iPhone at two months: It's all about the interface

Rivals all too often deliver clumsy hardware, lousy software

When I first walked into the house the day I bought my iPhone, I had a moment of panic. After six months of media frenzy and amongst all of the excitement, I had lost sight of the fact that the 8GB iPhone I bought at a nearby AT&T store had set me back US$600.

Not that I hadn't been warned; the price information was everywhere, sensationalized and vilified, even, by people who thought that the price tag outrageous. In my determination to pick up the phone as soon as they went on sale, I discounted the cost -- until I got home with it and realized that I spent serious money on something that might not live up to the hype.

A bit of background: I hate cell phones. They're a necessary evil in terms of convenience, but with each latest and greatest model I bought, I became increasingly critical. The last straw came after I was suckered in by the thin design of the Razr a couple of years ago.

While it was nice that the phone slid in and out of pockets with ease because of its size, using the Razr's software for anything other than making calls was an abject exercise in exasperation. Potentially useful features were hidden underneath menus and submenus and sub-submenus, it couldn't autosync with my Mac, Internet access was mediocre, and the user interface clunky. The only thing that prevented me boycotting Motorola products after buying the Razr was the fact that the company wasn't alone when it came to disjointed design.

As I waited for a worthwhile phone to appear, it dawned on me that cell phones were adding more and more capabilities, while the physical design and user interface continued to rely on unwieldy physical buttons. That alone seemed to limit what you could reasonably expect a phone to do well, even as music and media player functions were being added.

The problem seemed obvious: They were trying to be everything to everyone using an outmoded design that relied on keypads. The software, in turn, had to work with the layout of the physical buttons. And for anyone looking to watch movies and video, the screens were almost always too small. The result: clumsy hardware married to lousy software, new features without a new form.

On stage for his January keynote at MacWorld San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled his answer to the problem, touting the iPhone as the ultimate phone, the ultimate iPod and the ultimate Internet experience. It looked like the iPhone might really be the first useful and user-friendly convergence device and, more importantly, might actually be worth my $600. But I had to wait six months -- until it went on sale June 29 -- to find out.

Best. Phone. Ever.

Now I know. The iPhone is the first phone I've liked in well over six years. To call the iPhone the best phone I've ever used is the biggest understatement of the decade. It's like saying Jupiter is big, or infinity a long time. From the moment you pick it up, you can feel the weight and sturdiness of the phone, inspiring the sort of confidence you get from a quality build. The display is gorgeously integrated, the streamlined face covered by glass. Finally -- a design worthy of being called a design!

But the attention to detail doesn't stop there. The iPhone as a phone is actually remarkable, given that you can easily swap between multiple calls, connect them, separate them, put some on private ... all without hanging up on any of the parties. I couldn't do that with any other phone before and always assumed that feature was faulty. These are among the details I've discovered with constant use of my iPhone over the past two months.

However, the beauty of the iPhone lies beyond its deliciously simple shell and goes way beyond being just a phone. That beauty -- and the iPhone's success -- lies with the way you interact with it. Use the multitouch screen, along with the changing set of "buttons" and icons that adjust themselves to the task at hand, and you can't help be reminded of classic science fiction, in which devices are so easy to use anyone can pick up anything and begin operating it. That's what the iPhone is.

That point hit home when my mother picked up my iPhone. Over the years, not a single device ever made it through my mother's hands without being returned to me with a frustrated laugh and a shrug. With the iPhone, once the screen lit up and my mother discovered that Swipe to Unlock really did mean swipe to unlock, she was sold.

And so was I. This is the first device to successfully integrate multiple layers of functionality with hardly any compromise on quality or ease of use. With the iPhone, you're not left wondering what this button does in that app. With its full-screen interface for every function and its incredibly simple iTunes integration and updates, it's easy to see why the iPhone looks to be a huge hit. After all, it isn't just the first convergence device to be brilliantly useful; it's also the first convergence device to be useful without requiring its user to be brilliant.

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Michael deAgonia

Computerworld
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