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Tuesday, August 28, 2007, 08:25 am PT (11:25 am ET)

iPhone Review Series: iPhone vs. Palm Treo 650


Phone and Contact Management

It's certainly not hard to place calls on the Palm Treo, but it offers little in terms of innovation. Software that doesn't grow simply dies.

In Palm's case, nothing has been done to really improve the overall experience of the Palm since 2004, apart from deals to load third party ads and trialware and service plans such as Palm's deal with Verizon to force syncing of some data over the network rather than over a local desktop sync.

This stagnation in the Palm OS occurred as Palm thrashed about with plans to deliver a new Palm OS 6, then move its platform to Linux, then move it to Windows Mobile. It is strikingly similar Apple's directionless funk of the mid 90s, or Microsoft's nearly identical inability to deliver upon its Windows initiatives since 2001. Palm's plans are in such upheaval that it stopped caring about its customers.

Smartphones based on Windows Mobile and Symbian only seem interested in copying and replacing the Palm OS, and offer only incremental advances in technical superiority. It's therefore quite obvious to see how far Apple has leapt past the Palm OS when comparing the iPhone.

The ability and simplicity of answering a secondary call and then merging the two lines into a conference call is something that was obviously needed long ago. No mobile providers gave much thought to delivering it, however.

I never attempted to set up conference calling on my Treo; it was problematic enough to simply hang up on one line while maintaining a call on the other. Every time I tried, I'd end up hanging up on both. I ended up just leaving the secondary call running in the background until I finished both calls.

That was a problem for me as a consumer, but didn't matter to Palm nor Sprint, my service provider. If anything, my problem was simply making Sprint incrementally richer. Since my purchase of the Palm Treo was heavily subsidized by Sprint, why would it — as the real customer — seek to fix such an annoying problem for me, when it was in Sprint's best interests to leave me with a frustrating phone?

Sprint's solution, of course, was to offer me a new phone every two years to ensure I'd sign up for another contract extension. This pattern of "don't fix it, replace it" works well for service providers and for hardware makers, but leaves customers livid that nothing ever works, and that nobody involved in the mobile business has any reason to care about users.

Apart from Apple, that is. Since Apple has the brand power to sell hardware without a subsidy shell game illusion, it can market directly to the consumer, and offer us a phone that really solves problems.

Contacts sync properly on the Mac, including contact photos set on on either the desktop or the iPhone itself. Call management is as simple as hitting one of a few buttons with clear and obvious functions.

Spin through contacts rapidly, even when on a phone call. There's no search function in contacts to look up a specific caller by typing a few letters of their name. Instead, Apple has an alphabet listing that lets you jump to a specific starting letter. This takes some getting used to if you're used to searching for contacts.

For users familiar with looking up contacts by searches, the iPhone's lack of search is a puzzling omission. This is also complicated by its lack of a voice dialing feature. Making the best use of the iPhone requires adapting to what it does offer.

While I'd like to see both searching and voice dial features added, the iPhone does offer some alternative ways to use contacts that help make up for those missing bits. The first is a favorites list that serves as a quick lookup list; along with the recent list, these two offer a quick way to dial common numbers, although both lie hidden behind the Phone icon, making it a two page navigation to locate them.

The other contacts feature that's unique to the iPhone is that it syncs with Address Book's Groups. That makes it very compelling to organize contacts on the desktop, and benefit from a consistent system of organized contacts on the iPhone as well.

For example, I have Groups that include Health Care, Clients, Family, and Friends. When I think I need to call one of the health care professionals that helps keep me in one piece, I don't have to think about whether I've entered their names as "Dr." or not, or riddle my brain with a search for what name to search for. Instead, I can simply narrow down the hundreds of contacts on my phone with a tap on Groups and then Health Care, giving me a short list of contacts I can scan through by name.

It's almost as if the iPhone were designed with the needs of a busy person with a failing memory in mind. Steve Jobs, thank you for making a device that works for those of us with too much information locked up in our brain to be able to reliably pull any of it out without some help. Jobs must be well aware of what its like to have more information to manage than one person ought.

All of the smart software advantages of the iPhone are also advanced by its improvements in hardware. Its touch screen actually responds to light finger touches, unlike the Palm's pressure sensitive screen, which only works well when using a clumsy stylus.

Visual voicemail is another example of Apple solving one of those obvious problems that wasn't a problem for the service provider. Nothing is a more frustrating waste of time on a mobile phone than navigating through messages by listening to a series of saved voicemails to get to the call you're interested in hearing, then trying to step through it several times in order it to write down the details you were after.

This wasn't a problem for service providers, as my frustrating experience with voicemail only ensured I was spending more minutes of my plan trying to hear my messages. Apple solved this for consumers in order to have fancy features desirable to consumers to show off the iPhone. It's now just as easy to use voicemail as email.

Internet, Maps, and Widgets

Browsing the web on a Treo is painful to say the least. Its built in browser offers both a full-screen view that attempts to render webpages as intended, and an optimized version that tries to fit web pages to its smaller screen. Both are troublesome, as the web is largely still stuck in the clutches of full page screens optimized specifically for an Internet Explorer experience on a Windows PC.

The promise of the web to be a cross platform, open, accessible, and device neutral way to publish information was thwarted by efforts on the part of Netscape and later Microsoft to tie the web to their own proprietary platform. The result is that webpages simply don't translate well to mobile devices.

The iPhone gets around that problem by not being a mobile version of the web. Instead, it incorporates a full Safari Web Kit engine that renders web pages the same way as the desktop Safari browser. The only difference is in its navigation features, which allow the user to zoom in and out of webpages using the first mainstream release of a truly resolution independent display.

The iPhone's browser zooms into any webpage section with a double tap, and also allows the user to scale the display to any magnification desired with a finger pinch. The display instantaneously redraws text at the set scale in high resolution. It is a joy to use the iPhone's web browser.

There are many web plugin features missing on the iPhone, including Flash, Java, SVG, and any audio or video codecs not supported by the iPod. However, the failure of all these formats to gain any real traction make their omission less than problematic. Java rarely shows up in client side applets anymore, and the standard for audio playback on the web has gravitated towards MP3 and its MPEG-4 successor, AAC.

While web video has mostly standardized behind either Flash's proprietary On2 video codec delivered via a Flash applet (such as YouTube) or H.263/DivX video also commonly delivered via Flash (such as Google Video), Google partnered with Apple to deliver YouTube content via the new MPEG-4 H.264 codec. That new standard is supported in the iPod, iPhone, and Apple TV using hardware acceleration.

Adobe is also moving Flash to H.264 and away from its former On2 codec, in order to power a new generation of devices from Apple and others that can decode such video using specialized commodity video processing chips. That means that Flash support is not only unnecessary now, but will only become more compatible in the future as the industry unites behind common standards rather than those proprietary to a specific vendor, such as Microsoft's Windows Video codecs.

Palm certainly isn't leading the push toward standard video, and only offers the most basic support for standards based web browsing. That results in a painful web browsing experience common to most other smartphones.

In addition to the Safari web browser, Apple also includes specialized web data clients, including the Google YouTube viewer, a custom Google Maps client, and Weather and Stocks clients for viewing Yahoo's web services. All of these clients provide widget-like simplicity for looking up common information, and will likely be augmented by new services in the future. Apple has hinted at a Movies dashboard widget in Leopard based on Fandango services, which is likely to become the next widget for the iPhone as well.

Google Maps deserves its own article, but here, it simply offers another example of how the iPhone elegantly solves a problem that other mobiles didn't even recognize to be a problem. I downloaded a third party Google Maps client for the Treo, but found it impossible and clumsy to use. The iPhone's client not only looks great, but it actually works very well for looking up information.

It's a combination of a phonebook, a Google search, a direction mapping tool with step by step instructions, a freeway traffic indicator, and a street map and satellite images browser. It's a reason to buy an iPhone unto itself.

The main downside to the iPhone's rich Internet capabilities is its relatively slow EDGE data service, which is about twice as fast as ISDN. Wags like to describe it as "dial up speed," but that's only because too many technically incompetent fools seem able to maintain their jobs as journalists covering the tech world.

While EDGE is only about a quarter of the speed of an ideal 3G connection, it is very usable for maps and even, surprisingly, YouTube. That's because Apple has optimized its YouTube support (as well as its guidelines for mobile video) to support both EDGE style service and higher bandwidth service.

To really be blown away by the iPhone experience, you'll need a WiFi connection, something that relatively few other smartphones support. While a 3G iPhone would be nice to have, 3G service is currently a battery hog, even when only using it for voice calls. As is typically the case with Apple products, the iPhone makes use of the best options available, not the most attractive sounding technical bullet points.

Compared to the Treo, the iPhone makes ideal use of WiFi when available while also working acceptably when it has to fall back to EDGE service. The Treo struggles to work even with the fastest of data services, and simply can't do a fraction of what the iPhone can in terms of browsing the web, searching for maps, looking up common information, and, quite obviously, providing a rich experience for web audio and video.

One very clear missing feature of the iPhone is its inability to be used as a tethered Internet access point, also known as a Dial Up Networking service after Windows' DUN control panel. That means you can't connect an iPhone to your laptop and use its mobile data service to browse the web or check email. This appears to be a limitation imposed by AT&T, which doesn't seem to allow this for any of its phones.

While DUN features would come in very handy, the iPhone's own rich Internet service does help to offset this lacking feature somewhat. Users who need mobile data service on their laptop will have to obtain a wireless data card for it, because there's no included way to either tether the iPhone or configure it to share its EDGE connection via either Bluetooth or WiFi to a computer.

On Page 3: Email, Calendar, and Mac Friendly.