What people aren’t saying about the iPhone

SoiPhone Launch, it’s not far off now, one of the biggest launches on consumer electronics history.  Yes, I am, of course, talking about the new George Foreman Grill.  Now, you can grill half a donkey in 46 seconds while still retaining 82% of the nutrition and banishing 68% of the fat.  Mmmmm, donkey.  No, I’m actually talking about the iPhone.  In a few short days there will be lines of people queuing (or sleeping) outside stores across the US waiting for the launch.  Thankfully, Apple put up a fairly long introductory video explaining the main features.  Which is nice.  There are, however, some things people just don’t seem to be talking about.  And for me, they are fairly crucial as to whether the iPhone is a viable device or not.  So lets go through them here, and now.

Firstly, I’m still struggling to see who this product is aimed at.  is it professionals?  Is it students?  Is it the early adopters?  At the moment, it seems that the iPhone has some failings that would prevent it fitting into any of those groups.  Firstly, the cost is prohibitive to all but those earning a decent wage.  Secondly, early adopters will want their own “proper” apps and better connectivity, 3g or HSDPA for example.  And the professionals will turn up their nose at a phone that boasts to be an iPod and offers out of the box You Tube support.  Thats not a power-users wishlist.  So who does it appeal to?  I think the answer is, people who want it.  And this presents a problem.  Most product designers will tell you that they start off with a target users or group of users and then target the features, and design, of the product at that audience.  Without a clearly defined audience, you end up with a product that tries to cater for everyone, but ends up addressing the needs of no one.

iPhone Google Maps I really have an issue with the connectivity of the iPhone.  It was a bold move by Apple, deciding to go down the Web Apps route.  The crux that is associated with Web Apps, is that you need to be constantly connected.  And not only connected, you need that connection to be reliable, stable, secure and fast.  Unfortunately, EDGE and GPRS/GSM doesn’t really offer this.  In my mind, this renders much of the iPhone’s touted functionality useless.  From memory, try and think of the last time you didn’t have a signal on your phone.  I bet it was no more than a few days ago.  In a built up area maybe?  Inside a building?  Out in the sticks?  It happens.  And when it does, just hope you don’t have an iPhone and something that needs to be done.  Imagine for a moment the following scenario.  You’ve gone on a trip and are in an area you aren’t familiar with when your hire car breaks down.  No problem, you call the rescue service, except you don’t have a signal on your iPhone.  Ok, check Google maps to see where you are and locate the nearest payphone or cafe.  Oops, no network connection, no Google Maps, no Cafe and no bad coffee.  In fact, even if you did have a signal you still couldn’t use Google maps unless you already know where you are.  Remember, it’s not GPS, you tell it where you are, not the other way round.  Oh well, at least you can listen to Celine Dion and look at pictures of your cat while the vultures circle overhead.  It just seems such a HUGE oversight that Apple would rely on network connectivity for the iPhone’s functionality and then include outdated technology as a means to connect.  Very un-Apple-like.

My biggest problem isn’t network connectivity, nor the confused product, its the touchscreen interface.  If you watch the introductory video you will notice two things.  Firstly, the actions the actor is performing are very controlled and very deliberate.  Secondly, certain actions seem to have more than one outcome.  For example, tapping an area in Safari can either zoom in, or click a hyperlink.  iPhone Text InputDragging your finger across the screen in iPhoto can either move a picture around or move onto the next picture entirely.  I’m sure there are very complicated algorithms behind the interface, calculating the time the finger is in contact with the screen, it’s velocity and direction, but to most users, they will appear to be the same.  Especially if you are not as controlled and deliberate as the actor, and lets face it, who is.   There is an even bigger elephant sitting in the room though, and that elephant represents text input.  Just how is this going to work?  From the details Apple has given, we can only assume that it will work in a way similar to the Blackberry Pearl, which has two letters assigned to each button.  Then, when you press a series of buttons, it consults a database on order to establish what you meant.  The two phones may not appear the same, but the principal is.  With the iPhone, the software won’t assume that pressing the “N” key actually means, 100%, that you meant to enter an “N”.   Because the interface isn’t precise enough, it will work out whether you meant an “N” or an “M” or a “B” when you have finished the word.  So if you type “NIGHT” it knows you pressed “N” and meant it because “BIGHT” and “MIGHT” don’t make sense.  Oh, wait a minute, might is a word.  Of course, you might have been typing “BIGHT” because it is someone’s name.  And this is where we encounter what appears to be a massive issue.  If I want to type “BIGHT” because it is someone’s name, the iPhone will think I meant either “NIGHT” or “MIGHT”.  So I delete the word and try again.  But the iPhone’s input is so imprecise I cannot hit the “B”.  Not necessarily a fault of the iPhone, but perhaps more an issue with the operator and these damned thick fingers.  Short of providing a means to cycle through the entire alphabet I cannot see a way around this.  With a normal phone, you can just press a certain button a certain number of times until you reach the required button, it’s a sure fire way of inputting that word when the dictionary doesn’t understand it.  The iPhone must have some fallback, and it will be required quite a bit.  For example, locations (Google Maps), Email Addresses (Mail), Websites (Safari) and Contacts (Address Book) all use text that is probably going to be missing from the dictionary, and therefore not going to come up in the predictions.

iPhone End CallPersonally, I’d love to give the iPhone a try.  And I mean a try because I wouldn’t necessarily buy one.  At the moment I’ve got an N95  which is large, un-sexy and a bit clunky to use.  But you know what, it’s got 3g for super fast data connections.  A proper HTML browser, which works in portrait and landscape, for good Web Apps and websites alike, GPS for when I’m lost (and Google Maps for when I’m not) and I can still use it to listen to music and look at pictures.  There’s nothing the iPhone can do that the Nokia can’t, but the same cannot be said the other way round.