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Archive for January, 2011

Living with an iPhone

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

I was really excited when Mark, the CEO of our startup, asked me to get an iPhone and start delving into the mindset of a smartphone user — the company would pay for it. I have often wondered what it would be like, and now I get to experiment without having to commit myself to a 2-year contract. Here are my thoughts after the first month (I got it on December 30).

The iPhone has changed my habits somewhat. It is a phone, an mp3 player, a camera. It is a browser with a small form factor. It is a wizard-worthy map with a built-in compass (you still have to pull over to use it when driving). This multiplicity of function is perhaps transformative: it becomes more than the sum of its functions. A camera that can place your photos on a map? A phone that takes pictures of your contacts, or saves a link to that restaurant's web site? An oracle which can tell you what popular restaurants are open nearby, no matter where you are? I have known about all of these things conceptually for years, but experiencing them myself is really cool.

The most trite observation about camera phones, and one that I feel obliged to repeat, is that the best camera is the one that is with you. Last night I took a video of dry ice steaming in the rain. Last weekend we went to the zoo and all I brought was my iPhone. After a fancy dinner a couple weeks ago we stopped by Kerry Park on the way home, where I was able to take a picture of the Space Needle with its head in the clouds (the picture isn't that great due to the low light and inadequate zoom, but it's a good memory-jogger). My d90, while truly beautiful and amazing, was not ideal for any of those trips (though if I hadn't had a smartphone I would have brought it on the walk). I will enjoy seeing how far improvements of lens and CCD technology can go in eliminating the need for mid-range cameras (cf. Olympus Stylus, my old digital camera).

It is a great thing to have at hand while reading a book — unlike a laptop, I don't have to set my book aside when I look up a term on the iPhone. I reach for my laptop less often these days. In addition, I have actually started using Twitter. Previously it was a pain to get on Twitter to see updates; now I can check multiple times a day in a brief bored moment. I don't know that this is entirely a good thing, though. Perhaps I would instead have started thinking about something interesting, or started in on a creative endeavor. Then again, maybe I would just have been bored and unproductive for a few minutes. In any event, it's a habit that deserves to be questioned, and reigned in if it proves detrimental.

There are a few limitations of the device that I find frustrating. One is the number of steps required to do anything on a screen this small. Menus are sparse: if you want a slightly less common function, you have to go to a "More" menu or hint for it. It is decidedly non-obvious what features a phone will support. Features exposed by gestures such as click-and-hold are non-standardized and spotty. Apple has done a lot to standardize their UI conventions, but developers do not always follow these recommendations (and when they do, they do not do so either perfectly or uniformly).

The second limitation is typing. Typing makes browsing on an iPhone a less pleasant experience. I am used to popping open new tabs to look up a term, keeping a queue of things to read, and easily searching the current page for words. It makes passwords a pain-and-a-half, because strong passwords require a good mix of characters from different keyboards (for the uninitiated, iPhones have different keyboards optimized for words, numbers, punctuation, even email addresses and urls; the phone cannot fit a full keyboard at anything like a usable size). If I need to do anything involving serious browsing or content creation, I switch to my laptop.

That's the first round. I'm still forming my conclusions, so expect more updates as the months go by.