The Allure of the iPhone

23:44 Mon 24 Sep 2007
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When the iPhone came out a few months back, I had no desire to get one. It was massively hyped, but I’m not really an Apple fanboy, and there were too many downsides. The first downside, of course, was the $600 price tag. Apart from that, I couldn’t stand the fact that it’s so locked down, both in terms of the SIM card and the contract with AT&T, and in terms of the software applications. I already don’t like AT&T (who were Cingular back then), and want to get out of my contract so that I can get one that’s better tuned to my fairly sparse use of cellphone minutes—so having to sign up for a more expensive plan for an additional two years doesn’t sound good at all.

Also, I’ve never been an iPod user. I’ve never wanted one, and hate the way they too are locked down (and won’t play Ogg files). I’ve got plenty of choice in that market, however, and have a liking for iRiver devices, which have served me well.

I don’t tend to get devices just because they’re cool, either, which provided significant protection against Apple’s hype machine when the iPhone came out.

Being able to swap the SIM card is critical, as I need to do that so that I can use my Irish mobile number when I’m in Ireland. The iPhones are SIMlocked, and while you can get around this, it’s a pain.

I played around with one at the Apple Store, and really didn’t like the “keyboard”. I would like a phone that makes text messaging really easy, so a full keyboard would be good. But using the iPhone touchpad to type seemed almost as annoying as text entry on a numeric phone pad. Interestingly, only some applications support typing on a virtual keyboard while holding the iPhone horizontally, which seems that it would be much easier (double thumb typing), and that only irks you when you want to use that somewhere it’s not available.

Plenty of good reasons not to buy one.

Two of my friends have picked them up recently, and over the last weekend I had a chance to play with those. I must admit to being rather impressed.

The first, and key, thing is that web browsing is done really, really well. The version of Safari used, and the way it zooms and otherwise handles presenting pages on a small screen, is very intuitive. In the best Apple tradition, it works as one would expect it to work. There are still some minor annoyances—the keyboard is irritating here as well, and the inability to select text is maddening—but overall it’s excellent.

The Google Maps integration is graet, although it misses the “killer feature” of a “you are here” placemark.

Since it’s been unlocked for third-party applications, there are plenty of useful features, including OS X’s killer app—Terminal. The ability to ssh into a server from the iPhone is certainly a big draw for me. So is the fact that plenty of languages are available for it, and the fact that it apparently uses SQLite natively, so one could write (and synchronize with) data stores on it. That means more or less any application you might want for it could be written, and this will only improve as various hackers write hooks for native functions.

So far I’ve heard that it’s good as a phone as well.

The allure esssentially comes down to this: always-available good-quality web browsing and ssh client in your pocket, combined with a decent phone, a music player, a video player, and (hopefully, if they don’t lock it down again) an actually-useful general-purpose computer that you can code for. Having seen it in action, and witnessed the growth of the third-party applications, I start to think that it’s worth the $400.

But it’s not worth being tied to AT&T for another two years while putting up with SIMlocking, a battery that you can’t change without sending the phone to Apple, and a good chance that any software update might deliberately break some of the third-party apps you’ve put on your phone.

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