Having been a very early adopter of the iPhone, I find myself in the strange position (for me) of being an “expert” in something that a lot of friends and family are interested in. Some are enthusiastic iPhone owners, others are thinking about getting one, still others are vehemently ant-iPhone. This pseudo-review is an attempt to pull together the pros and cons I’ve found during my 2 years of iPhone ownership.

First of all, let me explain where I’m coming from wrt mobile devices. I resisted getting a mobile phone for many years, basically because I didn’t need one: I was living/working in London, with a routine which rarely varied. Eventually, mobile phones became so cheap it made no sense *not* to have one. So I gave in. Not long after that, a colleague persuaded me to get a PDA – a Sony Clie running the Palm OS – primarily for the purposes of reading and having a dictionary when I was commuting. I still miss that Clie, it was a great device.

After a few years of different Palm PDAs, I switched to a Windows Mobile device as part of a test run for handheld devices at work. The Windows Mobile PDA was superior in terms of hardware, but the OS was just terrible. Coming from a Palm OS background, I couldn’t believe Microsoft were getting away with trying to shoehorn their mouse/keyboard-friendly Windows interface onto a small screen. Virtually no effort had been made to rethink the user-interface to work on a small, pen/touch-drive interface. I’m no Microsoft-basher: I wouldn’t be caught dead with an Apple desktop, I have neither time nor patience for Linux and all my customers use Windows. But I can’t avoid the fact that the Windows Mobile OS is very bad. Things got even worse when I acquired a combo phone & PDA running Windows Mobile. It was basically impossible to rely on it to do anything: making phone calls, listening to music, writing text messages… everything was a lottery. In particular, I hated how difficult it was to play music: transferring music onto the phone, struggling to get music playing in the phone’s media player, and the inability of the software to work sensibly with other apps (like actually receiving calls). I remember that whenever I was going to be in a situation where the phone absolutely must not make any noise (e.g. funeral, wedding, concert), I used to physically take the battery out because I couldn’t rely on it to behave.

So when the iPhone was announced, I looked at the videos of the UI and thought, “Ah-ha! Someone is picking up the torch dropped by Palm! A mobile device with a UI which works properly on a small, touch-driven screen.” So, despite the fairly obscene cost, I bought one as soon as they became available in the UK. It immediately became apparent that the thing was a game-changer, not just because it was a smartphone which worked properly, but also because you were forced to pay for unlimited internet access. With my Windows Mobile phone, I’d been scared to use the internet because I had no idea how much it would cost. With the iPhone, I knew it would cost nothing extra. It was an incredibly liberating feeling, and the iPhone quickly became an essential part of my work life. I remember my father describing it as being like “holding the future in your hand” – it really felt like something totally new.

With subsequent releases of the iPhone OS, the utility of the device increased. Sort of the same as we’ve seen with Google Mail: the original version was barebones, but they’ve gradually added more stuff (calendar, docs, etc). So with the iPhone we’ve seen the addition of the App Store (there was nothing like it on any other mobile platform) and support for more business stuff. This latter development was crucial for me: I can use my encrypted 3GS phone with NHS Mail, with the option of connecting to my work network over a Cisco VPN tunnel. I also know that I can have NHS Mail remote-wipe my phone if it gets stolen. So I’ve got what I always wanted: a phone which is designed for use on a small screen with reliable integration between calendar, contact, phone and music player (with headphones/mic). The various ways that the web browser, contacts, phone, calendar, maps, mail and SMS work together is a joy to see.

The App Store deserves more of a mention. The iPhone has included some very lovely toys for the programmers to play with: accelerometer, GPS, internet, wi-fi, camera, compass and maps. Many phones have these features now, but the App Store developers have been very creative in their use of these tools. Virtually all the tools I use for work and play on the web have iPhone apps: Evernote, Remember the Milk, Google Mail, Spotify, Twitter, WordPress, Wikipedia, newsfeed subscriptions, Instapaper, eBooks, Chambers dictionary, instant messaging, etc. And then there’s the stuff I never knew I wanted, like the Shazam app which will record a fragment of music and tell you what it is – I’ve used it many times to identify background music on TV or in the cinema. Like every other form of media, the app store is about 99% utter crap. But the 1% is very good indeed.

There is of course a dark side to all of this. Itunes is an awful program (on Windows at least): buggy, unstable, slow. Everything except music is crippled with DRM (which in the case of TV programmes makes the playback very poor). You can only back up your stuff to optical drive, not an external hard drive (bizarre to still be doing this in 2010!) The power/sync connector is proprietary, but since the iPod is so ubiquitous it’s become very hard to buy accessories which work with other media players. There’s no support for bluetooth keyboards. The Mail app really needs to be improved. The sound quality for music playback is not very good compared with e.g. the Creative Zen player I use when travelling. Battery life is poor, meaning you have to recharge pretty much every day.

Most of all, there’s also the cringe factor of finding yourself associated with the Cult of Apple, so accurately described by Charlie Brooker in his Guardian column. I get the impression that the iPhone adverts are also really smug and annoying, but I have to confess that I’ve never seen one. (I virtually never watch anything “live”, so ads are always skipped.) I do however get very annoyed by the prevalence of Macs and iPhones used as props in TV and film, surely not a true reflection of the public at large given the low ratio of Mac owners to Windows users.

But I find myself willing to trade these negatives for the advantage of having a phone in my pocket that works extremely well, connected t0 all the internet services I use to get stuff done. I even find I can leave my laptop at home much more often now than in the past. I’m not interested in allowing Apple to take such complete control of my laptop, but they can tyrannise my phone so long as it continues to work so well.

A final word from a work point of view. Our IT team have concluded that supporting users who have iPhones is much less work (and much less stressful) than supporting users with Blackberries or Windows Mobile phones, mainly because the NHS Mail integration is so good.

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