Sunday, September 02, 2007

Cell Out

For quite a long time, I detested the idea of having a cell phone. More than anything, I disliked the thought of being instantly available to other people. I imagined a horrible world where I would regularly be INTERRUPTED in what I was doing by someone who demanded my immediate attention. I couldn't think of a single good reason why such communications couldn't wait until hours later. Add to that the fact that I dislike phones in general (I much prefer email, IM, or face-to-face conversation), and have had a very mild phobia of speaking on the phone since elementary school, and you can see why I thought I could live my entire life without ever getting a cell phone.

My philosophy remained essentially unchanged during the summer I spent in Kansas City at my internship with Raviant, even though the software I was working on was aimed at least partially at the cell phone market. Pretty much everyone there had a cell phone, and used them much more often than anyone I had met before. I noted how the phone instantly became the most important thing to them; if we were eating lunch and a call came in, they would excuse themselves to answer the call rather than let it go to voicemail and call them back later. I didn't think that this was wrong or bad, just really strange; how could someone far away be more important than the people you were sitting with?

I finally "caved" and bought a cell phone in the summer of 2003, after I graduated from college and moved to Kansas City. It was a pay-as-you-go, strictly-for-emergencies Virgin Mobile phone by Kyocera. It proved to be a great gateway mobile, getting me used to the idea while removing most of my objections. I didn't give my number to anyone other than my parents, so I didn't need to worry about getting contacted. Most of the time the phone was turned off and in my car's glove compartment, available for emergencies but not even accepting any calls. It was pretty cheap, too... I needed to make payments every 3 months to keep the account, and never used up the previous allotment of 20 dollars before the next "top-up" was due.

Once it was in my life, I came to realize how handy it could be. By far, the most useful application was during travel. I could arrive at the airport, give a call, and within minutes arrange to meet with my ride; this was greatly superior to the previous method which required a lot of planning and faith in the airline schedule. The phone felt good to have in general when away from home; even if I didn't use it, it was comforting to know I could reach my hosts or otherwise contact who I needed. On the flip side, suddenly I began to understand the appeal of being called as well as calling: of course I would want to know as soon as possible if my ride was stuck in traffic and was going to be half an hour late.

That Virgin phone didn't get much use, but it did work its way into my heart. Honestly, it was kind of an ugly thing, squat and with a bizarre purplish color; it had a monochrome display, and thanks to the youth-oriented theme, the automated voicemail and payment systems subjected you to the unbearably perky "Amber". But it did exactly what I wanted, when I wanted, and didn't cost too much.

Fast-forward to 2005. In the first truly daring move of my career, I joined with a mobile software startup company, and as one of the quirky perks they (1) bought me a phone, and (2) paid the monthly contract on it. Technically, the phone was a hand-me-down, but a good one just a few months old: a Sanyo 7400 with Sprint service, it seemed worlds better than my old Kyocera. It was a flip phone with a nice-sized screen and full VGA colors. Even cooler from my perspective was the fact that it was also a mobile data terminal, complete with a crippled browser and full TCP/IP support. Since our applications were networked and regularly updated over the net, I had Sprint PCS Vision as part of my plan, which provided unlimited data for $15 a month.

This was the coolest feature of my phone, and also the one I used least often. Because, let's face it, CDMA 1XRTT is not exactly speedy, and I would never choose to use the phone's cramped keyboard when I could use a real browser. It really shone, though, when I was on vacation: once again, the mobile proves most useful when I'm away from home. The usefulness was drastically extended through two beautiful applications released by Google: Google Mail for Mobile, and Google Local (later Google Maps). I was just stunned at the great engineering that came in these apps: they translated existing, rich-feeling web applications to the form factor and limitations of the mobile phone. Google Maps in particular came in useful when I was looking for something in a strange place. The maps were dynamic and far more readable than any web-based one, particularly because they would show the street named in the right places; they also had good driving directions and even showed traffic speeds before that feature was added to the primary web-based maps application. So, together, those google apps were workhorses for me, but in a pinch I could use the web browser to look up a phone number or otherwise get information I would usually get from my computer.

Once again, though, I could go for months without using a single one of these features, even though I was shelling out the fifteen dollars a month for them. I was really glad to have data services when I was using them, and otherwise didn't think about it. On the voice side, though, I was increasingly using the phone as, well, a phone. Now that I no longer had a pay-as-you-go plan, there was less financial reason to avoid using the phone. Even better for a cheapskate like me, my plan had unlimited night and weekend minutes, so as long as I was careful about when I called, I wouldn't need to watch the clock at all. I felt like I should take advantage of this, and so I started regularly calling my folks on the weekends; at heart, though, I still don't really enjoy talking on the phone all that much, and so even if those weekend calls were not free I would not have exceeded my 300 minutes a month.

Brief coda to the Virgin Mobile story - there was no reason to hold on to this phone once I switched to the Sanyo. By this time, my limited calling habits meant that there was somewhere around $150 in prepaid time left on the phone, so I donated it to my younger sister.

There were a couple of interesting developments in the next few months. First, when I moved, I decided to not bother hooking up a landline telephone. This was a surprisingly liberating feeling: I detest SBC with an eternal passion, and so the thought of freeing myself from the local monopoly brought a warm feeling to my heart. I was surprised at how little difference this change made, and came to realize that I'd been paying a monthly fee for little more than the privilege of receiving telemarketing calls. Second, the Nexgenesis job ended, and with it that nice monthly reimbursement. I was now personally on the hook for the full charge of $45 plus taxes and fees. This more than wiped out what I had saved by getting rid of the landline, but I came to realize that the mobile was worth it.

Over the years, the way I use my phone has evolved into something slightly different from the way a "typical" user might interact with it. My phone is always turned on, but generally only on my person when I'm at work or out and about; when at home, it's charging or lying on a table. When carrying it, the phone is always in my front pocket except if I'm riding my bike, in which case it's in my messenger bag. I don't like my phone to make noises, even when not in a theater or restaurant, so it's always on vibrate. (My iPhone is currently set to ring, but I'm sure the novelty will wear off soon and it'll join the vibrating ranks.) I very rarely text people. When I get a call, I'll check caller ID; if I don't recognize it and I'm not expecting a call, I'll send it to voicemail. If I do recognize the caller, I may or may not pick up depending on what I'm doing. If I'm sitting down to dinner, playing a video game, or at a particularly good part of a novel, then I won't interrupt it. I'll check any message when I finish what I'm doing, and return the call (or email, IM, etc.) if appropriate.

My intellectual appreciation of mobile phones has continued to grow as I've burrowed more deeply into the mobile development field. Even though I personally spend very little time on my phone (other than time I'm paid for), I daily see some amazing things that people are doing with them. When I look at a phone, I don't just see a device for speaking with distant people: I see a node in the network, a node that travels with you and links you with the knowledge and resources of all humanity. I think that mobile phones are a crucial branch in the future evolution of computing; twenty years from now, we won't carry devices we would recognize as cell phones, but the most important computers will be descended from today's RAZR, BlackBerry, and iPhone. Devices are growing smaller, more capable, and more powerful: this has been true of computers in general from ENIAC onwards, but mobile technology is permitting pervasive, always-on and always-ready computing that has changed, and will continue to change, the way we live our lives. It's an exciting field to be in.

With all that in mind, here's my current thoughts on the iPhone:

It takes the potential of the previous generation of phones, and realizes it with a wonderful interface. As an engineer, I recognize that under the hood, the browser is still just pushing bytes across a wireless network; where it succeeds brilliantly is in creating an interface that works in an inches-wide object in the palm of your hand. Previous phones felt like they started with the PC experience, then tried to come up with adequate substitutions for items which weren't available on the mobile. By contrast, iPhone has that Apple thing where it was clearly designed from scratch to provide the best interface possible.

The keyboard is probably the best example of that. Up until now, everyone has had a physical keyboard, with two main options: either a smaller telephone-style keypad, which has fairly awkward typing but permits a smaller form factor and/or more space for the screen; or a QWERTY-style keyboard, such as what you see on BlackBerrys (BlackBerries?), which takes up more space, is still inferior to a real keyboard, but is the only real choice for someone who composes lots of email on the go. Apple was roundly criticized for going with a software-only keyboard, and prior to launch received a ton of criticism about how awful the lack of physical feedback would be, but after playing with this for about a week I have to admit I am really impressed by what it came up with. First of all, it gives them the best of both worlds by having what is essentially a dynamically resizeable context-sensitive keypad: it can show you twelve large buttons if you're manually dialing a number, a full QWERTY-style keyboard if you're composing a message, a modified QWERTY keyboard what includes "/", ".com", and other useful items if you're entering a URL, and so on. So right off the bat, there's an advantage over the traditional boards.

As a software engineer, I'm automatically in favor of software approaches to problems. Having an entirely programmatic keyboard also supports better mechanisms for input on a limited device. Ultimately, the keyboard on iPhone is smaller than for a PC, with the keys smaller and closer together, so it's inevitable that you will make mistakes. iPhone, though, has a really impressive autocorrection feature. Suppose you type in "Momkey" when you meant to type "Monkey". The word "Momkey" isn't in iPhone's dictionary, so it assumes you've made a mistake. Searching through the dictionary, it discovers that "Monkey" is only one letter away from "Momkey", and further that "m" is next to "n" on the keyboard, and so deduces that you meant to type "Monkey". It floats "Monkey" under your input, and if you press space, period, or other punctuation, it makes the substitution. You can also decline the suggestion; do it twice, and it will add "Momkey" to its dictionary. Combine this with another cool, feature, predictive text: because this is a software keyboard, they aren't limited by physical keys. What does this mean? Well, in the previous example, suppose I type "monke". "monke" isn't a word, so iPhone knows I'll be adding extra letters; furthermore, "monkey" is a word, but there are no words that start with "monket" or "monkeu". So iPhone actually expands the sensitive size of the "Y" key - it doesn't grow larger on the screen, but even if you're slightly off when you hit it and you accidentally cross partly over to a "T" or a "U", it will still register the "Y" that you probably meant to put in.

See, that's a prime example of where iPhone's design shines. They actually took what was widely presumed to be a limitation - lack of a keyboard with physical keys - and replaced it with an experience that I believe is superior to what they had before.

There was a bit of a learning curve for the keyboard, which was mainly to unlearn what I had gotten used to on previous phones. The secret is to learn to trust iPhone. This is hard for me as an engineer - when I make a mistake, I want to correct it immediately. Instead, if you hit the wrong key, you should just keep on going. 95% of the time, iPhone will come up with the right word in the end, and if it doesn't, you can easily correct it later.

Gosh, I get the feeling this whole post (well, the review portion at least) will end up being about the keyboard, which is a bit of a shame, since that's just a tiny part of the phone. Really, a big part of the advantage of the touch-screen interface is that you don't need to use a keypad unless you're actually inputting text. One more thing, then: editing text. This has been a huge pain on earlier phones. One thing I periodically need to do for work is enter 1000 characters of text into a message; if I ever need to edit that text, I use the arrow keys to scroll around in this tiny little window until I get to the right spot, where I resume typing. iPhone has a really good substitute that allows it to ditch the arrow keys altogether. Just hold your finger over the part of text you want to edit; this will bring up a magnifying glass showing a cursor, so you can position it in just the right spot. This, in turn, lets iPhone use non-fixed fonts and still be usable for editing: if you want to insert something before the period, it'd be hard to nail that gap using just your finger, but with the magnifier it's actually pretty easy. Once you're in the right spot, you can edit in place, and touch the screen again to jump wherever else you need to go.

Okay, that has been far too much detail. Let's conclude this with a rundown of the phone features:

  • Power. It's been really good so far. I usually leave it in the dock while I'm at work, and it can last through the weekend without any charging and still have plenty of power. (Keep in mind that I don't use the phone much for talking, though; I do play some media, and spend too much time browsing the web.)
  • Calling. Very good. There is occasionally a soft background hiss that I notice when calling from home, but not elsewhere. This isn't iPhone-specific, but I seem to be getting much better coverage from AT&T than I did before with Sprint.
  • Sync. I'm pleased with it, especially once I realized that you can sync different components with different computers. So, for example, it can only sync with one calendar, but I can sync my calendar from work and my music from my home computer. Sync works beautifully. Music and movies work just as with an iPod; I'm finding that it's most useful to create a special playlist that I'm calling "iPhone" and syncing that, since my library is much larger than my 8GB (really 7.2GB) of storage. Syncing of calendar, contacts, and bookmarks works wonderfully; I can add or delete from either my PC or my iPhone and have it reflected the next time I connect. I haven't tried syncing email yet; it only syncs settings, not actual mail.
  • Form factor. Well nigh perfect. It just feels right: perfect heft, high quality materials (real glass on the front, smooth metal on the side and back).
  • Screen. Also excellent: large and vivid. Brightness has been good for me. It has a cool feature where it will dynamically adjust the screen brightness based on how light it is outside; so, if I'm in a dark garage, it will shine more dimly than if I'm in sunlight. You can also manually adjust the brightness.
  • Music. Quite good. One thing I really like is that, unlike the iPod, if you don't have headphones plugged in it plays music from the speaker; granted, the sound isn't as good, but it's still a cool feature. With the headphones, the sound quality is as good as my iPod nano.
  • Video. Best quality I've seen on a device this size outside of UMD on the PSP. There's a great variety of sources, too... you can convert your videos to H.264 or MPEG-4 and sync them to iPhone; or you can watch YouTube videos using the native application; or you can watch supported quicktime video in the browser. I watched some movie trailers from Apple's site and was impressed by the clarity and warmth of the image. Some YouTube videos are too dark, but I think this may be due to the source material. I converted an episode of Robot Chicken to H.264 using Videora iPhone Converter and was blown away - I was noticing stuff on a 3.5 inch wide screen held a foot away from my face that I had missed when watching a 24 inch television from across the room. On the downside, I downloaded a free Battlestar Galactica special from iTunes, and found it almost unwatchable. The combination of dark colors, black backgrounds, and rapid movement do not hold up well. I was eventually able to watch it, but it required tilting the screen at a particular angle to keep the colors from being washed out. So far, it seems like animation will be the best, followed by bright live action with lots of contrast; the darker and faster the image, the worse it will look.
  • Apps I don't use: Stocks, Clock, Calculator, Camera. I've fooled around with each a bit, and they look cool and seem well laid out, but I don't see myself doing much with them. I will call out how well they are integrated with the rest of the phone. The Stocks app provides a rich and regularly updated look at your selected stocks, including price history; if you want to see textual information, you can touch the "Y!" icon, which will launch Safari to Yahoo's investment page, where you can find news, analyst reports, and more good stuff. As another example of good integration, within the Clock application, you can set a timer to shut off the iPod when it expires; you could use this to, for example, set up some music to play when you go to bed and automatically shut itself off.
  • SMS. Honestly, I haven't used this that much, but I do really like it. The plans come with 200 messages a month, and you can buy more if you need them. This app may be the single best demonstration of the keyboard on the phone. Messages are displayed in a great chat view that interleaves your sent and received messages so you can view the back-and-forth of an entire conversation.
  • Weather. It's a really simple, handy app that I use a lot. You can add your cities, it provides a very readable seven-day forecast. Once again, you can link to Yahoo for more detailed information including news and flickr photos. My one complaint comes from my software guy identity - the icon for "Weather" always displays as a sun with "73ยบ" displaying. I would love it if the icon would be updated with the actual weather for the city you last viewed. They already do something similar with the "Calendar" icon, which always shows the day of the week. Anyways, if they were to add this, it would just be one less screen I'd need to visit to learn what I wanted.
  • Notes. I haven't used this much, but I wouldn't be surprised if that changed. It's a cool little app, and I can see it eventually replacing my system of notebooks for a lot of little things. Presentation is top-notch as well. There's a fun font that is unique to Notes and is quite stylish while remaining very readable. You can easily email notes, to yourself or other people. The notes are simple and effective, displaying the first few words when you browse them, and giving pretty much the entire screen to compose them in. There are nice Apple-ish touches as well, such as the way the pages "flip" when you move between notes, approximating the appearance of having an actual notebook in your hand. The deletion animation is pretty fun, too.
  • Screen rotation. This is good, although it's occasionally a little puzzling to figure out when it does or does not apply. The most important rotation is in the browser. I'll typically view traditional sites on the side, so I can get a decent size font without zooming in, and I'll view custom sites vertically, since that's how they're usually designed. Rotation for photos also works very well. Videos do not rotate, which makes sense but doesn't keep me from trying to do it. The iPod does support rotation if you're in music mode, although this just controls whether you are in Cover Flow mode or not. Almost all the other screens in the iPhone are fixed in portrait orientation. I suppose this makes sense, since unlike the Web or photos, there's no particular benefit to seeing, say, widescreen Weather or Stocks. That being said, it would be cooler if all of the native applications could support rotation. For example, I can imagine a landscape Weather app that shows two cities at once side by side. Again, this wouldn't really be more useful than what they have now, but it would be cool.
  • Volume controls. EXCELLENT. This phone has an amazingly simple feature that every phone should have - a hard on-off switch to silence volume. Most phones I've seen require you to tap "Volume Down" repeatedly in order to turn off the sound, or search in the software for an option to "Mute". The iPhone, though, has a tiny switch that you can flick which will turn off all the sounds on the phone. Theater patrons everywhere rejoice. On the more mundane side, there is a standard volume control just below the switch to adjust the ringer volume. Multimedia has a separate volume that you can control while watching videos or listening to music; here, it's a bar that displays across the screen which you can adjust using the touch feature.
  • Visual Voicemail. I'll let you know as soon as I actually get any voicemail. :-) It sounds cool, though. I had been confused before about just what this did, so here's the story: on iPhone, voicemail is actually downloaded to your phone. You can see all your pending voicemail, along with caller ID information so you can see what messages you have. Since these are all local files, you can listen to them in any order that you want, and can pause, rewind, fast-forward, and jump to specific points in a message. THAT is a great idea. I do get messages where I need to listen to a phone number or name two or three times to make sure I've got it right; it's a big pain if that information is blurted out at the end of a two-minute message and I need to listen through the whole thing multiple times. Again, I personally don't get enough voicemail for it to be that huge of a feature for me, but I love the technology behind it.
Missing features:
  • Voice memo. Non-existent. I'm putting this here because I thought of it while writing about the Notes application. My previous Sprint phone, and many other mid- to top-tier phones, have a feature where you can record messages to yourself for later playback, much like the small tape recorders that used to be so much in vogue. I never used this feature, and am fine with Apple's decision to omit it. Voice memos have the same problems as traditional voicemail, where you need to play through the whole message to hear it, and there isn't a convenient way to back up to an important part. I personally prefer written to oral communication and so am inclined to stick with Notes. I can imagine some people who would prefer the convenience of just talking into their phone, though. I just now did a Google search, and found a page which seems to indicate that Apple may be adding this feature in the future.
  • You can't record video. I don't miss this feature, though I am curious why they omitted it - it has a decent camera, a microphone, and obviously plenty of storage.
  • No GPS or LBS. Tangent time: GPS stands for "Global Positioning System", and is a mechanism that uses satellites to help pinpoint a particular location; it can be accurate to within feet or inches of a person's location. LBS stands for "Location-Based Service," and is a more generic term used by mobile companies to describe services that take advantage of knowing where the subscriber is located. A phone may use a GPS chip in order to provide LBS, but it also might rely on other factors - for example, the tower might know where it is located, and provide this data to connected phones so they can get a rough approximation of where they are. Now, there is a perception out there that GPS is better than non-GPS LBS. It's true that it is certainly more accurate, but the question of whether it is better is debatable; GPS requires a lot of time in order to establish a "fix" on your position, and it drains relatively more power. As a result, when someone first requests a position, it will usually take some time for it to become available, after which their movement will be more quickly tracked. The best modern systems will use non-GPS methods to provide some initial data to the user - for example, by showing them a map of the San Francisco Bay Area - and, as GPS comes online, provide more detailed information - for example, showing the user's location on a street in San Jose. All that to say, since the iPhone shipped without GPS, it will never be able to achieve that level of accuracy. However, I think it could profit a great deal with the addition of simple LBS. The most obvious benefit is in the Maps application. Suppose that I'm searching for "Car wash" - I don't necessarily need to know precisely where I am, but it would be helpful for the phone to automatically find results in my general vicinity, without requiring me to first look up my current location. So this would be a very nice future feature; that said, I miss this much less than I had thought I would when I first got the phone; in almost all cases, I can quickly move to my general area, then use the excellent search to pinpoint what I need.
Finally, let me leave you with a few usage stories.

Last weekend, I went hiking at Mount Madonna County Park. On my drive down there I saw gas for sale for $2.63 a gallon. That seemed really cheap to me, but I haven't bought gas lately, so I wasn't sure if it was any less than what I would spend at Rotton Robbie's in San Jose. I'd previously bookmarked the web application, so on my way back, I ran a quick search on gas prices in the 95126 area code. The very cheapest gas, which was a few miles from my apartment, was $2.75, so I confidently filled up my tank. I also looked up the park - I didn't have a street address, but I scrolled the map into the general vicinity and then searched for "Mount Madonna". I then got driving directions back home, which guided me out of the twisty roads into the park, and also revealed that it would be a bit shorter to stay on 101 up to 280, instead of taking 85 like I had on the way down. This is a little thing, but the sort of thing that I love doing, and is a great example of how access to information and pervasive computing can help people make smarter decisions.

And yesterday, I went on another hike, this time to Sanborn Skyline County Park. The hike took me to a reservoir about thirty minutes back from the road. For fun, I took out the iPhone. I saw that I actually was getting a signal, but no Edge access... if I broke a leg, I could call for help, but I couldn't surf the web to relieve boredom. However, after later hiking up to the crest of a nearby hill, I suddenly did get Edge coverage. So I hopped online, and in a few seconds updated my Facebook status to inform anyone who cared that I was hiking. This was a totally marginal act, but at the same time, it was a little cool. If and when I ever hike the Pacific Crest Trail, it would be tempting to bring the phone along... I'm sure I would be out of coverage most of the time, but every once in a while I would probably get close enough to a populated area so that I could get coverage. I could send out status emails, upload some photos I'd taken, check out trail conditions ahead, and then put the 4.8 ounces back in my pack and not think about it for the next several weeks.

I guess that's it for now. I'll probably keep learning more about my iPhone as I use it more, and before long won't even think about it any more... it will seem totally natural that I keep my grocery list on my phone. For now, it's an incredibly fun toy to play with. I can't say that iPhone is the future, but it is the direction we're moving in.

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