Wednesday, January 2, 2008
I'm not an Apple-agnostic person. A bit over two decades ago I owned and liked my Apple IIc with its wow-factor portable LCD display. Sometime later my desk was graced with the original Mac right alongside an Amiga and a PC. But with my usability and let-me-do-what-I-want requirements, the Apples were replaced by an almost endless succession of various PCs and portable devices.
Now I'm back to an Apple product, as I bought an iPhone. Frankly, I had not really planned to do so, but it was the culmination of circumstances that were perfectly aligned for that outcome. First, T-Mobile that I've used for many years has service at my house that for lack of a better term stinks. That combined with the declining firmware quality of Nokia phones (which is the brand that I've used almost exclusively because of their intuitive and task-centric user interface) gradually getting to the point of unacceptability. Finally, over the years I had already looked at several of the traditional Nokia competitors, such as Motorola, Samsung, NEC, and Sony-Ericsson, but found their firmware to be uniformly buggier than that of even the worst Nokias, and the user experience to be far from intuitive.tations.
The last drop in the bucket was the Nokia 6500 Slide phone, that has a very good combination of features, design, user-interface, and responsiveness, but suffers from a buggy back-end firmware that made use of the phone frustrating. After waiting for 2 months for a firmware update to fix some of the more glaring problems that were fixed for some geographic versions of the phone from day one, but just not for mine, I decided that Nokia is no longer the company that it used to be.
So there I was, looking to switch both carriers and phones, and with a long list of don't-touch brands. It's no wonder I ignored the bad treatment I had received at the hands of AT&T many years ago, and the developer-relationship issues I knew Apple to have, and decided to try out the new phone contender, Apple.
The Apple purchase process is impressively smooth, and they spent an extra buck on packaging to make it feel like something special, too. I also didn't have much to complain about the activation process and the getting-started bit. (Digressing a little, when the 802.11-hardware failed, the service process was also relatively quick with only a few negative comments that don't fit into this discussion, though I admit that living about a mile from an Apple store helped greatly.)
However, it took me only about 10 seconds after hitting the power button for the first time to realize that there's something seriously wrong with the iPhone. I had allowed myself to ignore the fundamental problem with Apple's corporate culture, and its relationship with its customers, in favor of the eye-candy of the phone and the lack of serious alternatives.
Perhaps its easiest to explain with allegories. On the web, some have called Apple product users the pioneering bleeding edge crowd, those who show the way of the future. I believe that comparison to be inaccurate. A better one would be that Apple users are the kids who sit in the wagons of the pioneers, are told to stay put, and get spanked if they don't.
Count 1: iTunes
I can understand why Apple would want to promote the use of a single PC/Mac-side application to interface with its portable devices. What I don't get is that I'm force-fed iTunes in full, with no alternatives. And not just the iTunes user interface when I want it, but QuickTime and several invasive background tasks. And to make it worse, the iPhone sports an 802.11 (aka Wifi) wireless network interface, yet syncing is limited to a cable connection. To quote Bart Simpson: blechh.
Seriously, though, based on everything that I've examined, Apple could have opened up their syncing interface in the iPhone, because they apparently rewrote a lot of it anyway. Based on an examination of the sync protocol, it appears that opening it up would have been incredibly simple. But them not having done so just illustrates that one thing about Apple has not changed since the early Mac days: while they may make gestures to favor openness, and lately open source, they are fundamentally a closed organization, or at least choose to act in that way.
Count 2: Customization
I'm accustomed to being able to modify everything about my Nokia phones. I can design new skins, modify most of the user interface behavior, and am essentially only limited by a closed box around the implementation of the cellular network interface. It was a harsh reminder of what it means to be an Apple customer to see what I could do with an iPhone out of the box.
I could set the "wallpaper", only shown in the few seconds between hitting an action button to wake the phone, and activating the main menu. Oh, and I could select some alert tones, but without "mini hacks" I would not even be able to use my own ringtones and instead would have to pay up for every little tune. Finally, there are weird limitations to ringtones, such as an apparent clip-length-limit of 30 seconds or less, that are so arbitrary that it is difficult to understand the logic behind it. In addition, I still can't use my "Boss you have a message" clip to indicate the arrival of text messages.
Tip: if you don't know how to do this already, here's how to use any MP3 or other music file for a ringtone. Start the current iTunes 7.5. Make sure your clip is about 30 seconds long or less. To cut it to size I recommend the open source Audacity program, which also allows you to modify the clip, for example by using an envelope so that it starts at a low volume and builds up over time. Drag&drop the music file into the Music folder in iTunes. Optionally, I have noticed that sometimes the file won't work right away as a ringtone, and you might want to convert it to the closed AAC format by right-clicking it, and selecting "Convert Selection to AAC". Then right-click the file again, and select "Show in ... Explorer" (assuming you are on Windows). Change the file name extension from M4A to M4R, or just make another copy of the file that you rename with the M4R extension. Then drag&drop the M4R file to the Ringtones folder in iTunes. If it doesn't show up, try to make the clip a little shorter. Sync, and you are done.
I don't understand why Apple doesn't want its customer to provide their own look&feel to the phone. The "any color as long as its black" mentality was something that should belong to the beginning of the last century (incidentally, Ford Model T was introduced in 1908.) Perhaps it's driven by an organizational fear that users would get rid of the iTunes sell-me-something link in the main menu, or that some users might want to -- gasp -- rearrange main menu buttons or use some other icons! And it simply would not do to allow just anyone to replace the flat-black background of the main menu with a pleasant image, now would it? </sarcasm>
Count 3: Closed API
The now infamous slogan "No SDK required", in front of which Steven Jobs paraded the iPhone, is appropriately pronounced "No SDK sucks". Apple's (or perhaps Jobs') take on the need for an API appears to be that there's no need for one since anyone can write a web-page for the browser, that with some active content is almost like an app. It's just too bad that this is exactly why the Network Computer concept, Internet based productivity apps, and operating system agnostic applications have been such great successes in the market place. </sarcasm> </sarcasm> </sarcasm>
I don't see what the hurt would have been to open up the API. It didn't take long for hackers to crack the phone, and the only ones to suffer are those who don't care to break license agreements.
Count 4: Usability problems
Some might be surprised that I list usability as a problem with the iPhone, but unfortunately it belongs to the list. The phone has many great usability features (I wouldn't call them innovations, as likely all have been used in one form or another elsewhere previously) that make the experience pleasant. However, these features don't always make the phone easier to use.
For example, I can take any Nokia phone, and without looking at the screen pick up an incoming phone call, place a new phone call, call preselected numbers, and in some cases find contacts and call them, too. (In the last case I need to know that the contact has a unique spelling.) These tasks are impossible with the iPhone, which makes iPhone use more engaging. This is not really a big problem if I'm just sitting like an interrupt handler (or passive consumer) waiting for an event, but it does make iPhone use while engaged in something else, such as driving, more dangerous compared to a Nokia for example. Those in colder climates (think of Finland, the home of Nokia), might also find less than pleasing cold temperature-driven effects on the iPhone screen as they are forced to operate the phone outside of their pockets more frequently than their Nokias.
Another limitation of the iPhone is its capacitive touch sensor, that while incredibly well implemented, has its limits. Those with fat fingers, long fingernails, or gloves, will find the touch&feel at times frustrating. (I can't help but insert an episode here of how Apple could have allowed third parties to come up with better typing systems using dictionary lookup, perhaps similar to the Blackberry two-letters-to-a-key, or the Nokia three-letters-to-a-key method, but closing the UI and the phone made such optimizations impossible.)
Count 5: "You can't do that" attitude
I could stomach some of the above limitations if Apple would not mind enterprising hackers figuring out how to do things with the phone that Apple doesn't care to provide, or Apple has not released yet. Unfortunately Apple's take has not been to stand aside and let smart hackers do what they do best, and perhaps learn from what they are doing, but to actively hinder such activities.
Consider that every iPhone firmware update has broken hacks for the previous firmware version, and that firmware updates have not necessarily fixed all bugs or avoided the introduction of new ones. Hence it seems that firmware revisions were driven by the desire to break hacks as much as (or more than) fixing bugs.
To be fair, at least part of the firmware protection efforts are reasonable. AT&T hands over real dollars to Apple for every activation (or perhaps every iPhone sold), in exchange for an operator-locked user. To use the phone with another service provider with a hack is akin to taking the benefit of those real dollars without forking them over to Apple or AT&T as appropriate.
But AT&T and Apple could have achieved the same goal using other less invasive methods. They could have locked up the cellular network interface only, but chose to instead lock up the entire phone. And that makes it a problem.
Count 6: Big & Heavy
Ok. This one is subjective, but compared to every other phone I've had, the iPhone is the first one to be in the category of the Nokia 2110 from the mid/early 1990's in size and weight. In exchange for the physical parameters the phone does a lot, and I also realize that the computing power requires beefy (and heavy) batteries. I also would much rather have the current battery endurance than a lighter phone requiring multiple recharges each day. But, the fact remains that the iPhone to me is like a more-than-a-decade-long step "back" in size/weight improvements.
It's difficult to not focus on the negatives if they are in areas that one is accustomed to have freedom in. After all, the personal significance of limitations to freedom is purely subjective. I presume it's somewhat akin to someone who likes to chew gum moving to Singapore, or someone who likes free speech moving to China. While such a person might feel an intense sense of deprivation, another one who doesn't care about chewing gum, or doesn't pay attention to freedom of speech, might notice little if anything being different.
And so it goes for the iPhone. If you like the view from the wagon, and don't care to venture out, you are happily on board. If you are steaming from being told that you can't get off the wagon, but you still like this wagon more than the alternatives, then you are unhappily on board. And finally, if you choose to leave the wagon anyway, hack your phone, remember that "they" might not let you back on board and you might be stuck with the view you had when you set off on your own.
This article, by the way, is written at least partially with the hope that Apple would correct the errors in its ways. The potential for the phone is great, but is held back by clear policy choices by Apple. It's up to Apple to decide if it will create a strong platform with its device, or just allow the opportunity to be Macintoshed when Nokia or someone else duplicates the best features in their next generation of full-featured phones, without the typical Apple limi