iPhone Offers a Mixed Experience

 
 
By Andrew Garcia  |  Posted 2007-07-05
 
 
 

iPhone Offers a Mixed Experience


The iPhone is finally here, complete with a fantastic industrial design that stands up well to the considerable hype thats been swirling for months around Apples first smart phone device. However, for all the iPhones groundbreaking design attributes, the units spotty data service and limited applications conspire to deliver an experience thats mixed at best. In my tests of the iPhone, I found it to be an outstanding media player and an above average phone, but a below par Internet and productivity device.

The iPhones ease of use and future potential make it a compelling and somewhat addictive device for consumers. However, considering the units severely limited application set and restrictive voice plans, corporate buyers have should not consider the iPhone for their mobile work force. Rather, IT departments should be pondering how much interaction IT will have in enabling iPhones for use with corporate assets when users inevitably show up with one of their own.

I tested the 4GB iPhone model, which sells for $499 (Apple also offers an 8GB model for $599). Exclusively for use with the AT&T network, the iPhones rate plans start at a reasonable $69.99 per month, which includes 450 minutes of talk time, unlimited data and 200 SMS messages. By comparison to other smart phone rate plans with unlimited data, the iPhones rate plans are relatively affordable.

However, the iPhone only works with Individual or Family Plan accounts. Phone numbers on corporate accounts will need to be migrated to an individual account before they can work with an iPhone. And AT&Ts migration processes have proved spotty in the iPhones early days.

The iPhones design is revolutionary. The device has a minimal number of physical buttons, just a sleep button on the top, volume and mute controls on the left side, and a single button on the face of the device that returns the user to the main menu. All other interactions are done via the glass touch screen that covers the iPhones bright, vibrant 3.5-inch, 480-by-320-pixel resolution display.

To read about some of the early problems with the iPhone, click here.

The touch screen makes the iPhone quite simple to navigate. I could easily access the applications I wanted, scroll through pages simply by sliding my finger up or down the display, highlight an area with which I wished to interact by holding down a finger in the right place, and even zoom in and out to a specific location by pinching my fingers together (or apart) on the screen.

Unlike Palm Treos and RIM BlackBerrys, there is no physical keyboard on the iPhone. Instead, a virtual keypad appears on screen when a data entry form is detected in the application being used. The keypad takes some time to get used to as the keys are rather small and offer no tactile feedback when "depressed." However, the iPhone will click when a key is triggered, briefly highlighting the letter or number selected. Thankfully, the predictive typing function is excellent—for instance, able to correctly decipher "quwsrion" as "question"— and the iPhone learns words that are frequently entered (like last names).

In certain applications, I could also change the screen orientation from the standard portrait to landscape simply by rotating the device 90 degrees. On the wider screen, the keypad grows accordingly larger, which makes typing even easier. Unfortunately, landscape mode is only available in the Safari Web browser (and in the iPod media application, for which there is no typing). I would have liked to see landscape support in the iPhones e-mail and calendaring applications, as well.

In truth, I found that with some practice I could type much faster on the iPhone than I have in the past using the cramped QWERTY keyboards on some other competing device, with the possible exception of some HTC devices with spacious slide-out keyboards. However, I expect this will boil down to personal preference for most users.

iTunes

One of the biggest headaches for IT administrators will be the iPhones reliance on iTunes for synchronization with the desktop. The iPhone-enabled version of iTunes (7.3) is definitely a beefy application, including four running services that take up over 40MB of RAM in a resting state with the iTunes application closed. In the past, Ive seen the iTunes application itself take up as much as 150 more megabytes of RAM when open and active.

Users may want to synchronize their iPhones with their work contact lists and calendars, but IT administrators will have to think long and hard about whether to allow iTunes on their company networks. By default, the iPhone will marry a device to a single iTunes installation, so people will be syncing media and contacts/calendar to the same workstation.

Undoubtedly, IT will not want to consume vast amounts of business storage space with users copious music and video files. Also, storing these files could certainly open businesses up to litigation by housing illicitly obtained copyrighted materials. In addition, iTunes will cause additional network traffic by looking and offering to share music stores by default. How to efficiently allow users to synchronize work-related contacts and calendars without taking on all the multimedia overhead of iTunes remains, at this point, a mystery.

Next Page: The iPhone offers a combination of compelling and problematic features.

iPhone Offers a Mixed


Experience"> Phone

As Apples initial foray into the cell phone market, I was pleasantly surprised by the iPhones overall voice traffic performance. While missing a few key features that will be necessary in some metro areas, overall the phone worked seamlessly and without a hitch in my tests.

The phone contains a fairly standard contact database, which allowed me to store names, multiple phone numbers, addresses, e-mail, relevant dates and other information for each user, and allowed me to customize particular contacts with specific rings and photographs.

The contact database is easily navigated via the touch screen, combined with a small index that lists down the right side of the screen. From the main iPhone menu, I found that I could access the phone and contact database, scroll to find a user, and place a call with five clicks total. Simplifying the process even further, the iPhone offered up a favorites menu for people I frequently call, and a call log (missed calls or all calls) for recent activity.

Manual dialing is performed via the touch screen dial pad, which makes it practically impossible to dial a call simply by touch without looking. Since voice dialing is not supported, using the iPhone in a car where there are hands-free operation laws will be a dicey affair.

The iPhone comes with a pair of earbuds that include a microphone, and the iPhone also supports Bluetooth 2.0 for wireless connectivity to a headset. In my tests, call quality was quite acceptable, as both the iPhone caller and the party on the other end reported no distortion, drops or problems.

Despite the iPhones data capabilities, there are no voice over IP features in the iPhone as of yet, so it cannot fully leverage a companys existing VOIP implementation. However, I have heard that some VOIP providers are working on a Web application designed for the iPhone (www.jajah.com).

Productivity

The iPhone offers only a few capabilities to keep workers productive in the field, including a browser, e-mail application, calendar and notes application. However, each of the applications has its own set of drawbacks that hinder its utility for mobile workers.

Further complicating matters for mobile workers, Apple has made the iPhone a closed device, which means that individual users or the IT departments that support them will not be able to add their own applications to the device. This privilege is Apples alone, and any future application additions will come solely through Apples periodically released updates for the device. In fact, Apple has recommended that anyone wishing to develop for the iPhone should do it via a Web 2.0 application, rather than by designing an application to run directly on the iPhones OSX operating system.

Click here to read why the iPhone may become an iNightmare.

The Safari browser is much more capable than the usual smart phone browser, fully displaying Web sites rather than offering stripped-down text-only versions. Although some sites appear very small because they are fully rendered, the zoom function makes it a snap to navigate and interact with all but the most crowded Web pages. However, the iPhone will be unable to render some Web sites. While the iPhone does support JavaScript, neither Flash nor Java is supported, so users will not be able to view sites that rely on those elements.

With Safari, I could keep several windows open at the same time to browse multiple sites. By depressing the icon in the lower right part of the screen, I could create new windows or navigate between different active sessions.

I did experience some Safari crashes during my tests. Generally, when Safari crashed, I could simply return to the start screen, from which I could start another browsing session. However, on one occasion, the iPhone locked up completely, requiring me to restart the device by depressing the sleep and action buttons simultaneously. During the next sync after the lockup, the iPhone asked me to submit to Apple the incident report that was automatically generated in the background, presumably to help troubleshoot early-generation bugs.

The iPhones e-mail application works out of the box with many common Web mail services, including Yahoo Mail, .mac, AOL and Gmail. Other e-mail servers are supported only via POP3 or IMAP, leaving many Exchange implementations out in the cold. Since Outlook Web Access is one of those cramped Web sites that remains hard to navigate in the iPhones Safari (even with screen resizing), Exchange e-mail proves difficult to use on the iPhone.

I was also disappointed that the e-mail application did not support e-mail domains hosted via Gmail and Google Apps. The Gmail account wizard automatically attaches gmail.com to the address, which prevented me from reconfiguring the service for a hosted domain. The only choices I had were to enable POP3 on my Google Apps account or fall back to accessing the Web mail via Safari.

As for document handling, I found that I could view PDFs, Word documents and Excel spreadsheets obtained via Safari or e-mail, but I could not edit the documents at all. With the Excel documents, the iPhone could display both simple and complex (with formulae) documents, although larger files could take several minutes to fully render. The iPhone could not display PowerPoint presentations.

Unlike the iPod, the iPhone cannot even be used for data transport, as I could not mount the device as a USB drive. This limitation was compounded by the fact that the iPhone does not contain a file browsing application, so even if I could store documents locally, I could not access them from the iPhone anyway.

Next Page: Two data connections.

Two Data Connections


Internet

The iPhone offers two data connections: the ponderously slow wireless WAN using AT&Ts EDGE network and a Wi-Fi radio for use with available wireless networks. The EDGE network lived down to the hype, proving frustratingly slow for anything more than a simple Web search under most conditions and downright unusable in others. In fact, during my tests, I experienced several lengthy periods during which I was unable to connect to anything at via the AT&T EDGE network, even though the iPhone informed me that my cell coverage was solid.

Given the sudden onslaught of half a million plus new wireless data users on AT&Ts network, the outages and poor performance didnt surprise me, but Im not confident that things will improve significantly after the initial crush calms down to a more consistent pattern.

Indeed, Apple has anticipated the iPhones WWAN shortcomings and designed EDGE to be the fallback connection type for iPhone data usage. As long as the user has left the Wi-Fi radio enabled, the device first will first check for available and accessible nearby Wi-Fi connections before connecting to the EDGE network. However, since most customers will want mobile data access outside the confines of known Wi-Fi networks at home or at work, they will either need to contract a hot spot Wi-Fi vendor, hope for a free municipal network or suffer through EDGEs slowdowns.

In truth, even the iPhones Wi-Fi performance was at first a disappointment. I found the Wi-Fi connection to be snappy when using an Apple stores unencrypted network. At the Apple store, Wi-Fi worked easily, allowing me to browse the Web and download e-mail, weather or YouTube videos with little trouble. But at home, performance was erratic, and I consistently received error messages saying, "Cannot locate server."

I learned that the iPhone has some DNS resolution problems in certain circumstances. Specifically, the iPhone has trouble communicating with certain home routers that act as a local DNS proxy. To solve this problem, I needed to configure the iPhone with a static IP address and DNS server information, with the DNS setting pointing to my ISPs upstream DNS servers, rather than the local proxy. With this fix in place, Wi-Fi performed as expected.

The iPhone Wi-Fi radio is an 802.11b/g unit—a Marvell low-power chip set (as recent disassembly demonstrations have shown). This means that there wont be any secret draft 802.11n capabilities to be released down the road as Apple did previously after its Intel-based MacBooks had been available for some time. This comes as no surprise, however, as the low-power consumption draft 11n market is still quite immature.

The iPhone also includes an Airplane mode—a simple way to quickly disable all the devices radios while allowing the user to take advantage of the iPhones music and video capabilities. I could enable Airplane mode via a single slider bar that lives on the devices Settings page.

One of the big questions for IT administrators is whether they should allow iPhones to connect to corporate wireless networks—whether or not they intend specifically to support the adoption and usage of the iPhone. The iPhones Wi-Fi security limitations could hinder this idea, however, as the iPhone only supports the Personal flavors of WPA and WPA2 (plus WEP), but not the 802.1x-enabled Enterprise security variations.

Performing initial reconnaissance on a Wi-Fi-connected iPhone, I also discovered that the device does have some open network ports that an attacker could discover. Specifically, I found that the iPhone leaves open TCP ports 110 (POP3) and 25 (SMTP), as well as UDP (User Datagram Protocol) port 5353 (Apples Bonjour). The Nmap scanner with which I tested could also determine that, indeed, the iPhone is running a variant of OSX.

Media

With Apples already successful history with portable media players, it is no surprise that the best part of the iPhone is its iPod-like functionality. Whats more, the iPhone really raises the bar and gives a clear indication of where I expect their media-only players to go down the road.

Since external controls such as the iPod touch wheel are a thing of the past for the iPhone, Apple needed to rethink how users interact with their media libraries. Like the contact database, the media library contains an index down the right side of the screen for quick access to a certain letter. Otherwise, users navigate from the touch screen to access what they want. The items in the library fly by with a flick of the finger. And for a visually stunning effect, turning the iPhone to landscape mode switches to a view of the album covers of all the songs on the device, simulating the effect of thumbing through an old-fashioned record collection.

Video is also quite nice on the iPhone. The iPhone supports H.264 encoded video (as long as the file uses Low Complexity AAC audio, instead of High Efficiency Audio), making for a nice picture. When video is playing, the screen automatically switches to landscape display mode.

The earphone/microphone jack is recessed deep into the top of the iPhone (to avoid damage when the plug is forcibly removed, which means customers will need to buy an adapter to use with existing headphones or headsets. Apple sells $20 headphone adapters in its stores and online.

The 2.0-megapixel camera is fairly bare bones. There are no zoom or manually configurable lighting options, and the camera does not do video, only still photos. The picture viewer was quite nice, however, allowing me to easily scroll through albums via the touch screen.

Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia may be reached at andrew_garcia@ziffdavis.com or at his blog at http://blogs.eweek.com/signaling_it/.

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