Why the iPhone is probably one of the worst mobile phones I have ever used

There is a lot of talk these days about the iPhone. You can’t open TechMeme without seeing yet another rumor about the next generation, 3G, whatever version of the iPhone Apple is about to release. As soon as any other mobile initiative is released it has to go through an iPhone comparison. Google is working with developers around the world to create a new mobile platform called Android. As soon as the first demo’s appear the tech blog community measures them up against the iPhone.

Well, sorry to say this, but the iPhone is probably one of the worst mobile phones I have seen in quite a while. Now, before you get all excited about that and state that I have gone mental, let me try to explain what I mean by that.

The iPhone, in my opinion, isn’t really a mobile phone. The iPhone is probably the most innovative handheld computer in the world. It has a unique feel to it, a nice operating system, a touch screen (which is old news in Japan and Europe really) and great usability. It provides us with a browsing experience unlike any other mobile device. It has a great display, a mediocre camera, it lets you play music, video, browse the web, anything a gadget lover might need. It just sucks as a phone. You can tell the iPhone was build by a computer manufacturer. It is a handled where someone decided to also add phone capabilities to. And it’s phone capabilities are worse than I had thought.

What are the two most important functions of a mobile phone (and no, I’m not talking to all you smartphone lovers out there)? Calling and SMS. It is as simple as that. This is an estimated 1 Trillion dollar business world wide! While the USA lags behind in SMS, the rest of the world produces 5-10 SMSes on average per user per day. SMS is a $ 100BLN business. A business larger than ALL social media and advertisement business on the entire web! Probably less than 5% of that big pile of revenues goes to data services. It will be growing for sure the coming years. But $ 1000 BLN is a really big number.

When we get all excited about the iPhone I’m sure we aren’t getting excited over it’s phone capabilities. We are excited about it’s ability to browse the web, to act like a small yet powerful handheld computer. And that is great. Apple surely did set a new standard there.

But have you ever tried to make a phone call on it. With all due respect, I could navigate my “old-fashioned” Nokia N95 way better than the iPhone. I’m estimating that using the N95 menu structures I can find and call a contact approximately 50% faster, and more importantly without making any errors. While the contact list on the iPhone looks flashy,  the touch screen controls create a lot of errors for me. I can’t search for a contact (Sorry if I can’t remember all 800 names in my contact list). Scrolling is great, but landing on the right name is difficult. How many times have you found the contact, clicked on it (expecting it to start making the call), clicked on it in the next screen (why for heavens sake), and then only found yourself to be in the “change details” screen instead of the calling screen.

How about SMS? I use that function as least as often as I call. I might type 30-40 SMSes on any given day. But with the touchscreen keyboard of the iPhone this has become a real pain. I touch the wrong letter too often. Not only was typing on my Nokia without an actual keyboard faster, what is more important, it was way less error-prone. And honestly, the pre-iPhone interfaces weren’t that good either, but a hell of a lot more workable than the iPhone now. I have written before about the need to rethink the mobile experience fundamentally. Apple did it, only they forgot the current main use of a phone. They were thinking handheld computer when they designed the iPhone.

I tried using the headset provided with the iPhone. Worked fine for calling. I took it out, left home without the headset. And I found out the hard way that the rest of the day I couldn’t make a phone call because the iPhone for some reason assumed I still had the headset installed. Probably a “bug” or mishap, but not being able to call without using the external speaker all day is a real pain. Never had that happen to me before.

I hope Google’s Android will lead to developments that do not always match the iPhone. It has set a standard in it’s own, we don’t need others cloning that. I hope Android developers will think about a better integrated experience. Not just the “new world” of web browsing and media consumption. But also including being able to call and send messages (sending e-mail has the same obvious problems on the iPhone).

Touch screens are great, but we either need bigger ones, or I need to sharpen my fingers to hit the right letter on the tiny little keyboard. One thing I do like about the iPhone’s SMS capabilities is the way it displays successive SMSes as conversations. Perfect, because that is what they are!

I’ll end this with a small wish I have written about before in a post called “We need a revolution in Mobile U thinking”:

I’ll give away one idea for making things better. Why not get rid of the whole inbox-outbox messaging paradigm. It sucks on a mobile phone. Instead convert the entire paradigm into a life stream, similar to the way Twitter and Jaiku work. It fits human behavior much better. We don’t always want to look into or respond to every message we receive. Showing these messages as a constant stream allows me to look at it whenever I want to. It doesn’t call for my attention whenever a message arrives, but I get to decide when I wish to give the message my attention. It allows me to pick up things that are important, and it also provides me easy ways to respond to on ore more people. And it lets me ramble my thoughts to whoever is willing to listen to them.

And we could easily integrate calling behavior in that same life stream too.

The iPone may be the best handheld mobile computer there is right now, but it’s probably one of the worst mobile phones I have ever used.

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11 Responses to Why the iPhone is probably one of the worst mobile phones I have ever used

  1. Robin Cannon says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more.

    Actually I always feel like a bit of a luddite when it comes to mobile phone technology. I basically just want the ability to make a voice call clearly, from anywhere in the world.

    Even SMS is not that important to me, and in fact extensive use of SMS as a substitute for actually talking to someone is one my pet hates. You highlight how the iPhone displays SMS’ as conversations. That’s excellent functionality but begs the question that if an SMS sequence has turned into a conversation, why not just have the conversation on the phone?

    For all the developments in mobile technology, and that it’s developing into the most important direction of development for the web, I do worry that people are looking too much to unnecessary replacements for the value of a simple phone call.

  2. Scott O'Raw says:

    Hi Alexander,

    Whereas I agree that the iPhone needs contact search (although my own address book isn’t big enough for me to get personally worked up over this), I can’t say I share you concerns over the keyboard.

    Previous joking about ‘attaching cocktails sticks to your fingers’ aside, I did wonder how I would get on with typing on the iPhone before I got one and was more than a little timid in my first few days with it. However, I have found it a joy to use and think that the error correction software is excellent.

    You are right through – it is more revolutionary mobile computer than it is mobile phone, but that may say more about where we are headed in our use of mobile technology. However, that doesn’t excuse Apple in failing to meet current needs.

    @Robin: I think that SMS offers value in asynchronous conversation – it’s often not possible to have a conversation in real time or, indeed, using voice at all in certain situations / locations.

    Scott.

  3. Jamie says:

    Hmm, I couldn’t disagree with you more. I will just list my points in response as follows:

    1. Lack of contact search does indeed suck for those of us with lots of contacts. Thankfully it is in version 2 of the software, out next month. The alphabet on the right helps to break those 800 contacts up into managable chunks though.

    2. Disagaree about the contract screen. If I tap a contact I don’t want it to call them straight away. They usually have a landline number, a mobile and an office number. I might not even want to call them, but add an email address. Being able to select the correct number is important. This screen also allows you to interact with that contact card – send it a text, add it to favourites, edit it and so on. The only way to change the details is by pressing Edit in the top right corner. I have no idea how you are pressing it accidentally.

    3. “Not only was typing on my Nokia without an actual keyboard faster”. I dunno about this. I can type around 40-50 words a minute on the iPhone. Significantly quicker than I ever could with a typical phone keypad. How do you type on the iPhone? One finger? Two thumbs? Do you try to be accurate? I just tap roughly where the letter is and the software is generally smart enough for it to minimise errors. Its definitely something that takes time to learn but once you do it is very fast.

  4. Jamie, the alphabet on the right helps, but it is still hard to land correctly.
    Wrt the hitting the edit button, I checked and made a mistake there. I meant to say I hit the ring tone button instead of the phone number
    I hold the iPhone in my left hand and type using my right hand. It isn’t that I can’t type, it’s just that my fingers tend to hit the character next to the one I actually want. The iPhone tries to correct, but it doesn’t work that well for me.

  5. Jamie says:

    I think its an interesting paradox. Being 100% touch based, it requires more attention generally thna your average Nokia where learned behaviour and muscle memory often come into play.

    However, the UI is inherently better for almost every aspect. From adding friends contact details, to dialling them and so on. Its a much better thought out UI but the touch screen is always going to directly inflict on said muscle memory.

    The likes of Nokia will run into the same problems with their iClones over the next few years. Will be interesting to see.

  6. Rich says:

    I’ll just type on my Samsung Blackjack II when I need to… (and will process my data and connectivity much faster with multiple speed options including 3G)
    The Blackjack serves me very well as a smart phone. If want ALL the features of the iPhone… I’ll just get an iTouch. So what if it can’t make a phone call?

  7. rolfsky says:

    Ah hah! Perhaps voice isn’t the killer app and Apple’s engineers know that. ;)

    http://rolfskyberg.wordpress.com/2008/05/16/skype-proof-that-voice-is-not-the-killer-app/

  8. @rolfsky LOL. I usually tend to agree with you but when it comes to a Trillion $ business I think we can safely say that Voice is the most valuable service worldwide, right after stuff like oil and gas ;-)

  9. allgood2 says:

    I agree that search needs to be added to the AddressBook; though rumors are it will be there i next firmware upgrade; so I’m fine waiting for that. Meanwhile, I use favorites a lot, especially, so I don’t have to choose which phone number to use when calling a friend.

    But in terms of SMS, I love the iPhone SMS. My SMS use outpaces my phone use by a wide margin. Though admittedly, I’ve set-up a number of services to notify me of various things via SMS, so incoming use is probably greater than outgoing.

    Overall I use the iPhone as a portable computer that can make calls when I need it to; and I believe that is what a larger number of people are doing. Phone use was the primary use, when you really couldn’t do anything but call. But even my friends who have never used anything but the telephone on their cellphone, are now expanding out.

    Will they ever hit the point I’m at? I don’t know, but my guess is no. The phone will remain their priority services. But that may become a 60/40 usage versus what use to be the 95/5 usage.

    I expect SMS will grow; but data usage on the iPhone will also continue to steadily grow, meaning that the phone functions will be a top priority, but weighed heavily against other uses.

    That said, Apple has added some phone features that I already have pushed to must have ALWAYS: visual voicemail rocks—and for anyone who lets calls go to voicemail as much as I do, is essential. I sometimes forward my work phone to my iPhone just to take advantage of this.

    The ability to add contacts from Google searches. Again, I especially do this for restaurant searches: I’ll perform on iPhone, so I can add to my contacts database. Apple will transfer over phone, address, web and even (I believe) notes about the restaurant to the address book, in 2 clicks. I find very useful for information I’ve looked up frequently, but have been too lazy to add to Address Book.

    Other phones probably do this, but my old phone did not—the ability to look-up information from the phone when using the telephone. My old cell wouldn’t allow me to switch to address book, while talking, which hindered providing telephone, email addresses, and sometimes even names to people. I love that I can do so on my iPhone without even placing the call on hold. I just switch to speaker so they can keep talking while I search for the information they need.

  10. Pingback: How User Interfaces can make or break a new service « Alexander van Elsas’s Weblog on new media & technologies and their effect on social behavior

  11. mad says:

    Absolutely agree.
    IPhone is not a mobile phone, but a mini computer. The name is misleading (not only).

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