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The iPhone is a Beta Product

UPDATED

So I’ve just helped a friend set up a new iPhone, and have played with it a bit. The experience has reinforced my decision to steer clear of the most shamelessly overhyped consumer product since Windows 95.

The simple fact is that for all its admirable features — and there are many — this feels like a beta product. That is, it strikes me as product still very early in development, with many flaws and needed upgrades. And that’s apart from the extreme control-freakishness of this device: Apple and AT&T have decided what you need, and that’s that.

As noted, there’s plenty to like about the thing, with the larger screen heading the list. The display icons are gorgeous to look at. The phone feels fine in the hand, though it’s quite heavy, and has a genuinely advanced user interface that (one hopes) will push other mobile device makers to dramatically improve their own products’ ease of use.

But not only is the iPhone lacking in some key features and only works with AT&T’s mobile system — see my previous posting — the features it does have leave plenty to be desired.

The setup ignored some of the instructions about which phone numbers to import into the phone. It sucked everything into the device despite an attempt to get only a small subset of contacts.

The wifi setup is flaky, at least on a home network that requires a logon and password. It insisted on using AT&T’s low-speed digital network even though the wifi was supposedly turned on. The setup screens offered no help on this. (Help, in general, is in short supply on the phone itself.)

The browser is nice enough in landscape mode, given the size of the screen. But it’s not all that much better than running the Nokia N95 browser in landscape mode.

One nice touch is the touchscreen’s ability to let you pull the browser window sideways, or up or down, using a finger. (Give the absence of other controls, of course, there was no alternative. I’d like to have the touchscreen on the Nokia.)

The on-screen keyboard isn’t bad if you’re “typing” in landscape mode in the Web browser, because the keypad is sufficiently large to help you avoid errors. But if you’re trying to create an SMS message in the phone’s portrait mode (it doesn’t adjust to the sideways view except in the browser, as far as I could discover), be prepared for major frustration; unless you have tiny thumbs you’ll keep hitting the wrong “keys” and then delete what you’ve typed.

Amazingly, there’s no instant messaging, not even Apple iChat. Not much doubt about what’s going on there: AT&T will make a bundle with SMS. (I tried Web-based SMS, but Apple’s refusal to let Flash run on the phone nixed the Yahoo IM, and despite multiple tries I couldn’t get my AOL IM to work, either.)

The sound quality of the phone was okay, but not great. I heard an echo on one call we made.

The mail feature is good. Still, as with everything but the browser, don’t bother to try to type on the thing in landscape mode.

None of the modes I used let me select, cut and paste text. That’s bizarre, to say the least.

The camera is adequate, and that’s the best you can say about it. There’s no video recording mode.

The onboard speaker was decent, but nothing special. The ring and alarm tones were excellent in variety and cleverness, but for now you’re stuck with those; no doubt Apple and AT&T will use their walled garden to wring dollars out of anyone who wants to offer alternatives.

But when I plugged my Bose headset into the device, it didn’t work. Apparently it needs an adapter — now that’s shabby.

Some of the device’s drawbacks can and no doubt will be solved with software improvements. Some can’t and won’t, at least not in the U.S. version, where AT&T is the only carrier and — unlike GSM phones most places on the planet — the phone is locked to a specific kind of SIM chip from that carrier only.

Even more amazing — and outrageous — is that the device is absolutely unusable in any capacity until it’s activated with the phone company. Want to use it just for WiFi-based Web browsing, plus video and audio and note-taking? Forget it. I can’t think of another phone, however locked to the carrier it may otherwise be for calling purpose, that is this locked-down. Plainly, this is Apple’s concession to AT&T, but it utterly stinks.

(One small favor from these control-freakish companies: If an iPhone customer has to send the device back for repairs — an all-too-common occurrence with early versions of Apple hardware — the SIM chip will work in a non-Apple GSM phone.)

Then there’s the non-removable battery, which is designed only for a few hundred charge cycles. That will steer people — no doubt this is idea — toward new phones in two years when the service contract runs out.

The New York Times’ Joe Nocera couldn’t get a straight answer from Apple on the battery issue, which is no surprise given Apple’s secretive and arrogant ways. All he did get, as he noted, was non-responsive spin from robotic PR minions.

So my bottom line is this: I would consider buying an iPhone when Apple starts selling it in Europe or Asia with 3G capabilities; when I can install a SIM chip from the GSM/3G carrier of my choice, not Apple’s; when the early software flaws get fixed; and numerous other improvements occur.

Meanwhile, I’d advise anyone considering one of these devices in the U.S. to wait for the next version. The initial product doesn’t come close to living up to the hype.

(Clarification: I originally said the SIM was locked away inside the phone. It turns out that it can be taken out and reseated if it comes loose, but the phone won’t work with another carrier’s SIM, which is the fundamental point.)

10 Comments on “The iPhone is a Beta Product”

  1. #1 kev » not so gushy on the iphone
    on Jun 30th, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    [...] Gillmor has a quick rundown of what he doesn’t like about the iPhone. He makes some really good points, and the one that I didn’t realize was that the battery was [...]

  2. #2 Scripting News for 6/30/2007 « Scripting News Annex
    on Jun 30th, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    [...] Dan Gillmor: “This feels like a beta product.” [...]

  3. #3 Seth de l'Isle
    on Jul 1st, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Regarding the control-freakishness of certain companies: I have high hopes for the OpenMoko phone[1] from FIC. OpenMoko describes itself as “the world’s first integrated open source[2] mobile communications platform.” It’s making a pretty good buzz in the free software world.

    [1] http://www.openmoko.com.
    [2] http://www.openmoko.org

  4. #4 Paul Jones
    on Jul 1st, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    I too like openness, but I was already stuck with Cingular from a University-wide contract.

    Now I have an iPhone after years of Handspring/Visor/Treo/Palm. iPhone is really a very nice Wifi device with a camera, ipod and oh yes a phone on it. In that light it is what it is — agreeing with all of Dan’s objections — so much nicer than my 3+ year old Treo despite the beta-ness. I never felt like the Treo was quite out of beta either.

    And unlike Dave, I like the interface. It’s magical and intuitive and easy on my older eyes — the zoom by pinch is just right.

    Call me addicted to Beta! I am shamelessly enjoying it.

  5. #5 Hudson
    on Jul 1st, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    I’m holding off buying and iPhone (a) because I’m not that phone-centric to begin with, and (b) I keep thinking about what one of the original iPods looks like compared to an iPod nano today…

    These iPhones are going to look really crude, really fast, as both Apple and competitors evolve the (albeit innovative) form over the next 18 months.

    I can wait.

  6. #6 Top 6 Reasons Not To Buy iPhone
    on Jul 2nd, 2007 at 4:33 am

    [...] sites need CSS adjustment to work great with iPhones. Dan Gillmore justifies why iPhone is just a beta product. He points out the lock-in with AT&T service, usability issues with (password protected)wifi [...]

  7. #7 Develops.mobi » Does the iPhone keep dotMobi awake at night?
    on Jul 4th, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    [...] users. Not because it’s an especially great phone (I believe it is, although not without its flaws). Not because it’s doing anything other handsets elsewhere haven’t done before, or [...]

  8. #8 dotMobi
    on Jul 5th, 2007 at 6:46 am

    Does the iPhone keep dotMobi awake at night?…

    We’ve had a number of questions (and seen plenty of commentary) regarding the recent launch of the iPhone and how it might affect us and the mobile web in general I posted some of initial ideas on this very blog…

  9. #9 James Bailey
    on Jul 5th, 2007 at 10:25 am

    While much of what you say is true, I think the majority of software issues will be resolved quite quickly with the first and/or second software update. I don’t particularly like the locked nature of the phone but like Apple with the music industry and DRM, they can only do so much in the beginning to fix problems endemic to the industry.

    Apple will have a solid position in a few years where they can make more demands of the carriers. The only way Apple gets to that position is by having this version of the iPhone be successful. Do you think Apple could have challenged the music industry on DRM without a major success with iTunes?

    As for the Wifi problem, I had no issues. Reportedly, a “closed” network (a network that doesn’t transmit SSID) causes problems. Have the friend use WPA security and make the network open and see if that solves the problem. If they don’t have WPA on their WiFi router, there isn’t much point to using a password since it can be cracked in seconds with easily available software.

    I had no problems with my home network with both a 802.11b and another 802.11g and the iPhone. I’m getting over 2 Mbit/sec with the WiFi connection.

    Also, see the following for more info on setting up iPhone WiFi:
    http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=305715
    http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=305711

  10. #10 John
    on Jul 6th, 2007 at 8:11 am

    No such thing as “a specific kind of SIM chip” – I believe -

    You said:
    “the phone is locked to a specific kind of SIM chip from that carrier only”

    The phone is simply locked to your individual SIM card. This locking mechanism is a feature of GSM, a carrier-oriented feature for sure(!), but a feature nevertheless.

    Locking the phone to the SIM card is normally the prerogative of the carrier to lock the user in. Locking is used by other carriers, so it is not only an ATT/Apple.
    What is being said about ATT not subsidizing iPhone purchases is BS, the fact they were involved in the design of the iPhone is a form of subsidy. Besides, don’t be surprised to see ATT mail-in rebates in a few months when demand subsides and supply is stabilized.

    Also, unlocking is normally possible, either via a procedure revealed by the carrier after a period of paying for a calling plan, OR, with some hack. You can then use another SIM card.
    Now, according to the following web page, it is legal in the US to hack your phone and unlock it:
    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/293875_unlock28.html

    I believe that in some countries, unlocking after a certain time is even a legal right of the user (e.g. France), so the phone must have the unlocking capability to start with.
    And I know for a fact that, at least in France, you can walk into some service shop and have them unlock you phone at any time for 10 to $20 (the carriers don’t like it, but it is legal).

    So the question should be: Is the iPhone unlockable in its present version, in the US?
    So far, I haven’t seen an answer, but it does’t mean it is not possible.

    What I wish to know is:
    1- Will AT&T/Apple allow the unlocking after a while using a plan?
    2- Will some hack be developed for the iPhone, or can it be unlocked using some generic hack used for other SIM phones?