Now we’re getting to the meat of the matter. The iPhone’s operating system, a variant of Mac OS X, is probably its most defining feature. Before the introduction of the iPhone, most mobile operating systems weren’t particularly pleasant to use. This wasn’t much of a problem on feature phones that mostly focus on calling and sending text messages, but as soon as people wanted more from their phones, things started to get ugly.
The existing mobile operating systems had user interfaces that weren’t easy to use. Phones with traditional keypads often had confusing and deep menu structures, whereas touch screen phones were operated through a stylus, and from first-hand experience I can tell you that styluses especially were unwieldy input devices. To make matters worse, interfaces were often not well adapted to input methods.
Along came the iPhone. The iPhone didn’t necessarily do anything ground-breaking or particularly new, nor did it have lots of features other phones did not have. In true Apple style, it “merely” improved several aspects of existing phones, and tied them together in a well integrated environment, proving once again that an eye for detail is usually all that stands between “frustrating” and “pleasant to use”.
And pleasant to use is indeed what describes the iPhone pretty accurately. Coming from a Symbian (and before that, Windows Mobile) world myself, the iPhone UI feels as if it descended from heaven to take us by the hand and guide us to the promised land. Well, that’s the experience after the first few hours of use. Soon enough, though, a lot of irritations with the iPhone UI become apparent – I will deal with those later. Let’s first focus on the goodness the iPhone has to offer.
You’d almost forget, but the iPhone is actually still a mobile phone, so let’s focus on the core mobile phone aspects first, starting with the dialler and contacts application. Apple has chosen to combine the two into the “Phone” application (although there’s a Contacts application too), where you can manage your contacts, dial them, and of course select the actual number pad. There’s little to say about this application other than it works. I should probably mention visual voicemail, but I get so little voicemail that in my time of owning the iPhone so far (two weeks or so) I simply haven’t used the feature yet.
The star of the show, when looking at core phone functionality, is most certainly the text message application, imaginatively called “Messages”. It presents text messages in the iChat user interface, which means text bubbles, making it all look more like a conversation than a set of individual messages.
Compared to the cumbersome routine of switching between inbox and sent messages folders on other phones, this is simply so much easier and more pleasant to use. It’s also a prime example of “merely” improving an aspect of other phones. There’s nothing revolutionary about the Messages application, but no matter how small the changes, it’s still a lot easier to use than others.
The email application is also much more pleasant to use than that of my previous phones, in such a way that I’m now actually using my phone for mobile email. The email clients on my previous phones were so universally horrible that I simply never bothered to dive into mobile email, but the client on the iPhone is easy to configure, easy to use, and has lovely little details like the genie animation when you delete emails.
I do miss some form of a favourites view, where you can place links to you most often used email folders. I use a number of different email accounts on my iPhone, and having to go back all the way to the accounts folders just to switch to another account’s inbox is cumbersome.
The Calendar application falls in the same category as the messages application – nothing revolutionary, and there’s nothing I can specifically point to that would explain why it’s simply so much more pleasant to use than other Calendar applications I’ve used in the past. One thing I do miss is the ability to show upcoming appointments on the home screen.
Mobile Safari truly stands out, though. On previous iPhone models, I found Safari quite cumbersome to use, as rendering speeds were incredibly slow due to the lack of raw power. On those models, Safari was also often quite slow to respond to the accelerometer and zooming. It was still better than what the competition had to offer, but that wasn’t saying much in those days.
On the 3GS, which carries a lot more raw processing power, Mobile Safari finally feels grown up. Rendering speeds have improved greatly, reducing the amount of time spent looking at the blocked “we’re busy” rendering background. It’s also more responsive, which all adds up to a relatively pleasant browsing experience. I specifically say “relative”, because let’s not forget that despite its quality, Safari is still a mobile browser, so it has an inherent cumbersomeness about it.
The method with which you manage multiple “tabs” is also well done, allowing you to “zoom out” to see the various pages you have open in card view. Some way of rearranging said cards would be nice though, as now they are simply ordered according to when you opened them.
The rest of the default iPhone applications are not of much interest to me. I have two very potent digital cameras, and never understood this crazy obsession people have with the cameras on their phones. Other features are just gimmicks to me, like the compass and voice memos. Still, even these built-in applications are well done and easy to use.
A few of the other built-in applications are useful, though. The YouTube application is nice, and so is the weather widget (although I question Yahoo’s results for my tiny rural home town, but alas). Things like Stocks, Maps, and Calculator do as advertised.
One special mention is reserved for the music player, obviously called “iPod”. This one draws from the years of experience Apple has with its iPod line of music players, and it shows: hands-down the best music player application I’ve ever seen, on any phone. With the insanely illogical scroll wheel (make circles to scroll vertically? Am I the only one who finds that crazy?) replaced by the more sensible multitouch scrolling gestures, everything suddenly falls into place. Sadly, I don’t have much use for personal audio (I have a car, and would rather be found dead than listen to mp3 instead of CDs), but rest assured that if you do, this is a winner, and could certainly be the deciding factor for many on the lookout for a smartphone.
There is one other case where I was really pleased by the iPhone. My university’s wifi network is quite complicated, with multiple certificates and authentication routines. On just about any computer and device it’s a nightmare to set up – requiring step-by-step instructions and whatnot. Not so for the iPhone. A professor made a profile using the iPhone Configuration Utility, which you can download and email to your iPhone. Double-tap, et voilÃ . All done.