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My First Days with the iPhone

While stopped at a traffic light north of Seattle yesterday, the driver in the car to the right of us gestures through the window. Did we leave our gas tank door open when we left the station a moment ago? No. “Hey,” he says to my wife Lynn after she and he have rolled down their respective windows, “Is that an iPhone?”

The day before – the day after the iPhone went on sale – walking through a festival at a nearby community park and museum, I pull out my iPhone to take a picture of my son Ben standing next to an historic bell. An older Japanese woman says to me, “4 gigabytes or 8 gigabytes?”

Those two experiences sum up the intense interest that Apple managed to generate around the iPhone through a combination of indifference, secrecy, and strategic information release.

I bought an iPhone Friday night, and the experience was both fun and instructive. After two days of use, I’m very pleased with the combination phone, iPod, and Internet device. It has proven invaluable in a couple of cases, and it has already failed me, too.

Astute readers may know that last week I wrote a column for The New York Post in which I presented the reasons why people who didn’t fit into the early adopter or business traveler categories should wait to buy the next-generation model. My suggestions from that article still stand: there’s good reason to wait until the next release, but likely less reason to wait beyond that one. (The article was labeled by Post editors as a “first review” and the version that appeared implied that I had recent experience with an iPhone. However, I hadn’t touched one since January; see “iTouched an iPhone,” 2007-01-15. For my account of writing the Post article, see my blog entry “Glenn Stabbed in Nude iPhone Review!“)

The Worst Part Was (Not) the Waiting — Purchasing a new iPhone wasn’t the ordeal I expected. While the line was long at the University Village Apple Store, it moved quickly and there were plenty – and I mean plenty – of iPhones left in view by the time I reached the door.

I had arrived after 5:00 PM to check out the scene, and take a bunch of photographs. This particular Apple Store, the first of Apple’s stores to open in the Northwest, had a line with at least 300 people waiting. Only a few had been there more than a day, and many just a few hours. A nearby AT&T Store had a line of perhaps 60 people. (TidBITS Contributing Editor Mark Anbinder and various TidBITS readers also contributed photos to the Flickr pool.)

I waited near the entrance until 6:00 PM to watch the Apple Store open, and dozens of people were allowed in initially. I left to get into the shorter AT&T Store line, figuring that I’d do better there. After 20 minutes of waiting, however, only a few people had left with iPhones.

Another person in line popped up front and discovered that AT&T was forcing everyone to buy accessories. This was confirmed by Brier Dudley, a reporter for The Seattle Times, who bought his model at a different AT&T Store, as well as by reports from across the country. It wasn’t a corporate-directed mandate, because apparently signs were hand-lettered, and the deal was different everywhere. Most stores didn’t seem to have this requirement.

Customers at AT&T Stores that did were told that they had to buy an accessory package, comprising a car charger and some other item, typically running $50 or more, and that they could return items for a full refund either the next day or within 14 days.

This was a punk move by AT&T, and I imagine it will involve CEO-to-CEO conversations between AT&T head Randall Stephenson and Steve Jobs. These were all company-owned stores, so there’s no one to blame but upper or middle management. I expect that the firm just engaged in commonplace upsell tactics with an exclusive phone. But they lost a lot of individual good will, and the stories that spread will keep people out of AT&T Stores in the future to avoid that kind of nonsense.

I left the AT&T Store line, and returned to the Apple Store, where half the line had already been served by 6:30 PM. I was in the store within 20 minutes and out of the store 2 minutes later. Anyone arriving at 7:00 PM would have waited no more than five minutes. There was clearly a large supply on display, and store employees brought out large bins of iPhones from the back.

The sleazy tactics at the AT&T Store near me weren’t universal, thank goodness. TidBITS friend and Take Control editor Karen Anderson spent a chunk of Friday waiting at another nearby mall at an AT&T Store, and had a quick and pleasant experience in purchasing her iPhone. (Karen is a former Apple employee.)

While waiting, I and a few people around me discussed the arbitrage of the iPhone availability. When we were far from the store, we all thought we’d buy two, and immediately sell one for a higher price on Craigslist. As we got closer, we realized that initial demand might not outstrip supply. In the end, we all bought only one each.

One bit of wisdom acquired in the Apple Store is that while the iPhone is covered by Apple’s warranty today – AT&T doesn’t offer its usual terrible cell phone damage/loss insurance – Apple will be offering some AppleCare deal in July. Two store employees described this separately; I haven’t been able to find details on either company’s site yet.

iPhone availability apparently is fluctuating, with AT&T Stores reporting mostly being out of iPhones on Saturday, but Apple Stores receiving what sounds like a regular wave of shipments. Apple created an iPhone retail store availability page that indicates whether iPhones are available at area retail stores.

Pleasant, Like a Cool Bath on a Sultry Day — Activating the iPhone was as simple for me as Apple and AT&T claimed it would be. It was a few steps and a few minutes to upgrade my existing AT&T cell phone account, transfer my phone number, and be up and running.

Two Macworld editors had worse luck: one had a problem with a business account that had been converted to a personal account last week in preparation, while the other got a dud iPhone. Both had their situations resolved within a day or so. Reports indicate that many people had hang ups (figurative and literal) in getting their iPhones activated. It’s hard to know what percentage of all activations were so affected, however.

My reaction so far is that the iPhone is the most remarkable cell phone I’ve ever used, and that Apple made a lot of good design decisions. It works more or less as advertised, and nothing is actually broken in my testing. Missing features or a lack of certain controls doesn’t equate to broken, and it leaves room for improvement in small ways that will make a big difference in future software or hardware versions.

It’s wonderful to pull the iPhone out of my pocket, hit the unlock button and slide my finger, and then have access to a pile of my personal information, the Web, email, a camera, and a phone. Within a day, I found myself reflexively pulling it out or grabbing it even when a laptop was nearby.

My wife and I were at a park, and we couldn’t remember the name of some actor, and I said, hey, I could look it up! We both laughed, but if we were about 10 percent more geeky, I would have done it.

The resolution, brightness, and clarity are just extraordinary. It’s not just that rendered and photographic images snap, but that even the smallest type is still somewhat legible. When I saw early shots of the iPhone, I assumed that rendered text had been inserted into screen displays. In fact, even when I’m looking at the iPhone screen, I have the sense that I’m seeing something not quite real, because of the quality of the anti-aliased type. That brightness makes it work well even in bright outdoor light.

I hate to say it, but a 10-inch handheld version of this thing would be an incredibly useful item for many homes, even though I’ve never before thought stripped-down computers without keyboards were useful. Add Apple TV features for local network streaming with 802.11n, and I could see a future for such a device in a way the ultra-mobile PCs, tablet PCs, and other similar devices never had.

Some Shortfalls — The most talked-about feature of the iPhone was the decision to not include a physical keyboard, offering a “glass” one for greater flexibility. What was less clear at that time is that the onscreen keyboard shows just letters in a typewriter arrangement; numbers and punctuation marks are reached by tapping another button. (This is oddly similar to how Baudot code, one of the earliest data encoding schemes, used an average of five-and-a-half bits to carry text.)

After two days, I’m still finding it awkward and frustrating to use the keyboard. I’ve been a touch typist for 27 years, since I was 11, and can learn most keyboard layouts in minutes. I type well over 100 words per minute on a QWERTY keyboard. And I may be too old to convert well to the iPhone. I’ll report as my brain retrains.

The auto-correction and auto-prediction does work reasonably well; I’m not sure if it has heuristics to learn what I normally type or not, but it seems to know my name already.

The keyboard method comes into play most irritatingly, however, when entering passwords. Passwords are almost universally case-sensitive, meaning “TidBITS” is different than “tidbits” which is different than “TiDbItS”. When entering a password on a Web site or in settings fields throughout the system, the iPhone keyboard hides characters after you type each one. But the keyboard shows only uppercase letters as you type regardless of whether Shift or Caps Lock is engaged. This approach causes cognitive dissonance when you type an “e”, the keyboard shows an “E”, and then the letter appears as a bullet in the password field.

The Safari browser works quite well, producing stunningly rendered pages that can be zoomed in and out with a finger gesture or set of taps. Double tapping any part of a Web page zooms to the width of that particular CSS or table column – a neat trick. But even when you rotate the iPhone into landscape orientation, it can still be difficult to achieve the right combination of magnification to read lengthy text.

I hope Apple considers adding accessibility features that typically abled people might use, too, such as a tap command that would extract the text in the current column to display in larger type or without much formatting, while still allowing a toggle back to the normal view.

On the communications side, the most frustrating part of the iPhone is the reliance on the old and slow EDGE network for data access outside of Wi-Fi networks; the related part is AT&T’s failure to offer a Wi-Fi hotspot subscription plan. (I have a rundown on Wi-Fi options for the iPhone at Macworld.)

Every time I switched to the EDGE network when roaming around the last couple of days, I groaned. The network was sometimes not available – a tiny E next to the AT&T network text would disappear – or speeds were only slightly faster than a dial-up modem. I did occasionally see something like the average 100 to 200 Kbps that AT&T has said its subscribers should expect.

An entirely new iPhone model will be needed when AT&T completes its third-generation (3G) cell data network. That network will be done this year, and the chips Jobs said he needed will certainly be available by year’s end, too. That could put a 3G iPhone in the January Macworld Expo announcement time frame.

Changes to all the software, of course, are much simpler, and can be rolled out at will by Apple and AT&T as they continue development. I expect there’s a laundry list of features that didn’t make the cut for launch, and I predict that before the end of July, a minor update will add a lot of bits and pieces. For instance, when using Google Maps, you can’t point to a location and make that a bookmark – a rather insane missing feature for a map application.

But it’s also worth noting, as Salon’s Fahrad Manjoo pointed out, that we’re completely reliant on Apple and AT&T here – they must have the same priorities as us to change and enhance the phone’s software. He wrote that he knew that his critique of missing software features would result in fanboy email claiming the software was malleable and updatable. Sure, he said, but “that I have to depend on Apple – rather than on a wide world of software developers – to fix what’s wrong doesn’t entirely comfort me.”

And that’s exactly it. We at TidBITS are fervent supporters of application developers; the Mac is what it is because of the dedication for personal joy or financial gain or both that programmers and software firms have brought to the platform. And that has to come to the iPhone, too. After Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, Jobs has made more broadly worded statements that third-party development will be possible, and some kind of certification program will be in place. Let’s hope we see it sooner rather than later.

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