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iPhone Review and Wish List

by Josh Rubin
on 09 July 2007

Having designed the touch-based user interface that has been on Motorola's 'A' series of multimedia phones in China since 2004, my critique of the iPhone comes from a unique, and overly educated perspective. It's not Apple's vision for the iPhone that I find admirable—there isn't much about it that's truly new—it's their ability to execute. After spending the last ten days with my iPhone I enthusiastically say that it is simple, gorgeous, and even fun to use.

If you're at all curious about the iPhone there have already been many, many reviews written by 'traditional' journalists (Mossberg, Pogue) and bloggers alike. Almost all of these praise the device heavily and many of them detail its features and functions so closely you don't need to view Apple's videos about the device (though you should).

There are two components to the iPhone user interface that make it not only usable, but also delightful. The first is multi-touch. Other touch-screen devices just recognize tap and release. The iPhone can recognize multiple points of contact as well as contact over distance. This enables a world of new interactions like holding, dragging, pinching, swiping, and flicking. With this greater palette functions previously relegated to menus can be enabled without added complication.

The second component of what makes the iPhone interface work is its animation. Visual cues constantly reinforce the user's interactions and aid in navigation. A simple bounce when you hit the end of the list is all you need to know it's the end. Sliding, overlaying panels illustrate the relationship between screens as you navigate. Zooms in and out show opening and closing. You get the idea. It's these subtleties that are full of meaning yet easily interpreted.

Recent reviews have focused on some big gaps in what the iPhone has to offer. iTunes Music Store integration would be great. So would Flash support in Safari. And where's iChat? But for me, a power user, there are several key features missing from the included applications. I know I'm not quite the target market for this device but I do think there are many little things that would make a sophisticated user's experience better without compromising the ultra-clean design of the interface. The following is a short wish list of improvements. All of them, I think, can be achieved without adding menus or other complication. I'm hopeful we'll see these in software updates over the next several months.

  • Add copy and paste. Perhaps a multi-touch gesture that starts by moving the cursor with one finger then dragging out a highlight area with the second finger would be a reasonable way to highlight. Once that's complete cut, copy, ignore buttons would pop up. To paste just double tap in a form field.
  • Improve text entry shortcuts. Adding apostrophes to contractions entered without them is great, but every BlackBerry user I know takes the double-space-to-get-a-period-and-start-a-new-sentence feature for granted. It's super simple. Why not add it to the iPhone? Emoticon shortcuts would be nice, too.
  • Make Mail more robust. Super simple email is great for some, but if you manage hundreds of messages a day within multiple accounts iPhone's Mail functionality is lacking. Foremost is the need for a push mail server. Why not upgrade .mac and allow it to be configured similarly to how the BlackBerry Internet Server works? Multiple select and delete would also be great—just tap on all the red minus-signs you see in the mailbox's Edit view. Lastly, a more detailed mail account configuration is critical. I forward all my mail to Gmail to use their spam filter but have no way to reply to those messages from any of my other email addresses.
  • iCal is used by business people, too. Why can't we accept iCal meeting invites? Why don't iCal tasks sync? These would be easy to add. No? My other gripe is that I believe a week begins on Monday, not Sunday. I have iCal on my Mac configured as such. There's no way to change that on the iPhone, but there really needn't be. Just inherit the setting from the paired Mac's iCal. This philosophy could actually apply to all of the applications mirrored between the Mac and iPhone.
  • Spotlight would be nice. Being able to look up a name, event or details in an archived email is especially important during those on-the-go, I-forgot moments. It's a shame you can't do that on the iPhone. If adding search to different applications compromises usability, why not just add Spotlight as an application in the main menu?
  • Choose what to do with linked items. If you tap on a phone number in Mail or SMS a call to that number is immediately initiated. But what if you want to just save that number to your contact list. Currently you have to initiate the call, hang up, go to recent calls and then save. Why not just pop-up buttons that allow you to call or save?
  • Further integrate Google Maps. It would be really great to be able to email or SMS a Google Map link.
  • AT&T. Sigh. Obviously a lot of thought went in to the decision to first choose a single carrier to partner with, and then to select AT&T as their partner. All you have to do is check out the boards to hear how well people felt Apple handled their side of the launch (and the device itself), and how frustrated many customers are with their experiences on the AT&T side. We got four iPhones at CH HQ, and three of them activated pretty easily and quickly. The fourth, however, required more than 20 hours on the phone with AT&T customer service (more than half of that on hold). Highlights included waiting on hold for 2 1/2 hours followed by a brief conversation with a customer service person who didn't call back when the call was somehow disconnected (despite having taken my name and number); a dropped call while being transferred after holding for 94 minutes; being told after 30 minutes of conversation to call the very same number I had just called so that I could speak with a "specialist;" and my favorite, when one "specialist" phoned another, only to realize that they both worked for the same group and neither could help (they sent me to Apple, who agreed with me that the issue was clearly on the AT&T side). On day five I was finally connected to an "escalation team" who was very helpful, though it took several of them an afternoon and another five calls to finally get the phone properly activated and provisioned. I will say that most of the people I spoke with were very pleasant, they just didn't seem to be able to do much to get the phone working. And as many others have noted, the AT&T EDGE network doesn't seem to be nearly as fast as T-Mobile's.

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