Some brutal honesty about the iPhone's faults, and about that need for 3G (or 3.5G)

Summary:Back when the iPhone came first out and I bitched and complained about its significant faults (lack of a replaceable battery was tops on my list, but the slower of AT&T's two networks and the soft-keyboard were others) to the point that I recommended waiting for v2.0, I took a bit of heat.

Back when the iPhone came first out and I bitched and complained about its significant faults (lack of a replaceable battery was tops on my list, but the slower of AT&T's two networks and the soft-keyboard were others) to the point that I recommended waiting for v2.0, I took a bit of heat. Depending on who wrote to me (e-mail, via the Web, etc.), I began to think that I was the jealous bully who got up and kicked the other kids' blocks over in kindergarten. A lot of that inbound came from people I didn't even know and while I always like to hear alternative points of view from ZDNet's readers, I really started to think I was the one who was nuts when people that I've grown to know and trust -- ones who bought iPhones on their own -- started telling me I was the one on drugs.

How much of what they were telling me was true and how much of it was just an unwillingness to admit that the damn thing has its faults? Or maybe they just weren't taking advantage of everything the iPhone does and if they were, they just might find out that they might have been better off waiting for 2.0, provided 2.0 gets it right. For example, why buy an MP3-capable smartphone with a Bluetooth radio in it if that phone can't work with stereo Bluetooth accessories (headsets, speakers, etc.).

<sidebar> There's some speculation that the actual Bluetooth radio in the iPhone capable of supporting the A2DP stereo Bluetooth profile, it's just that the derivative of Tiger that runs on the iPhone doesn't fully support it. This theoretically could change if Apple offers an OS upgrade to a special iPhone derivative of Leopard.<sidebar>

But forgetting the Bluetooth stereo support for a minute, my biggest issue with the iPhone was its lack of a removable battery. If for example, you were using the iPhone to do all the great things that it can do, sometimes simultaneously (after all, if you're not going to, why drop so much coin for it?), there was no way in my mind that the phone's battery could last as long as you'd expect one that's not replaceable to last. I forgive phone manufacturers like Motorola (I have the Q) who make phones that do lots of things (make calls, check email, browse the Web, play videos and music, take pictures, etc.) and as a result, drain batteries dry before dinner time. That's OK (although I wish someone in the truth and advertising department would start to require the equivalent of a battery disclosure label, above right, on devices like the smartphone..... see more on my mock up here).

The laws of physics are working and while plenty of people think of Apple CEO Steve Jobs as though he's some sort of god, even he can't change the laws of physics in a day. What's unforgivable to a lot of people is the idea that their phone won't be available to them as a phone by the end of the day. For this, many people depend on the availability of replaceable batteries. I have two for the Motorola Q that I use and I keep them with me most of the time.

For people with big fingers (me in included), I also had a thing or two to say about the soft-keyboard. There are now several innovative handset designs out there that have figured out a way to conceal not just a hardware-based numeric keypad, but a separate hardware-based keyboard as well. Not that this is something I really expect Apple to change in v2.0, but Helio's Ocean (see my video here) comes to mind. It's very innovative and couldn't Apple do something similar? I've used Apple's soft-keyboard and like the idea that I if I press the wrong key, I can slide my finger to the left or right to get the correct one. That's impressive (I wish other soft-keyboard would do the same thing). But it's not the same as having the hardware keyboards.

I also thought Apple's TV ads that claimed the Web experience on the iPhone wasn't the "mobile Web," that it was "just the Web" was off the mark. Perhaps Apple has a different definition of the mobile Web than I do, but to me, when I think of "just the Web," I think of the broadband experience you get on your PC when you're sitting at home or in a WiFi hotspot. The iPhone has a WiFi radio and its Safari browser is so superb that, as long as you're connected to a WiFi hotspot, I'd agree, it's the Web (or as close as you going to get to it on a screen of the iPhone's dimensions). But most of the people I've spoken to (OK, not everybody) agree that the majority of the time they have their iPhone with them, it's connected to AT&T's network and not a WiFi network. And the slower of AT&T's two networks at that.

Here again, in fairness to Apple and the choice it made, it's not clear that picking the faster of AT&T's two networks would have made a difference. Yesterday, fellow ZDNet blogger Russell Shaw posted a blog under the headline The three reason why [a] 3G iPhone won't matter that much. To be honest, none of what he said resonated with me. For example, I don't understand the point about how the slower radio didn't matter to the so many people that purchased the iPhone. Really? A lot of people buy products only later to be disappointed by some feature. If there's one point about the iPhone where the friends of mine who own say, "well, that's true," it's the point about the Web experience being very slow -- more like the mobile Web -- over AT&T's network (whew, at least some vindication).

More compelling however (on the question of whether 3G will really make a difference) were the arguments made by Carl Howe who wrote about how there's more to 3G networks than performance. Like latency. And that there are other mitigating factors that could impact the performance of the final user experience besides just the raw bandwidth available to the end user. He answered his critics a day later, but that doesn't change the fact that there could be some truth to what he's saying. A 3G network, or even a 3.5G network may not matter. Or may not matter much. A WiMax network would matter (hmmmm).

The rumors are pretty strong that Apple will have a 3G phone in '08. One potential downside is that the 3G radio might drain the battery even faster than the current 2.5G rated radios. Of course, we won't know the truth about the total impact of a 3G radio on the iPhone's user experience or battery life until a 3G iPhone exists and we can compare. So, I'll back off on the "wouldn't buy one until it has 3G" point for now.

Even so, I wouldn't buy one just yet. That's because I think that now that the honeymoon has worn off, people are being more honest about their iPhones. People like Thomas Nelson Publishers president and CEO Michael Hyatt who, under the heading Second thoughts about the iPhone, wrote:

I’m thinking very seriously about giving up my iPhone and going back to my Blackberry. I know, I know. I was initially so enthusiastic.

I'm certain that same initial enthusiasm was the source of a lot of pushback I got on my iPhone assessment. Hyatt continues:

Initially, it was a good experience. I loved the user-interface and Apple's elegant and simple solutions. However, I am now beginning to wonder if I made the right decision. Today, after a full day of travel, I am frustrated and ready to give up.

Hyatt goes on to elaborate on five points that are getting under his skin

  • The battery life is insufficient
  • The keyboard is more trouble than it's worth
  • AT&T coverage is often spotty
  • The calendar doesn't automatically sync
  • I don't use the other applications that much

Quite frankly, neither Apple nor AT&T bear any responsibility for points 3 & 5. I have a zillion times over said that the three most important things to think about when getting a smart or cell phone are coverage, coverage, and coverage. If you are buying a phone that has trouble connecting to its service provider while you're at home, in the office, commuting, or at one of your other favorite haunts, you'll end up being very disappointed. A handset that can't connect to its network is of little use to anybody and no network has perfect coverage everywhere. This is why I often suggest that before you go buying a smartphone for all its great features, find out what service it attaches to, find someone else who has a phone or handset that's provisioned by that service, and ask to borrow their handset for a few hours. Then make sure it works in all your favorite places and along your favorite routes. If it doesn't, think twice about buying anything that works with that network.

On point #5, it's not like the iPhone's features weren't public. Shame on anybody who pays a premium for a bunch of features in any product and ends up not using them.

The first two points however (the keyboard one of which is somewhat echoed on O'Reilly's site) hit very close to home. They're two of the primary reasons I can't own an iPhone and that I'm looking forward to a future version of one that has replaceable batteries and a hardware-based keyboard.

Contrary to common belief, I don't hate Apple. If it solves those two major problems and makes the iPhone available on a network that actually floats around my house (primarily Verizon, but I just noticed an improvement in T-Mobile's signal), I'd probably buy one in a heartbeat. A MacBook Pro too, if Apple gave it a pointing stick (as shown in this "prototype").

Topics: Networking, Apple, AT&T, Browser, Hardware, iPhone, Mobility, Wi-Fi

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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