Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Month with my iPhone

So it's been a month or so since I got my iPhone. I know - I'm late to the party, I know, but I'm in Canada for one, and secondly, it seemed like an extravagance until I started to think about the possibilities for developing and marketing apps for. Based on the second point, I was able to justify it as a "business expense". But that's not what this post is about...This post is about my experience with my iPhone so far.

First Impressions

Overall, I was just as impressed with the iPhone as I was when I first had a chance to play with one 6 months or so ago. It still feels so different than a typical phone or computer. Like other Apple gear, you want to use it, so you do - a lot.

There were a couple of things that I was kind of surprised at, although nothing that makes me unhappy with my choice:

  • no user manual - there is no manual provided with the iPhone, with the exception of a leaflet that has tips and tricks. This is fine for me, but I wonder what less technical users would think.

  • contacts are only accessible from within Mail and Phone applications

  • cellular data seems to be EDGE only. On my old phone, I was able to browse over GPRS (not that I ever did with the puny screen, etc.), but on my iPhone, I get an "E" indicating that EDGE is available, but whenever it tries to connect it displays a message saying that I am not subscribed. I guess this is true, since my PayGo arrangement must not provide access to EDGE. This is actually fine since it guarantees I won't accidentally get huge data charges on my Rogers bill.

  • limited Bluetooth profiles. This is widely described elsewhere, but the iPhone only supports the "hands-free" (HFP) and "headset" (HSP) profiles. I have a Nokia music phone that also supports AVRCP and A2DP, as well as a bunch of others, so I was it surprised that the iPhone doesn't. I can take and make call on the iPhone through my Bluetooth car stereo, but I can't stream music to the stereo, as this required A2DP and AVRCP. I am hopeful that additional profiles will become available with future firmware updates, but this is not a showstopper either way.

  • No syncing of notes to your Mac. The iPhone has a Notes app, but this doesn't sync to your Mac in any way. Kind of annoying.

  • No support for different calendars from iCal - you just get a flat view of all your events.

  • No support for to-do lists from iCal. I was hoping that I could get my iGTD tasks into my iPhone by syncing iGTD with iCal and iCal to my phone, but no dice since to-do's aren't synced.

  • Screen locks when some 3rd-party apps are still active. An example of this is using VNote, a voice recording app - I was in the middle of recording a voice note and the screen went blank and I was suddenly talking to myself. This behaviour will probably improve once 3rd party apps are deveopled using the official Apple toolchain since they should be able to interact with the power management function and suspend this if desired. In the meantime, it means I have to explicitly touch the screen when I am using some apps that otherwise don't require it.

  • Very easy to cover the speakers when holding the phone. If you hold the phone from the bottom, you will cover the speakers and audio is hugely muted. No biggie, but it does give a weird impression depending what you are doing.

In terms of nice surprises, or things that I was especially impressed with, there were several:

  • UI of built-in apps is terrific; the phone application in particular is really great, especially compared to other cell phones, which generally are a horror show of unusability. I recently tried an HTC touch and I couldn't figure out how to answer or make a call on it with all the crap on the screen.

  • I like accessing GMail on the iPhone better than through Mail on my Mac. Go figure.

  • headphones have tiny integrated microphone that is also a switch that allows you to take a call by clicking, or pause or skip tracks

  • web clips are cool - basically you can designate any web page you visit in Safari to appear with its own icon in the main interface, just like an application. Some sites such as Facebook have their own icons so the experience is very close to a native application. Some people have suggested that the iPhone is really a lot like the OS X Dashboard, which I think is true - it gives you quick access to very specialized, simple little apps, whether they are webapps or native apps.

  • Huge array of third-party apps, although the quality ranges from really impressive to very poor. I'm really excited to see what apps start to roll out when the 2.0 firmware becomes generally available and Apple start distributing apps through its App Store.

  • Battery life is impressive.

  • 3.5" is totally big enough to watch video. No kidding.

Other thoughts

Using the iPhone for a month has made me think about some other things:

  • Browsing the web on other mobile devices (except maybe a Nokia tablet thingy) kind of sucks. Basically, things are so dumbed down, that the content is unappealing and the functionality is often knee-capped. I recently tried Opera Mini and was wholly underwhelmed.

  • Having a "grown-up" browser on the iPhone is terrific since it means that you can view pretty well any website with it as it was intended. However, the fact is that it's still a 3.5" screen, which means that you have to move around and zoom in and out to see bits of a page.

  • Based on the above two points, I think we might start seeing a new type of mobile web applications that fall somewhere in between the crappy WAP-optimized stuff and full blown apps that really only work when you have more screen real estate. Some companies have iPhone-optimized versions of their sites (notably Facebook) that are different from their standard "mobile" versions and I suspect more will follow. Another interesting angle on this is that "in-between" apps that are designed for the iPhone will also play really nicely on other Smart phones, as well as Wii's, PSP, XBoxen, etc. Sooo...what's the hold up? Maybe the iPhone buzz will get things rolling in that direction.

  • There are a lot of things I could do on my iPhone instead of my Mac, but I need to find the right tools and get into the habit of using them. Some of the tools might not exist yet. Maybe I need to build some of them.

Book Review: Eccentric Cubicle

Ok, so it's been a long time since my last review. Good thing Manfred doesn't take books back that don't get reviewed in a reasonable time...Anyway here goes - my review of Eccentric Cubicle by Kaden Harris.

This is the second book in the O'Reilly MAKE series that I have reviewed and I have to say this one doesn't disappoint, although for different reasons than Making Things Talk.

When I heard about Eccentric Cubicle, I assumed it was all about projects/hacks for cubicle dwellers to make their work environments more fun. However, that's not really the case, since deploying most of the projects in Eccentric Cubicle in a corporate environment would result in an unsolicited appointment with the HR department. To be honest, I'm not really sure who the target audience is for the book, but I enjoyed every page of it.

Making Things Talk is a terrific primer for anyone wanting to get into microcontroller/ubiquitous computing development, while Eccentric Cubicle is mostly about building various contraptions out of wood, metal, plastic...whatever, really. Most of the projects seem pretty complex to build and possibly beyond the skills/patience of many readers, but, unlike Making Things Talk, they are pretty "low-tech". I doubt that I will ever build anything from Eccentric Cubicle, (I mean - really - when would I need to build a missile launcher for paper messages or a carrot-scaled (or finger) guillotine), but I sure had fun reading about all of them. The projects are all clever and a bit whacky and many describe techniques, materials, or designs that would be applicable to other things., which I think is one of the main values of the book.

I get the impression that Harris is a politically incorrect, punk rock, danger-loving DIYer but I mean that in the nicest way possible. It doesn't hurt that he's a West Coast Canuck like me! The language and style of the book keeps things interesting and the projects in the book are like small-scale, surrealist, post-modern monster garage builds, some of them well into the dangerous category. Regardless, there is incredible attention to detail and Harris is obviously a talented craftsman who seems to like doing things "because he can" (or because he really shouldn't).

Despite the fact that I probably won't build any of the projects from the book, there are loads of techniques, tactics, tips, and small hacks that I will use whenever possible. Specifically, use (and abuse) of tools, sourcing materials, and project design.

In summary, if you are a "MAKER" or wannabe/poseur (like me), you will want want to read this book.

About the wombat

Victoria, BC, Canada
This is our travel blog for our summer 2010 trip to France and the UK.