed the iPod since its launch should take into consideration Apple's actions with regards to that device. The big issue I'm focusing on has been Apple's unwillingness to back-port features to earlier generation iPods.

For example, people have been working PDA-like functions onto the iPod since the beginning. To my memory, the first-gen iPod supported just played music. And so people made empty mp3 files with contact information in the song tags. The 10 gig iPod then came out and provided contact information as a feature which was also applied to the 5 gig. Unfortunately, this was about it for the free upgrades.

People quickly co-opted the new contact feature to store general data by making dummy vcards. In the second-gen iPod, Apple added its own notes system. However, this new feature was not back-ported to the first-gen.

Along came the third-gen with on-the-go playlists. It was a really nice, new feature, but older iPod owners had to upgrade or get nothing.

Then came along came iTMS. Amazingly, all iPods received an upgrade. iPods that couldn't support the seemingly simple notes system had no problems dealing with the new DRM system.

This behavior has continued where anything that might make Apple money can be implemented on older iPods without issue, but features that seem like they could be provided through a firmware upgrade are reserved for newer iPods only. If one wanted to give Apple the benefit of the doubt, maybe some of the new features genuinely couldn't work on earlier models, but the pattern is rather apparent.

Now, given that the iPhone is advertised as running some version of OSX, hopefully this trend will not continue and we won't end up with first-gen/second-gen/n-th-gen firmware revisions adding new features that are "incapable" of being run on earlier models. Of course, we may end up with paid OS upgrades instead (coming June 2008, OSX 10.6 for Macs and iPhones!), but at least that's better than having to buy an entirely new device.

Batteries Permanently Included
This leads to a second issue which I haven't seen covered too much yet. The battery life of the device has raised a few eyebrows, but I haven't seen too many people question the, yet again, non-user-replaceable battery.

From a design perspective, the permanent battery allows for a level of integration and form factor that's not possible otherwise. However, unlike with a degraded-battery iPod where there's still uses (permanent use in car docks, boom boxes), an iPhone that suddenly only has 2 hours of talk time is significantly less useful. And while your cheap cellphones don't typically have a life greater than 2 years, I wouldn't think that would apply to smartphones. Regardless, I'm not crazy about planning to replace a $500 device that often.

Will Apple provide a reasonable battery replacement service? Remember also that an iPhone is a phone and people would be less willing to part with their phone for a few days compared to their iPod.

So Close Yet So Far
The iPhone truly is packed with a cool combination of technology that makes me drool with the best of them. The multitude of sensors; the slick interface; the next-gen multi-touch control.

And yet, there's a lot of "but"s that make me wonder why I don't want it more. The price, the memory, the battery life. There's also the carrier, but that's more a business problem and I don't have any rationalizations for that.

This Didn't Go So Well for Sony
First off, the price. There's definite sticker shock. At the keynote, Jobs led up with "how much would you pay? A Nano is $199. A typical smartphone is $299." I was hoping he was going to do a "$499? *red line through that* $449? *red line through that* No! Yours for $399!" Too bad that's just in my fantasy world.

It seems expensive compared to smartphones. It seems expensive compared to Nanos. But consider that the original iPod was $400. Consider the (hopeful) strong integration with OSX (and this would definitely be a feature for me). I'd rather pay $400. But I can drag myself up. More easily than I can for PS3s at any rate.

Is There A Zero Missing?
My next big concern (as with many) is the memory. 4 gigs/8 gigs doesn't seem like very much. But if one considers that the iPhone most likely would be docked every night, then it allows for the possibility (at least in my usage) to have frequent content loads and unloads ala the shuffle.

Audio or video podcasts could be synced and then removed after viewing. A cool usage would be for my EyeTV to automatically record, say, The Tonight Show, automatically encode and upload for me to watch during lunch the next day. And then when I get home and dock, automatically unload. This solution wouldn't work for everyone as some people really just want to have all their media available at any time. But for a good percentage, I think it would effectively manage the amount of space provided.

PSP Flashbacks
Lastly, there's the battery life. My concern here isn't so much from the iPod perspective, but from the phone. I shudder at a scenario of getting on a plane, watching 5 hours of video and then landing at the airport with my battery almost dead and myself unable to make a call. Having to charge nightly doesn't phase me too much, but the possibility that the charge wouldn't make it through the day and leave me without a phone really holds me back. It makes me want to have a phone separate from a wide-touchscreen-wifi iPod.

Luckily for Apple, I've got a solution! One of the rumors I've heard is that the iPhone has two batteries. One for the phone and one for the other functions. I hope this rumor isn't true as it's a ridiculously stupid idea. But it did get me on the path to a better solution.

What Apple should do is allow a user to configure reserve battery cutoffs. If the battery has only 1 hour of talk time left, then disable or give a warning for all functions except phone use. Or phone calls and browsing. Let the user configure what they want their buffer to be and what can be used at each level.

So in my above flight scenario, I'd watch video for 4 hours and then the iPod would pop up a warning, "1 hour of power left. Reserving for phone calls," and hopefully have an easy option to override.

On The Bright Side
Let me say that I'm excited about the iPhone. The combination of technologies makes me think of the Wii. It presents real Star Trek or Minority Report feel into a hand-held device. And I own Apple stock so I'm certainly happy as a shareholder. But as a consumer, I'm hesitant because of these various issues and past history.

Most of my issues can be handled in software design so hopefully Apple will implement something like them to make the iPhone even more attractive.

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