Ah, the App Store. We’ve talked a lot about the negative aspects of the App Store the past year, so for now I want to focus on the good things that the App Store has to offer iPhone and iPod Touch owners.
I guess it suffices to say that the sheer size of the App Store means there’s enough stuff to play around with. Yes, I’d hazard a wild guess that about 90-95% of the applications in there are of dubious quality (and even less than dubious usefulness), but out of 100000 applications, that still leaves roughly 5000-10000 potentially useful and quality applications to play around with.
We have the usual suspects like Twitter clients (Tweetie is my favourite), lots of games (Bejeweled 2!), dictionaries, and so on. However, there are also applications with a narrower potential audience, such as “Buienradar”, which shows live radar and satellite feeds of rain showers in the Benelux. It’s pretty much the best tool you can have when deciding whether or not to leave your umbrella in the car.
There are various applications showing TV listings for The Netherlands specifically, as well as applications from various news sites like Nu.nl and MacWereld. As someone who travels mostly by car, I find MyTraffic invaluable in a country that is in a continuous state of gridlock. Social networking tomfoolery like Hyves and Facebook are useful (insofar that nonsense can be useful), as is a dedicated Xkcd application. The Boxee remote control application is invaluable when I’m lying in bed watching a few late night TV episodes on my bedroom HTPC (me? Decadent? Surely you jest…).
The possibilities really do seem endless, and the phrase “there’s an app for that” covers the App Store pretty well. The curious case here is that the App Store is an argument both in favour as well as against buying an iPhone, and I must say that for me personally this was the biggest argument against buying the thing. In the end, the other positive factors of the device overcame it, but only by a small margin.
Of course it helped that the Pre still isn’t available in The Netherlands, but I digress.
With the goodness out of the way, let us focus on the badness. I think my biggest ire is reserved for some seriously bad usability decisions on Apple’s part. Before I explain why, take a look at the image below, and try and see if you can work out what it represents. Please don’t cheat by reading the text beyond the image.
This is a schematic representation of the area the thumb of a right-handed person using the iPhone can cover. Anything located outside of this green zone requires you to move the phone in your hand, or call in support from your left hand. In other words, any button that’s going to be used often should be located in the green zone as to minimise the inconvenience of using two hands or shifting the phone around in one hand.
This is rather basic stuff, which makes me all the more surprised that one of the most often used functions of the iPhone user interface is located as far outside of this green zone as possible: the back button (marked red). Within only a few minutes of using the iPhone, I already started to find this remarkably irritating, as it forces me to use the darn thing with two hands – or, shift it around in my right hand so that my thumb can reach the back button. Combined with the slippery nature of the device… Obviously, the back button should’ve been located somewhere at the bottom of the screen.
The keyboard also isn’t without its problems. I find the portrait keyboard pretty much unusable, as the keys are too small and positioned too close together to comfortably type on. The landscape keyboard is much, much less frustrating to use, but I’ll still be correcting for a few minutes after every email or text message.
Still, my biggest issue with the keyboard is the illogical location of punctuation marks and the apostrophe. They are located in a different mode, and for such often used typography that just doesn’t make any sense. It almost forces you to ditch apostrophes and punctuation altogether, but I’d rather eat my own hair than type like a twitchy 15 year old girl.
The keyboard also doesn’t indicate clearly enough that it is in “shift mode”. Pressing shift on the iPhone’s keyboard allows you to write down one upper-case letter, but the only indication that it is in shift mode is a blue glow around the shift key – a key usually covered by your fingers. It would make much more sense to show lower-case letters by default, and show upper-case letters when in shift mode.
Furthermore, I found the auto-suggest feature a major pain in the bum. Pressing space would commit the suggestion, and the only way to cancel the suggestion would be to tap on it inside the text field. I found this very disruptive, and turned it off quite quickly. It also didn’t help that the iPhone insisted my name was “Thomas” – I’ve been fighting institutions and schools all my life on that one.
The accelerometer is also problematic. Well, that’s not entirely true – the software making use of it is problematic. The iPhone is highly inconsistent when it comes to the accelerometer, with some applications using it, while others don’t – and I’m talking about Apple’s own applications right now. Whether or not an application will shift between portrait and landscape mode seems to be guided not by common sense, but by the position of the planets.
The best example I have is the keyboard in Safari. If you are browsing with Safari in portrait mode, and you tap on the address bar, the keyboard will slide up so you can enter an address. However, as I said, I dislike the portrait keyboard. So, just turn the phone around, right? Well – no. When editing the address field in Safari, you can’t switch between landscape and portrait mode. You’ll have to leave editing mode, switch to landscape mode, and tap the address bar again. In other applications, such as the Messages application, the keyboard happily switches between landscape and portrait mode.
This is completely arbitrary behaviour, and it means you’ll continuously be switching the phone from portrait to landscape because there’s no way of knowing which application supports what. This problem obviously carries over to third party applications.
Apple should’ve made every application capable of switching between the two modes – including the home screen. It should’ve then used its control over the App Store to ensure that third parties implemented this fully too. Right now, I’m moving the phone around way more often than I should be.
A last problem I want to mention is the lack of a simple USB mode. Why can’t I just connect the iPhone to my computer using USB, and copy files to it as if it was a USB drive? I can understand not being able to touch your music (since Apple wants to lock us into iTunes), but why can’t I shove documents and other files to the iPhone so I don’t have to use a USB stick any more? This is a major deficiency.
Let me be clear: the iPhone 3GS is the best phone I’ve ever had. Despite the list of problems above, it is still miles ahead of the competition. The iPhone actually makes it possible to use things like mobile browsing and mobile email without it feeling like a chore, and that’s quite an achievement in and of itself.
Still, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. It’s quite clear that the smartphone market is still very young, and that there’s still a long way to go before any of these devices become truly pleasant to use. If this were the personal computer market, we’d be in the ’80s. There’s a lot of innovation still to come, and contrary to some of the starry-eyed reviews of the iPhone, it’s by no means the end-all-be-all.
Whether or not you should buy an iPhone will depend on a multitude of factors, most of all whether or not the carrier carrying the iPhone in your area is a good one. Even if it is, there are a number of more open, less restrictive alternatives out there, such as Android phones, or if they actually sell them in your area, the Palm Pre. If openness is very important to you, then steer clear of the iPhone.
If all that jabber about openness means nothing to you, then the iPhone is the best smartphone money can currently buy – there’s simply no denying it.