'Worthy of the hype' was the wrong iQuestion to answer. iPhone 2.0 will likely be worth the wait

Maybe I need to go back on the same iMeds that everyone else appears to be on. Without laying my hands on an iPhone, my sense is that the early reviews are for the most part iNuts.

Maybe I need to go back on the same iMeds that everyone else appears to be on. Without laying my hands on an iPhone, my sense is that the early reviews are for the most part iNuts. In fact, it's almost surreal how all of them seem to answer the very basic question of whether the handset actually lives up to the hype that preceded it:

On balance, Pogue, Baig, Levy and Mossberg (the last of which refrained from going the hype route) turned out some great work.  There was clearly enough consensus among the four to help their readers understand the pros and cons of the iPhone, particularly in context of market expectations.  But what were the odds that three out of the four first reviews (the Journal's Walt Mossberg didn't go the "hype" route) would use hyperbole as their yardstick (two in the headline). It's as though that's the official testing criteria: does it live up to the expectations that have been set for it?

Testing and reviewing products in a vacuum like this is a trap that technology writers often fall into. Somewhere around 1992, when I was in charge of testing and reviewing networking products for PC Week (now eWeek), Dan Farber arrived on the scene as that publication's new editor in chief. His prior assignment was e-i-c at PC Week's sister weekly at Ziff-Davis: MacWeek (ZDNet has since gone its separate way from Ziff-Davis, but Dan and I have stayed together all this time). Back then, we were also reviewing products in that vacuum. We had a type of review called the First Look that by design was a single product review designed to see if the product being tested lived up to its expectations.

Shortly after assuming his new post, Dan came down to the testing lab and pointed out that these First Looks were all well and good, but they lacked comparative context. Dan believed in his heart (as I have since) that our responsibility as technology journalists is to help readers make informed decisions about the technology they might buy and the solution providers they're doing business with. Doing this right means sharing more than just our observations that a product does or doesn't do what the vendor says it does (or what the market expectations are). Doing this right also means putting the product's performance, features, and cost in context of what else is on the market at that time.

This was my message earlier this week when the local Fox TV affiliate (Fox 25 Boston) came to interview me on Tuesday night about the iPhone interviewed For all that it is and does, the fundamental question about the iPhone isn't whether or not it lives up to the hype. It's whether or not, for $499 (the 4GB model) or $599 (the 8GB model), it's the best option on the market given your needs (and everyone is going to have different needs).  The hyperbole question basically asks if you can overlook the iPhone's flaws in order to get its benefits for $499 or $599.  What it doesn't ask is whether those flaws are addressed by other entries on the market and, then how well those other entries stack up to the iPhone's positive points. In other words, is the iPhone's upside over competing devices so "up" that it not only causes you to overlook it's flaws, it causes you to overlook entries that on paper make more sense.  Economists refer to this as the "opportunity cost" of going one route versus others.

Here are some of the top 5 sacrifices iPhone buyers will have to make that, for a lot of people who don't have $500 or $600 to blow, should be dealbreakers:

  • No replaceable battery: History is repeating itself on two vectors here. When the first messaging handset to really "nail it" hit the market (the BlackBerry), it had amazing battery life for what it did. But the minute Research in Motion added phone functionality, battery life became a major issue and the company retooled the BlackBerry with a replaceable battery. We're talking about a battle-tested and market-tested product here.  With the iPhone, Apple has repeated that mistake instead of learning from the mistakes of others. On the second vector,  iPods don't have replaceable batteries either. The net result is that, like iPods, when the iPhone's battery eventually fails to retain its charge, it must be sent back to Apple for servicing.  It's one thing to be without your MP3 player for a few days.  It's another to be without your messaging device and what for more and more people is turning out to be their ONLY phone (the number of people that don't have a landline is clearly on the rise). Finally, I've seen Apple's battery life ratings.  Bear in mind that no one uses a handset the way handset manufacturers rate the battery life of their handsets.  For example, no one stands-by for 250 hours.  No one watches video for 7 hours to the exclusion of all else. And the one thing that has proven to be the bane of existence for handset batteries -- the radio chatter that goes along with the constant checking and fetching of e-mail -- isn't even mentioned.  Once all of these and other activities (text messaging, phone calls, WiFi usage, Bluetooth usage, Web browsing, audio playback, etc.) are taken in combination (as they should be by any self-respecting iPhone user), my sense is that there are going to be some very disappointed customers.
  • AT&T's slow network: For starters, the three most important things to consider when buying a handset are coverage, coverage, and coverage. A handset that can't connect to its network from the places and routes you spend the most time is a handset (and a contract) that you wasted your money on.  It's bad enough that the iPhone is only available with AT&T's network. But for it to only be available on the slower of AT&T's two networks is even worse. Wrote the Times' Pogue of the iPhone's browser performance, "...you have to use AT&T’s ancient EDGE cellular network, which is excruciatingly slow. The New York Times’s home page takes 55 seconds to appear; Amazon.com, 100 seconds; Yahoo. two minutes. You almost ache for a dial-up modem." While at the Digital Experience event in New York City, someone (I can't remember who) said that Apple should be nailed for false advertising. Indeed,  an Apple TV ad shows the New York Times's Web site springing onto its display claiming that it's not a watered down Internet or the mobile Internet, but rather, just the Internet, on your phone. Perhaps the ad reflects what people will experience when their iPhone is connected to a Wi-Fi network: the network that they will least often be connected to.  I agree. It's false advertising.
  • A soft-keyboard: In his review, Walt Mossberg said that the soft-keyboard wasn't the problem the market anticipated it to be.  Pogue seemed to differ. Apple is known for pulling user interface rabbits out of its hat where others have failed. But, there's a reason that the current crop of successful handsets on the market all of which now have physical keys. It's because, with exception of a few people, the "soft-key" approach was a market failure. Soft-keys have proven to be problematic for people with big hands and women with long fingernails. Soft-key-only device force you to put your fingers on the display no matter what is on your fingers.  There's no tactile response to soft-keys and they're harder to manipulate with single-handed operation. These aren't my criticisms. These are the reasons that soft-keys have largely been a market failure. Here's a prediction virtually guaranteed to come true: Just as with every other handset manufacturer on the market (many of which swore-off physical keyboards until common sense got the better of them), Apple will eventually release an iPhone with a physical keyboard. Even with all the unique industrial designs on the market, when Apple introduces theirs, it will be a breakthrough. Until then, perhaps there will be a vibrant after-market for third-party provided keyboards.
  • Mothball your stereo headphones (Bluetooth, or not):  It's apparently been confirmed that the iPhone will not support the A2DP stereo bluetooth/headset profile that many other devices on the market (including the Motorola Q that I use) support.  It supports the mono (single-eared) profile instead. The A2DP profile is the one where your stereo headgear wirelessly connects to the handset via Bluetooth and it can easily alternate between listening to stereo audio (eg: your music) and taking a phone call. Typically, the way this works is, if you're listening to music and a phone call comes in, the music automatically pauses so that you can take the call and then when you're done with the call, the music resumes. Not only does the iPhone eschew state of the art Bluetooth profiles, it also eschews the standard stereo headphone jack (a mistake that even the iPod didn't make).  This is one of the simple ones that goes down in the "What the heck was Apple thinking?" department.
  • No way to expand the memory: I won't spend a lot of time on this point since I wrote a separate post about why this matters yesterday (not everyone is agreeing).  But the bottom line is that sheer capacity isn't the only issue (eg: being able to bump the $599 iPhone from 4GB to 12GB). There are other reasons removable memory makes sense. One I didn't mention yesterday is the ability to easily move files between devices.

By now, a lot of people are saying that the iPhone's breakthroughs are worth those sacrifices. There's no question that the iPhone broke through some barriers that other handset manufacturers have been unable to crack. Style of course. You will be the coolest kid on the block if you're the first to have one. User interface is the other biggie. But, when I look at my Motorola Q -- a Windows Mobile device whose user interface drove  me batty when I first got it -- the truth is that now that I know my way around the Windows Mobile UI, I'm not as bothered by it any more. It took a while, but now I know how to get to what I want on short order.  My point isn't to downplay innovation in UI design or say that the playing field eventually levels if you take the learning curve out.  My point is that, if you're considering the purchase of an iPhone, you have to look at the premium you're paying and the sacrifices you're making, and then decide if the revolutions it represents (eg: the UI) over competing devices is enough to put those competing devices out of the running.

From the same wireless provider for example (AT&T), you can get Samsung's BlackJack for $75.  It uses the faster of AT&T's two networks. It does music and videos (the screen is smaller though), has replaceable batteries, does Bluetooth stereo, and has a physical keyboard.  For $300, you can get something from AT&T with a bigger display that also supports AT&T's faster "3G" network (and that has a pop-out physical keyboard): the 8525. Here's the complete list of AT&T smartphones with cameras and bluetooth which includes a bunch of BlackBerries that can do multimedia. Then there are other great alternatives. Fellow blogger Matthew Miller runs through a decent list here.  Some may find it ugly (proving this is a fashion-buy), but Helio's Ocean is another.

Finaly, I'm not saying the iPhone is a raw deal or wouldn't be great to have. I'm just suggesting that before you go out and sink $499 or $599 into one of these, to step out of the reality distortion field for a few minutes and think about the iPhone the way you might any other product where you apply comparative common sense.  Given what else is out there, the truth of the matter is that iPhone 2.0 will probably be worth the wait.