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Thoughts on the iPhone and Phone Usability

I've never had a cell phone that didn't totally suck. This is as true for you as it is for me, because they are all horrible. The only metric in which a cell phone can't rate “abysmal” is when compared against other cell phones, because there are different levels of abysmal.

For example, every phone number in America is 10 digits and of the form “(123) 456-7890”, so when you type in 10 digits on an American-market phone (or bring up numbers in your phone book, or receive a call with caller id), why do most of them display a big mash of numbers like “1234567890”? It's just moronic. Even the just-released Motorola phone I got last summer did this, and was an overall usability disaster. Motorola has been around for a long time... has it never learned anything about designing a product for humans to use?

It's not just Motorola; it's all phone manufactures. (I've had some Nokia stock since 2004, but now that I think about it, I don't want it, so I just sold it while typing this.)

There's no technical reason behind this complete lack of development in user interfaces. I think a good percent of the general population could design something better on their first try, so the problem must be that the small population of people who actually work for phone manufactures are total idiots.


Call Waiting, iPhone Style

Until today.

I watched the introduction of Apple's iPhone today (via this video) and was astounded, not that the iPhone seems to have such a great user-interface design (although it does), but that it's so great in the face of a history of moronic phone design.

It's been designed like the cell phone should have been designed many years ago. That usability has been combined with current, state-of-the-art technology, so its feature set is advanced. Advanced and usable. That'd be an oxymoron from just about any company except Apple and TiVo.

It seems that the phrase generally used to describe Apple's other products — “it just works” — will apply here as well.

I've never used more than the most basic features of any cell phone I've had because I don't have the time or energy to invest in learning the crappy extra features that I'd be frustrated with if I did use them. Tiny screen, slow and expensive internet access to wimpy pretend pseudo-“web” pages. Ugh.

But the iPhone.... wow. The hour-long live demo in the video showed a whole new world of usability in all aspects of the device... phone, music player, photo viewer, video player, internet browser.... It seems to be designed for humans, to actually use. Pure Apple.

It runs OSX, so I wonder how long before Firefox and Photoshop are ported to it.



Browsing the Web, iPhone Style
bird's-eye view

Of course, the Apple Cult faithful will drink the Apple cool-aid no matter what Apple puts out, and I should make it clear that I'm not such a person. I bought my first Apple product, a laptop, just before Anthony was born in 2002. True to Apple form, it not only didn't suck in most every way; it was wonderful. (Unfortunately, product longevity is not Apple's strong suit, and I had to buy a replacement last summer.)

I've since bought two iPods (the second to replace the first that I lost in Malaysia) and that second laptop, a MacBook. I was sufficiently impressed with these products, as a consumer, that I put most of the proceeds from the sale of our house into Apple stock. (What didn't go into Apple went into Adobe, because I'm extremely impressed with Lightroom, their photo-workflow application that I'm sure I'll write about more in the future.)

The biggest problem I have with the iPhone is that it's not out yet, and even after it does come out, it'll take a long time before it finds its way to the Japanese market. (When it does, I predict that they'll go with SoftBank as the service provider; time will tell.)

So, I have to wait, and live with my current phone that's full of pedestrian features hidden behind a complex, opaque user interface.

Sometimes, it just sucks to be me.



Comments so far....

I, like you, live in Japan and am a tad upset that the product will take so long to make an appearance here. One thing that I wonder if is the device will be truly bilingual or if it will be one of the many Japanese-only phones that the big-3 love to sell.

A couple of the Windows Mobile devices are Japanese-only, so I am a little cautious about being excited about the prospect of the iPhone. As you said, only time will tell.

I do wonder, it does make sense for Apple to use Softbank because they have a great network and are partnered up with Yahoo! Japan already. I would surmise that you are on the right track but I truly wonder what network Apple will choose.

Anyhow, it ought to be interesting. Just sucks that we have to wait so long to see the damn thing! :-)

— comment by Scott on January 11th, 2007 at 1:39pm JST (7 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I’m not really “upset” that it’ll take so long to get here, just resigned to the fact. I know that before they can sell here, they have to deal with a totally different telephone technology, a totally different regulatory environment, and a slightly different language and the accompanying different character-input needs :-)

It runs OSX and is from Apple… I would be shocked if it weren’t multi-lingual from day one.

One lucky thing is that by the time it does get here, it’ll be in it’s Xth generation, so the bugs will be worked out, capacity increased, the battery will be replaceable, etc.

— comment by Jeffrey Friedl on January 11th, 2007 at 2:45pm JST (7 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I have to disagree here. Being a recent convert from Linux to Apple (can’t stand windows and refuse to ever again have it on any of my home PCs — especially with Vista coming out), I really am impressed with Apple’s design. But wait a minute here. Can someone explain to me why I need anything better than my Motorola L2? I think some things are better left simple.

I can’t have a camera phone at work. Why do almost all phones have cameras? I bought a nice Nikon DSLR for that. Beats the pants off any cell phone camera. If I want to take pictures, I use a camera — not a phone.

Why is browsing the web supposed to be so great on a cell phone? Even the largest cell phone screens out there are no match for a computer. Are we, as a society, so impatient that we can’t wait till we get home on our computers to see if there is something new on the latest blog we frequent?

Finally, I don’t see what’s so hard about Motorola’s interface. You type in a number, hit the green phone button (call). To end a call, you push the red phone button (end). Seems like proper phone operation to me. Perhaps I’m simply too behind times to appreciate a phone that plays music, surfs the web, keeps my addresses and appointments, etc. All I want is a phone where I can call people (Internal phone book a necessity here) and receive calls. I haven’t had a phone in the last 5 years that can’t accomplish this. And by the way, my caller ID pops up numbers as +1 123 1234 formatted pretty nicely.

Technology is advancing and that’s good. But we are getting “do it all” devices that do everything averagely and nothing well. Give me a phone that’s just a phone and I’ll gladly buy it — Apple or not.

Just my 2 cents.

— comment by Anonymous on January 11th, 2007 at 9:28pm JST (7 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I’ve never had a cell phone that didn’t totally suck.
Amen to that. I keep upgrading and hoping, and what I want never comes. I want to read news articles and op/ed columns on my phone during my down time on the train, but when I email them to my phone from my Mac, even after converting to plaintext first, they come out 70% of the time as “(cannot display)”

Today I was standing in front of your building with “(cannot display)” on the screen instead of your home phone and unit number. Stupid.

I’ve been on SoftBank through its buyouts from J-Phone through Vodafone, so I’ll be looking forward to the iPhone so I can just browse to the articles directly.

— comment by nils on January 17th, 2007 at 10:23pm JST (7 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Seems like everyone here is practical-minded. Use your cell phone as a cell! I guess the short attention spans of people need all-in-one products to keep them busy. Plus Scott, aren’t there way better phones out in Japan? I see the phones that act as key cards, and the like on tv. How can the iPhone compete aside from being really stylish?

Check out my blog for a preview of the iPhone features

— comment by vic on April 3rd, 2007 at 4:11am JST (7 years, 7 months ago) comment permalink
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