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Monday, July 02, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Apple's iPhone: an initial (but in-depth) review


Email, Messaging, and Networks

Despite the populist meme that the iPhone would not be "compatible with corporate email," it has no problem accessing standard POP and IMAP mail, as noted in "Using Apple's iPhone in the Enterprise." Users who are not allowed to connect to their company's IMAP email service remotely should try connecting to their office using the built in VPN client. 

I have more testing to do, but it would appear that the iPhone offers the same PPTP and L2TP VPN client software as the desktop version of Mac OS X does, suggesting similar results between the two. Corporate VPN systems that require a non-standard VPN client are unlikely to work with the iPhone's software, particularly hardware VPNs by vendors that provide poor Mac support such as Cisco and SonicWall. Microsoft's PPTP VPN software that ships with Windows Server does seem to work well with the built-in Mac client, and should therefore work with the iPhone. Once connected to a corporate network via a VPN tunnel, an iPhone user should be able to access their email just as if they were actually connected on location with their company's private internal network.

The email application itself is the best email client I've ever seen in a mobile device. It supports HTML email and graphic attachments, and is the preferred way to send messages to other iPhones or computer users. While it supports replying and forwarding emails, there is no option to reply to all, making it clumsy to respond to emails with multiple parties addressed as blinds or carbon copies.

There is no email spam filter on the iPhone itself, leaving users at the mercy of their company's or service provider's server-side spam filters. Users deluged by spam can also choose to set up email forwarding through a separate private account, and only forward emails from known users. Mail also lacks a mass delete or multiple delete option, making spam deletion a manual per item task.

The iPhone's interface encourages the use of free Mail over fee-based SMS messaging. The web browser "shares" URLs by inserting them into emails, with no option for texting them instead. Notes similarly provides one button forwarding of a note's text to Mail, but no option for sending it to SMS. Because the iPhone has no other mechanism for copying text, this actively discourages users from sending out SMS messages by default, forcing them to manually type out SMS texts instead.

Email also provides virtually unlimited text content, where SMS has a limit of 160 characters that can be sent per message. The iPhone only "attaches" one photo per email, because there is really no way to attach files directly; users simply push the photo to Email from the Camera application. There is no option to send photos from the Camera to other applications beyond Mail, aside from using the photo as a background wallpaper or assigning it to a specific contact.

Many smartphones do not support emails with inline graphics, making it somewhat clumsy to send them photos via email. Simpler "feature phones" can't receive mails with photo attachments at all. That's why many phones support MMS, the multimedia version of SMS texting.

iPhone


However, both SMS and MMS are anchored to the mobile industry, and are billed by the message rather than being included in most all you can eat data services. The iPhone does not support "texting photos" using MMS at all, although it does support SMS for texting other mobile phone users. Incoming SMS messages appear in a translucent overlay over the main screen, even when phone is locked.

To send photos taken with the built in Camera app, the iPhone uses Mail, just as a desktop computer would. Hopefully, SMS will go away as more mobile devices become standard email clients.

There is also no support on the iPhone for AOL Instant Messaging or Skype VoIP audio chats, but like SMS, it would be best if both proprietary systems went away completely and were instead replaced by and open Jabber and SIP-based chat client that could handle both instant messaging and voice chats, just like Apple's own iChat client.

Some have speculated that Apple agreed not to provide an iChat app for the iPhone in order to prop up AT&T's SMS business model, which allows it to charge extra for individual messages. All AT service plans include 200 text messages, but anyone under 30 has no problem firing out 1000 or more text messages per month, requiring a special SMS plan rider that AT&T would hate to give up. At the same time, Apple has marginalized the SMS client on the iPhone to the point where users have to go out of their way to send text messages. The iPhone subtly pushes users toward Mail at every opportunity.

The New PDA: Contacts, and Calendar, and Data Sync Features

After mobile phones began delivering simple organizer features around 2002, the market for standalone PDAs began to dry up quickly. Even so, the high end of smartphones haven't done a great job in delivering outstanding examples of a mobile calendar and contact application. Many phones also have sync problems or limitations in what types of data they can sync with a PC.

The iPhone extends the work Apple has already done in its own Sync Services and in iTunes. The iPhone only syncs with iTunes, which is also required to authorize the phone initially. Users can't copy over songs or movies manually, and song files can't even be copied individually inside iTunes; it only syncs songs with selected playlists.

There is no way to mount the iPhone as a disk device either. There are no files to manage anywhere, no filenames, no folders, and no disks anywhere in the iPhone world.

The iPhone also lacks any support for syncing over Bluetooth or WiFi, requiring the included iPhone dock or an iPod USB dock connector cable. While it might seem like a good idea, sync over WiFi at a typical 6-20 Mbit/sec would be many times slower than over USB 2.0's 480 Mbit/sec speed. Bluetooth 2.0 EDR, which offers a top potential of 3 Mb/sec, would be even slower, making it completely pointless for media file syncing. However, Bluetooth data sync for contact and calendar data might make some sense in a future revision.

The real problem with wireless desktop sync is that there's too much to sync on the iPhone. When including large media files, bookmarks, account information, and other data, it doesn't make sense to only sync a few things wirelessly with a desktop PC. Since the iPhone has to be recharged regularly anyway, it makes little sense to use a radio to sync portions of its data at incremental periods in between charges.

Further, why sync wirelessly with the desktop at all? Why not just sync that data over the Internet via WiFi at regular intervals instead? Mail already does this, but the iPhone's Calendar and Contacts do not currently have the capacity to sync with a server over the Internet in the same way. Expect that to change in an upcoming software update, particularly now that Apple is pushing into the calendar and directory server market with Leopard Server. Apple is also likely to open up integration with .Mac sync independent of iTunes, so iPhones could sync their calendars directly with a .Mac schedule over the web rather than using a local desktop sync.

Until that happens, the iPhone's Calendar and Contacts only sync with the desktop using iTunes, and only over USB. On a PC, it iTunes syncs with Outlook, while the Mac version syncs with Mac OS X's included apps. In Leopard, iCal will turn into a full system wide calendar store, allowing any application to access event data, just as is now possible with Address Book for contacts. Notes is also scheduled to sync with the desktop in Leopard. The other missing bit of organizer data is To Do events, which aren't on the iPhone at all yet. That's likely because the iPhone is also waiting for Leopard's retrofitted To Do architecture, where it will also be integrated into the system-wide calendar store.

The iPhone's Calendar application is clean and uncluttered. It provides a nice itinerary-style listing of the day's events in addition to daily and monthly calendar views. The day view shows the day by hours, with events appearing as iCal-like bubbles sized in proportion to the event length. The month view adds a monthly calendar, while the list view simply lists the day's events in a simple time sequence.

Contacts do not appear on the iPhone's home screen; they appear under the Phone page. Contacts are listed in the same style as the iPod songs, which makes it easy to spin through long lists and find a given name. There's no way to bring up the keyboard to find a contact directly. There's a tiny listing of the alphabet on the right edge of the screen that lets you jump to a letter, but the finger flick method for quickly spinning though names is so fast that its not difficult to find a name. This does require reading through lots of listings however. Apart from a favorites list of commonly called users, there isn't any fast way to pull up a name without some finger scrub searching.

Next to the Contacts list under Phone is the Recent listing, which shows all calls placed. Missed calls are listed in red, and can be isolated from placed calls by tapping the missed calls button. Oddly, the Recent listing does not distinguish between incoming and outgoing calls in the list. Touching a name in the Recent list immediately calls the person back. To examine the details of the call, you have to tap the more icon, which brings up the caller's contact page and a listing of all the recent calls made with that contact by date and time. It does not record each call's duration, which would be nice to have.

There is only an indication of whether a recent call was incoming or outgoing on the actual contact information page, not in the recent call listing itself. In cases where the caller's contact page lists multiple home, work and mobile numbers, there is also only a subtle clue given as to which number the caller dialed from: the incoming number that attempted the missed call is highlighted in red, while the number used to make a completed call is listed in blue. If a caller's number has been added to your favorites page, a star marks the favorite number.

All of this attention to detail suggests the iPhone is actually on revision 3 or 4, not the first edition of a brand new platform. It also erases any remaining credibility of the pundits who lined up to declare the iPhone was "not a very good phone" before ever having seen it.

iPhone


The iPhone Phone

As a phone, the iPhone is slick and easy to use. It's not just a basic GSM phone however, it's a handheld computer that also happens to use a GSM SIM card to access AT&T's mobile network. While lots of people will be working to hack around that limitation, it won't be simple. The iPhone's software image is encrypted, and the unit ties its internal software to the iPhone's GSM SIM card at activation. That means users won't be able to pop out their existing SIM card and plug it into the iPhone, although the iPhone's SIM card may work in other GSM phones.

Users with contacts saved to their existing SIM card need to sync them to their computer before transferring their account during activation, because the iPhone doesn't integrate its own contacts with the SIM card's stored numbers.

The iPhone's very attractive new visual voicemail feature, its integration with contacts, and the drop dead simplicity of setting up merged conference calls make the iPhone a significant leap ahead of more basic smartphones. My Palm Treo drove me nuts because its call waiting feature made it impossible to dismiss a second call without hanging up on both calls. The iPhone's easy to read display of options makes it extremely simple to actually use the iPhone as a phone, and makes more advanced features very accessible.

The phone itself has good sound quality but was only loud enough in my testing when the volume was turned all the way up. I still have good hearing; some have complained that it isn't loud enough. When using the included headphones, the phone seems a lot easier to hear. In either case, callers reported no problem hearing me, and I'm not a loud talker. I've never used headphones with a mobile phone before, but the integration with music playback makes it an attractive option. The Apple's $130 Bluetooth headset was not yet available to review.

The iPhone's speakerphone was clear and easy to use, but does not get extremely loud either. Because the iPhone makes setting up a conference call so easy, I found myself using the feature with a speakerphone far more frequently that I have on other mobiles.

iPhone


There is no current support for voice activated dialing, making the favorites contact list the fastest way to place a call. The iPhone appears to only support pairing with one Bluetooth device at a time, and currently only with a headset, making it impossible to use it with car integration or multiple devices at once. That is likely to change in future software upgrades.

There is only a short list of basic ringtones, and no options for buying jingles that mobile operators love to sell for $2 or more. Eagle-eyed observers watching the early demonstrations of the iPhone's sync interface in iTunes noticed that internal builds of iTunes had a Ringtones tab, which has since gone missing. The iTunes license was also altered to prohibit users from using purchased songs as ringtones, a move that could only have been prompted by the RIAA. Until Apple sets up a deal with the labels to allow songs or other audio clips for use on the iPhone, its ringtones will be limited to a variety of simple blips.

The most difficult aspect of the phone for some may be activation. Several users reported struggling for hours to transfer their accounts, stymied by AT&T's confusion over phone number prefixes that can only be set up if the user supplies an address for the area associated with their phone number. AT&T also gave some users a frustratingly long runaround because their account had been associated with a business account in the past, or because their existing number was part of a family plan.

Transferring my own phone number from Sprint during activation was completely painless however. Incoming calls continued to be routed to my previous phone for almost 24 hours before I received a confirmation text from AT&T confirming that the transfer was completed. No doubt Verizon and Sprint lost many of their best customers this weekend.

On page 4: "Impossibly Small", "Impossibly Solid First Generation Software", and "Impossibly Familiar and Intuitive," "Impossibly Smart," "Impossibly Minor Flaws," "Engineered to be Mobile," and "Text Entry: Think Different?"