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Confessions of an iPhone Convert

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As I write this, it's my two-month anniversary of being an iPhone owner. (We're celebrating by taking a vacation to Italy together; my wife, who has sometimes referred to herself as an "iPhone widow," is coming too.) What's surprising from my current vantage point is that I spent a number of months fully convinced that I was outside the target audience for this device, and that, cool as it unarguably was, I simply would never own an iPhone (or its slimmer sibling, the iPod touch). When I first got my iPhone 3G, I posted some thoughts on what had persuaded me to change my mind (see "Totally an iPhone 3G Owner," 2008-07-17). Now that I've lived with it for a while, I've learned that I was right about some things and wrong about others - and some aspects of the iPhone experience (both good and bad) have surprised me.

If you're thinking about joining the millions of (usually) happy iPhone or iPod touch owners but are still on the fence - or if you, like early-2008 Joe, think it just isn't worth it - perhaps you'll find my observations helpful in deciding one way or the other.

Price -- Let's get the whole money thing out of the way first. iPhones, though cheaper now than before thanks to the carrier subsidies, are still not cheap, and monthly voice-and-data plans are also rather pricey. Sure, they're in the ballpark of what you'd pay for other comparable devices and perhaps (depending on your calling habits) not hugely more expensive than a standard cell phone plan. Even so, monthly service is a nontrivial financial commitment for most of us. Obviously, an iPod touch requires just the single up-front payment (and, of course, the occasional $10 software update fee), but it lacks the phone, camera, and GPS. Depending on your needs, that trade-off may make perfect sense, or it may kill the entire appeal.

The reduction in initial cost overcame a big barrier for me, and though I dislike having to pay so much money per month, I do believe I'm getting more than I pay for. That is, the increase in productivity and the decrease in lost time much more than make up for the extra monthly expense. If I can do more paying work during the day simply by reclaiming time that would otherwise be wasted, that's a big deal to me.

There is one niggling issue, though, and that is international roaming. The costs of making calls and transferring data when away from your home country have been much discussed, and though I don't want to belabor them here, they can certainly become a concern for anyone who travels abroad. Given the nature of the plan I have with Orange here in France, roaming within Europe isn't too bad, but roaming to, say, North America is another story. Before I head to San Francisco for Macworld Expo in January, I'll probably pay Orange 100 euros to unlock my phone (it'd be free if I could wait another couple of weeks until my six-month anniversary), and then buy a prepaid SIM card with a data plan for use in the United States. I suspect the combined cost will be less than what I'd pay for voice and data roaming during my trip.

Productivity vs. Entertainment -- Needless to say, if you see an iPhone or iPod touch primarily as an entertainment device rather than a productivity device, you have to determine how much that entertainment is worth to you. For me, the music, videos, and games are merely the icing on the cake, not the reason for owning the device.

One of the reasons I thought I wouldn't benefit from an iPhone is that I work at home and, like a good Parisian, shun exercise for its own sake - so I don't really need a portable gadget for listening to music or watching videos. My failure to think of my iPhone as an iPod is so complete that I have never, even once, thought to take my earphones with me when leaving the house. I'll see someone listening to an iPod and think, "Oh yeah, I guess I could be listening to music now too." But that's not what's interesting to me about the iPhone.

My iPhone has enabled me to be more productive by, for example, answering email and catching up on my RSS feeds while on the Metro to run an errand across town, a frequent occurrence. As I'll describe in a moment, it's saved me all kinds of grief by enabling me to produce just about any piece of information I may need while I'm out and about. I've used it as a remote control while watching movies from my Mac mini; I'll also use it as a remote control when giving Keynote presentations in person. And I've even - I'll regret admitting this, I'm sure - sent email from the bathtub to my wife in the next room.

In short, it's become an extremely handy tool, both around the house and around town. I use it primarily as a reference book and a communication device - usually for email, occasionally for voice, hardly ever for SMS, and only on rare occasions for music or video.

Head-slappers -- Owning an iPhone has also been a headache, in that I keep slapping myself on the forehead after forgetting I have a gadget in my pocket that could have alleviated some hassle I just went through. I'm not yet used to having access to the Web, my email, my photos, and most of my files at all times. For example:

  • I was chatting with a friend about a trip to Spain earlier this year, and how lovely one of the little towns was that we'd visited. While struggling to describe it, I remembered that I probably had all my photos from that trip on my iPhone, because I'd selected the option to sync every photo taken within the last year. Seconds later I was in show-and-tell mode.
  • I purchased tickets for a Suzanne Vega concert online (n.b., she's a fellow Mac user), and opted to pick them up at a local Virgin outlet rather than having them mailed. So I went to the store with my credit card, having forgotten that I also needed the confirmation number I got by email. When the clerk rebuffed me, I promised to go home and fetch the number - but as soon as I walked out the door I remembered that I had access to all the email in my IMAP account on my iPhone, so I just looked up that email message, went back in, showed it to the clerk, and walked out with my tickets.
  • My wife and I were at a restaurant discussing travel plans, puzzling over where certain spots in Rome were and how to get between them. Then I realized: I do happen to have a map of Italy in my pocket. A few taps later, I'd zoomed in on a satellite image of the Colosseum.
  • While at Apple Expo I received an email asking for a certain phone number. I remembered picking up a piece of paper the other day that listed this number, and thought I'd have to call home and ask my wife to rummage through some folders to find it. But wait! I routinely scan every piece of paper that comes across my desk, and I recently started using SugarSync to synchronize (among other things) the folder that contains all my scanned PDFs with their online service (see "SugarSync Sweetens Online Syncing," 2008-08-30). So, even though I'd never synced that particular document to my iPhone, I was able to download it and view its contents from the floor of a convention center.

Traveling Light -- The vacation on which I'm about to embark will be computer-free - a real stretch for me. I'm trying to avoid doing or even thinking about work, but I take tremendous comfort in knowing that I'll have access to my email and the Web wherever I go. Not only that, but I can (should the need arise) connect to my Xserve remotely to reboot it, upgrade my blogging software, or run disk repair utilities. If an editor emails me a Word or PDF file that urgently needs commenting or review, I can handle it from my phone. If a colleague needs a file that's on my MacBook Pro at home, I can most likely fetch it and email it to them - even though my home computer will be turned off. And so on. I have also, of course, loaded an Italian phrase book!

Clutter Reduction -- It's great to have a single small object that substitutes for the phone, camera, map, French dictionary, and notebook I'd otherwise have to carry. And yet, one way the iPhone has failed to live up to my expectations is, ironically, in ease of use.

Let's say I'm standing on a Paris street corner trying to figure out which Metro line to take across town. The old way of determining this would be to pull out a map book, flip open the front cover, and go, "Aha." The new way is to take out my iPhone, press the Home button to turn it on, drag the slider to unlock it, enter my passcode (a necessity for me since my iPhone contains lots of personal data), press the Home button again to display my apps, slide over to the screen with my Metro map, tap the icon, wait for it to load, and then find my location. It takes a lot longer to do all those things, so most of the time if my wife is with me she'll pull her map out of her purse and figure out where we need to go before I've gotten past the first screen.

This is just one example of many. As with any good multitasker (such as the proverbial Swiss Army Knife - and yes, I carry around one of those too), you trade usability for flexibility. You wouldn't carve a steak or build a house with the tools in your Swiss Army Knife, but when you'd otherwise be stuck, something is better than nothing. The iPhone doesn't have the greatest email client or text editor or map program or camera, but it has ones that are good enough for quickly performing minor tasks on the go.

The question is, does the reduction of objects make up for the loss of quality and efficiency? Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. Although the iPhone does many things quite well, when I start seriously considering carrying, say, a map or a notebook around with me again, that means my multitasking marvel didn't meet even my basic needs in that category.

Speaking of notebooks... The iPhone is - let me be frank - a truly terrible device for doing any sort of writing (regardless of which spiffy text editor you've installed). Notwithstanding my relatively small fingers and the built-in text correction feature, I end up with tons of errors in even short, simple chunks of text, and the whole process is far more tedious than I imagined. The lack of copy and paste is certainly a huge irritant too, as that could save me a great deal of typing.

But the very lamest thing of all about the current iPhone, in my opinion, is that it cannot synchronize notes or to-do items. On Mac OS X, Mail and iCal can share to-do items, and you can sync notes from Mail with your other Macs via MobileMe. But you can't sync the iPhone's Notes with Mail's notes (or any other application), and the iPhone can't even display to-do items, much less sync them, without third-party software. I've tried a number of iPhone apps that can synchronize their own private notes and/or to-do items with a Web-based service or, in some cases, with a proprietary desktop application - but as far as I know, there is currently no way at all to synchronize those two basic and essential kinds of data between the software included with the iPhone and Mac OS X.

(An aside here: I'm not asking for recommendations; I'm merely venting. I know lots of developers are trying very hard to crack this nut, and though I haven't been entirely satisfied with any of the solutions I've found so far, I'm sure one of them will get there eventually. It's just the principle of the thing - I can't believe Apple has made it this hard.)

Along the same lines, another hope I had for the iPhone was that it would make a handy voice recorder. My French skills being what they are, I frequently have conversations in which I absorb only about half of what the other person is saying. I always wish I could record it and play it back later to figure out what I missed. Well, again, if it takes me 20 seconds of tapping, sliding, and waiting to get to the point where audio is being recorded, it's too late. With a conventional digital recorder in my pocket, I'd press one button (or maybe two) and be recording in under a second.

Failing the Impromptu Demo Test -- The built-in GPS has been a godsend on several occasions. But because the iPhone relies on a data connection to download and display maps, its operation isn't always what it should be. One evening my wife and I were walking along the Seine, and some tourists came up to us to ask where the nearest Metro stop was. I didn't know offhand, so I pulled out my iPhone, turned it on, and tapped the Maps icon, thinking I'd instantly get a map showing our current location and, of course, all the Metro stops in the vicinity. I'd done that many times before without any trouble. On this occasion, though, the map didn't load. I tried toggling 3G, but that didn't help. Not knowing what else to do, I turned off the phone and waited for it to restart. By this time, the tourists had gotten completely fed up with me and asked if I couldn't just point them in the general direction of a likely stop. So I did, and about 30 seconds later, the map finally showed up on the screen.

I don't know what they murmured to themselves as they walked away, but I imagine it was some combination of "what an idiot" and "what a stupid phone." I thought I was going to show off this impressive capability of a powerful device, and I only got egg on my face.

Then there was the time I was at a government office and had to look up a phone number on my iPhone. I went to Contacts and tapped in the right place, but the screen froze. After some time, I managed to get to the contact I wanted, but when I accidentally tapped the screen while trying to scroll, the phone began dialing the contact (a process that, as a side effect, hid the number from view). By the time I got back to the screen I wanted, three public servants were laughing and trading jokes about my iPhone. Well, I knew this was a powerful device, but I had no idea it had the power to make a French bureaucrat crack a smile. That's amazing! I must use this feature more often.

Wishing for More -- For every wonderful capability the iPhone has, I find myself wishing it were just a touch more fantastic. For example, I've been using Evernote to snap photos of signs, menus, and the like. When I do this, the phone uploads the photos to Evernote's servers, which use OCR software to find the text in the images and index their contents in a few minutes. So I can search (on my phone or on my Mac) for the name of a dish on a menu at a restaurant where I ate last month and find it instantly. That's very cool, but what I really want is for my iPhone to give me a rapid English translation of that text. All it would require is sending the text through any of the many machine translation services out there, but as things stand now, I can't get that all in one package.

Similarly, I sometimes use Jott to record short memos to myself that are converted into editable, searchable text by a combination of speech recognition software and human transcriptionists. Even better would be a service that lets me record someone speaking French and give me an English translation of the text (or vice versa). Sure, it would be rough, but in some situations, anything is better than nothing.

Final Thoughts -- The thing that made me realize the iPhone was worth the money was simply realizing that it would serve me best as a tool rather than as a toy. As tools go, it achieves some things far better than I'd ever imagined, and fails at some things I assumed it would get right. On the whole, though, I am happy with my choice. Unlike most tools, this one stands a good chance of becoming even better in the future, thanks to software updates. It does make my wife a bit jealous, but I think I can make it up to her by having my iPhone order her some great Italian food.


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