What's so smart about the iPhone?

I spent an hour at the Windows Mobile pavilion at CES looking at Smartphones. I would choose any of them over the iPhone, as would just about anyone I met with at CES. Here's why the iPhone is not a smart choice.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

I spent last week at CES looking at gadgets, gadgets, and more gadgets. Not just on the show floor, but in the hands of people using them to get real work done.

Coincidentally, three days into the week, in another part of the world, Apple announced two new products that managed to pin the hype meter at about 16.7 on a scale of 10.

I'm baffled. Yes, the iPhone and AppleTV are pretty. But are they really what people want?

I'll get to AppleTV later this week, but for now let's talk about phones. I spent an hour at the Windows Mobile pavilion at CES looking at Smartphones. I would choose any of them over the iPhone, as would just about anyone I met with at CES.

The biggest missing piece in the iPhone is its ability to sync calendars and e-mail effortlessly. I could not have survived CES without my trusty Cingular 8125 Smartphone. I was able to keep my Outlook calendar and contacts up to date on a device that fits in my pocket, including detailed directions and backgrounders. I have the Smartphone set to sync e-mail as well.

And I wasn't alone. About two-thirds of the people I met with were also using Smartphones and were regularly checking e-mail and schedules. I saw at least a dozen different Windows Mobile-based devices in use this week and didn't hear a single complaint about their operation.

Are any of us going to switch to an iPhone? I doubt it. I read the specs carefully, and I can't imagine why anyone in business would want this device, which is pretty but ultimately dumb. As far as I can tell, the sync process for PCs is a tortured two-step that requires me to sync my local Outlook calendar with iTunes and then sync iTunes with my device, all over a physical connection. You want your e-mail and calendar pushed from your Exchange Server to your phone? Then you do not want an iPhone.

Apple's biggest hit of all time is the iPod, so it's no wonder they want to graft a phone onto it. Halo effect, and all that. But here are a few of the deficiencies I can see at a quick glance:

The keyboard. It took me a few months to get used to retrieving voicemail using the soft keypad on the 8125, and if you're heavily into e-mail anything short of a real keyboard with tactile buttons is going to be an endless source of frustration for you. At CES, I saw Smartphones with all variations of keypads, including slide-out QWERTY keyboards, Blackberry-style thumb-driven pads, and softpads. Take your pick.

The speed. No Wi-Fi, no 3G?  No 3G? Browsing the web over an Edge connection is insanely not-so-great. But I'm sure that the hourglass will look stunning.

Expandability. I can choose from a large library of Windows Mobile add-ons. If I can't find one I like, I can write my own. With Apple, not so much.

The provider. You can choose any provider you want for the iPhone, as long as it's Cingular. You'll also need to sign up for a two-year contract to get the right to pay the full retail price. By contrast, every provider has Windows Mobile-based Smartphones, and you can buy unlocked phones if you want freedom of choice.

As for music, any Smartphone includes Windows Media Player, and adding music to it is fairly easy with Windows Media Player. The 2GB mini-SD card in my 8125 holds about 500 songs and syncs automatically when I plug it in. It even works with white earbuds, although I prefer a better set of headphones.

And let's not forget that this will be a 1.0 product for Apple when it comes out in six months. For those who have not escaped Steve's reality distortion field, that means it will certainly have issues. Remember OS X 1.0? Remember iTunes 7.0? Remember the first-generation iPods? If you must get an iPhone, get the extended warranty. By contrast, the Smartphone platform has been under continuous development for years. It's reliable and expandable.

Ultimately, the iPhone is stark proof of the fundamental difference between the Mac and Windows worlds. In the Mac world, you get one man's vision, beautifully designed, expensive, and maybe, just maybe in sync with your needs. In the Windows world, you get an enormous ecosystem where you can choose from dozens of different devices using the form factors and feature sets you prefer, at a variety of price points.

I know which world I prefer.

Update 18-Jan 4:15PM PST. In the Talkback section, Scott Mace makes an excellent observation:

Sync-via-dock limitation is the big problem
Few posters here have noted that Apple execs ruled out any sort of iPhone sync other than at a dock. The issue of ease of sync/docking with Mac vs. sync/docking with Windows/Outlook pales in comparison to the lack of sync-over-the-Net. As Ed points out in one of his own comments, sync needs to happen immediately, not when one gets back to the office. Shame on Apple for not allowing sync-over-the-Net; double-shame for not even letting iPhone users install software that could provide that function. To have a calendar in 2007 that requires physical docking for sync is just backward thinking, be it for consumers or for enterprises.

More from Scott here.

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