My Year With the iPhone: An Update

On August 1 2007, I published an article called “My Month with the iPhone” wherein I examined the iPhone’s now well-known advantages and deficiencies and speculated extensively on where Apple was likely to take the phone, development-wise. Now that the new iPhone and the iPhone 2.0 software have been out for a few weeks, and there’s been a whole new storm of praise and gripes raging, I thought it would be illuminating for me to re-visit my prognostications and take my lumps.In my article, I had three major divisions of deficiencies:

  1. Things that will be changed in software updates by Apple
  2. Things that should be changed by Apple, but will be instead be changed by way of hacks, (and many of these will eventually be embraced by Apple)
  3. Things that can’t be changed because they’re not fixable in software, but will probably be changed in later hardware revisions, much to the annoyance of we early adopters.

The fourth category is things that Apple won’t change, or will resist changing for far too long (two-button mouse, anyone?)

In the first category, let’s look back and see what Apple really did change with software updates:

Sure enough, native apps happened, first through hacks, and then, finally, officially. All that BS about Safari being their apps platform was just a smokescreen, and they took their sweet time rolling out the platform, and the NDA and the control over distribution is going to stifle innovation, but native apps are here. There was a pretty vibrant ecosystem of native apps for jailbroken iPhones, but that world suffered a 1-2 punch, with the iPhone 2.0 software update breaking all of them, and the official apps channel opening up. There’s still an acute need for an unofficial channel, making a place for apps that Apple won’t approve, for various reasons.

My prediction that the new apps would be released in stages didn’t pan out. I’m not sure why Apple didn’t release a few major partners’ apps as part of minor software updates. That would have been nice.

As for other software updates, shamefully, there’s still no copy and paste. The contacts search is woefully inadequate. No file management. Still no decent to-do list. Still no MMS. No native “open in new tab” feature. No native IM, push or otherwise. Web caching hasn’t been improved much. There have been some nice UI tweaks, with icon rearranging and improvements to the map software.

The bottom line is that aside from supporting downloadable apps, none of features that I predicted have been made available through software updates from Apple. I’m a little stunned, for two reasons: first, they just don’t seem like they would have been a big deal to implement, and I’m not the only person to miss them. But I’m also surprised that after using the iPhone heavily for over a year now, I haven’t missed those features as much as I thought I would. A better Search (that would let me search through company names or notes in the contact info) is probably the biggest one for me. Apparently, someone is working on an indexed search SDK for third-party apps. But that’s no replacement for a search feature from Apple.

Probably the most glaring software deficiency in the iPhone is the lack of proper mobile sync and wireless data transfer. You can buy a phone from Nokia and using Apple’s own iSync software to sync it up with your Mac very nicely. You can use Apple’s Bluetoth utilities to transfer files over Bluetooth. It’s just shameful that the iPhone supports neither of these features. We know you can do it Apple. Why don’t you want to?

So one of the big new things is MobileMe, Apple’s reboot of .mac. It finally allows iPhone users to wirelessly sync their calendar and contacts. But let me just get this out: I’m pretty pissed off about Apple’s MobileMe offering. All I want is to wirelessly sync my calendar and contacts. I already have a perfectlly good IMAP-based email setup that syncs up my email (and notes and to-do list, but in a not-very-useful way). I don’t need MobileMe’s mail, gallery, iDisk, or any other MobileMe service. I don’t need my caleadar and contacts synced up to the “cloud,” even. I just want my Mac to sync those things whenever my iPhone comes within Bluetooth range. It’s that simple. Apple wants me to pay $99 per year to get something that should be a standard iPhone feature. I won’t do it.

The second section of my article last year was “Things that should be changed by Apple, but will be instead be changed by way of hacks.” Let me quickly doff my cap to the tireless efforts of iPhone hackers everywhere. If I was off base on this section, it was by underestimating what the hackers would be able to accomplish. There were jailbreaks, unlocks, Javascript hacks, neat native apps, several workable tethering hacks and custom ringtones (I made up a good one of the Super Mario Brothers theme for mine), just to name the ones I predicted in my previous article. The hacks were sometimes quick and dirty at first, but many have become very simple with the friendly tools available. Jailbreaking and unlocking an iPhone, particularly a pre 2.0 iPhone, is practically point-and-click.

Section Three oflast year’s article is “things that can’t be changed because they’re not fixable in software, but will probably be changed in later hardware revisions, much to the annoyance of we early adopters.” Actually, there wasn’t a lot of consternation among iPhone 1.0 users about the new 3G iPhone. It probably helped that the list of new features is pretty modest. 3G is meaningful for people who live in places with 3G coverage (unlike me), and GPS is really nice, but honestly the tower triangulation feature that Apple released makes up for it quite nicely for all but turn-by-turn navigation (which isn’t supported yet in the software anyway) or if you really don’t know where you are at all. Backtracking on that stupid recessed headphone plug was certainly a good move, too.

With the 2.0 software, Apple has integrated location-awareness into every aspect of the iPhone’s operation. I think we’re only scratching the surface of the potential usefulness of this functionality, and the software developers now have the tools in their hands to make it happen.

Section four, “things that Apple won’t change, or will resist changing for far too long” included integrated VoIP, officially unlocked phones, file management, iPhone-to-iPhone file transfer, and crippled Bluetooth.

Unlocking is such a huge issue for the iPhone in the world at large that huge resources are being applied to that project. The 3G iPhones seem to be at the cusp of being unlocked, though the new activation policy is putting a damper on the excitement by restricting the supply of iPhones to people with AT&T contracts. Apple’s embrace of unlocked phones depends completely with its agreements with carriers in each country, so it seems likely that unlocking will remain in the realm of the black market for a while.

Official support for VoIP is primarily an issue the relationship between Apple and the carriers. Unless the carriers want integrated VoIP functionality (and most don’t) there won’t be any, no matter how nice that would be for users. There are some interesting VoIP options coming out of the hacker and third-party app community.

There’s been some work on file management tools in the hacker community, but currently there’s nothing fully-baked that works on 2.0. It seems that if Apple hasn’t allowed for file management and transfer until now, it will be a long time until we see anything from them, and the same goes for Bluetooth.

In the conclusion of my “Month with the iPhone” piece, I predicted that we would likely get new “features” and “functionality” in upcoming releases that nobody really wants. I said, “future iPhones will certainly have the ability to let you purchase a lot of crap from iTunes that you really want to be able to load on your iPhone yourself, like videos or ringtones. It will also include subscription or fee-based apps and services that should be free or should have been included in the first place.” The launch of the iTunes iPhone store has certainly confirmed that prediction.

I won’t join the chorus bemoaning the proliferation of shoddy me-too applications available from iTunes for absurd prices. That’s just the free market. If someone wants to charge $3 for a “flashlight” app that works the same as the free flashlight app from someone else, then I applaud Apple for not interfering with the marketplace and giving them a chance to try to sell it. My only complaint is when the iPhone’s potential is compromised by Apple in order to protect a dubious revenue stream or partner preference. I fear that Apple will succumb to these temptations all too easily, to the detriment of the platform. I only hope that the hacker community continues to pick up where Apple has dropped off.


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