Mike Schaeffer's Blog

Articles with tag: phone
January 12, 2012

Not too long ago, I wrote a bit on life with an iPhone 3G. Since then, Apple has revised the platform a few times, and I'verecently upgraded to the iPhone 4S. This makes now as good a time as any to revisit the points in my earlier post to see what has changed:

  • Touch Screen - The Apple touch screen is about as good as it gets. The size is a good balance between utility and portability, the hardware is well executed, and the software is very, very fluid. That said, there's still the problem that touch screens eliminate the tactile feedback you get from physical buttons. It's harder to use the phone when your eyes aren't visually focused on the display. This limitation is innate to touch screens, but it's still annoying.

  • 'Ambient Information' - iOS 5 handles notifications much more nicely than in earlier versions of iOS. However, the homescreen is still largely dead to ambient information. The only two exceptions are the numeric badges attached to icons and the calendar icon (which displays the current date). The clock icon is wrong, the weather is wrong, and the map is wrong. My hunch is that this is partially to save on battery life, but given that the iPod nano can keep an analog clock icon current, some of this limitation seems gratuitous.

  • Inconvenient Portrait/Landscape Switching - Fixed with a nice lock facility in the task switcher. (Although I rarely use the lock, so maybe it wasn't a big problem after all.)

  • Multiple e-Mail boxes - Fixed in iOS 4 with the unified mailbox view.

  • Large e-mails - I'm not honestly sure if this has been fixed, or if I just get fewer large e-mails, but I haven't noticed this nearly as much.

  • Latency - The iPhone 4S is almost completely beyond reproach. (The latency on my old 3G got terrible, with the upgrade to iOS 4.0, and the subseuent patches did nothing to correct it.)

  • App Store Rejections - There seems to have been less public drama lately around App Store rejections and policy changes. However, I'm suspecting it's mainly because Apple has given a little and developers have come to grudgingly accept the limitations that Apple still imposes.

  • App Store - It's grown to 500,000 (!) applications, but Apple still controls the horizontal and the vertical. Because they control the way applications are displayed, they have a huge degree of control over the exposure their ISV's get and the revenues those ISV's earn.

  • Keyboard - After over three years, it's still tedious and error-prone. It works, but just. What's changed in my thinking over the last couple years is that I no longer care. For me, the iPhone is almost entirely about content consumption, and the keyboard doesn't really matter that much.

  • Industrial Design - I still love the way the phone looks and feels. What's different for me is that I no longer bother with the add on case.

A couple years ago, this is where I said I wouldn't switch away from an iPhone. I recently replaced one iPhone with another, so for me, this is still mostly true; The iPhone has evolved nicely over the years, and it still fits my needs better than the alternatives. However, two things have changed in the last few years. The first is that there's now a reasonable competitor. Unlike then, the alternative to iOS isn't Windows Mobile 6.5... the modern alternative, Android, has a touch screen, a modern web browser, and a fully stocked app store. Unless Apple sues Android into submission, it has lost these things as competitive differentiators.

The second thing that's changed for me in the last couple years is more personal. As much as I like the iPhone, I can't shake the feeling that it isn't a net improvement to my overall standard of living. Amy Breesman said it well when she was recently quoted in an NPR Story: " I would almost say it's, like, a negative effect that it's had on my life. It's just kind of this rabbit hole that you're always going down.". Maybe I'd miss it more if it were gone, but I can't shake the feeling that the time spent on the phone would be better spent elsewhere. Then again, I wouldn't have known about that NPR quotation, unless I had heard it on the NPR app in my phone.

August 5, 2009

I've been meaning to write this for months... after switching to an iPhone last October I have some thoughts on the transition away from Windows Mobile. Most of my detailed comments are complaints, so before I continue, it's worth saying that I do think the iPhone is the best smart phone you can buy. It is, by far, the best answer the industry has come up with for this class of device. That said, it's more fun (and potentially useful) to complain:

  • Touch Screen - I remember shopping with my parents for a car in the late 80's. One of the cars we looked at was a Buick Riveria with a touch screen in the center console. It was cool, but since it lacked tactile feedback, you had to be looking at it to use it. Flash forward 23 years, and you can replicate this experience in the palm of your hand, for better or for worse.

  • 'Ambient Information' - The phone does a poor job of making inforation ambiently available. To see your next appointment, you need to open the Calendar unless the reminder has already displayed. (This could go on the home page.) To be notified of a new e-mail, you need to unlock the phone and look at the home page. (This could be a LED on the case.) As notifications build up, they wind up truncated and incomplete, presumably so they can fit in an artificially small box on the screen.

  • Portrait/Landscape - I wake up in the morning and want to check e-mail before I get up.. I grab the phone off the nightstand, look at the display, and it... switches to landscape mode. I'm driving down the road and want to skip a track, so I grab the phone (eyes on the road), put my finger in the general area where the 'forward' button is, and it... switches to landscape mode. Landscape is useful when you need it, and a usability menace when you don't. There needs to be better control over when it engages and when it doesn't. (In this case, physical buttons for skipping forward and backward among tracks might be nice too... Buick ultimately dropped the touch screen entirely, and modern cars with navigation tend to also offer physical controls for key functions.)

  • e-Mail - I have two e-mail accounts set up on my phone: personal and business. It takes five taps to switch between them. A unified view would be nice. (A list of the union of all inboxes, color-coded by in-box). An easier way to pick an in-box would be almost as nice.

  • Large e-mails - By default, large e-mails are only partially downloaded to the phone and there's a button at the bottom of a one of these mails that lets you download the rest. Of course, once it does, it then zips you back to the top of the mail, so you have to manually scroll through the (remember, it's large) e-mail to get to where you were reading. Argh.

  • Latency - Maybe a 3GS would fix this, but the phone seems very slow to change modes and update the display. I find myself continually waiting split-seconds for the thing to animate the transition from one display to the next. I'm asking a lot here, but I don't care... I use the thing most waking hours of most days.

  • App Store Rejections - This is a problem, it sucks for app developers, and it won't matter to the success of the platform. The vast majority of customers will never hear that Apple censored a dictionary (!), and even if they did, it won't stop them from buying. In the short term, my guess is that Apple will make whatever minimal changes it needs to make to keep developers quiet enough, and the iPhone will continue to do very well. Phone buyers don't care enough about choice, and App developers will tend to always want to code for the platform where they have the best shot at making money, which is currently the iPhone. In the long term, my guess is that a lot more of this content will wind up on mobile web sites than through the store. After all, a website can be an icon on the home page, avoid the risk of Apple's rejecton, and also get to run on Android, Pre, and Windows Mobile.

  • App Store - 25,000 applications on the site, and I might look at 10 or 20 before deciding to make a purchase. The way the store presents applications (controlled by Apple) has a huge impact on which apps succeed and which apps fail. Even if the rejection problem magically goes away, Apple still controls the horizontal and the vertical. (A lot like Google's control over the fate of websites...)

  • Keyboard - After ten months, it's still tedious and error-prone for me. It works, but just. Apple should provide a keyboard layout that works like a Blackberry (or even T9) and trades off multiple letters per key in exchange for larger keys.

  • Industrial Design - I love the way the phone looks and feels, so I wrap it in a tacky add on case to 'protect it'. So does most everybody else. Last I heard, good design was about making a product that looks good and works well. The rampant sales of cases implies to me that something is missing with the 'works well' part of that equation.

I do like the thing, and I wouldn't switch away, but it's far from perfect. Let's hope it gets better.

January 12, 2008

Last June, I wrote a bit on my experiences with the Cingular 2125 Windows Smartphone. After more than a year, the phone has been a good choice, but there have been several suprises, for both the good and the bad.

  • This is the first phone I've used with a web browser that's usable for general web surfing. Most sites render reasonably correctly, and the display is large enough to contain a useful amount of content. It's still not perfect, the browser crashes too often and it is difficult to log into reddit, but this is a vast improvement over conventional phones.
  • I installed a 1GB SD Card that is borderline useless. This might be different if I'd been more aggressively installing software or music, but as it is, the primary benefit of having a card like this is that I can now take 40,000 pictures before I run out of space.
  • Outlook integration is still incredibly useful, but it's been harder to keep the calendar in sync than I thought. This is probably due to the fact I get lots of meeting invites that change, but it's made it difficult to rely on the phone as the 'authoritative' source for my scheduling information I hoped it would be.
  • J2ME is a non-starter on this phone. There is a JVM, but it's buried under a submenu and the applications running on it look more like 'steerage class' than 'first class' citizens of the phone. They aren't integrated with the main application launcher, and their interfaces look like something out of 1988. I really get the impression that the phone has J2ME solely for the purpose of selling into corporate clients with a requirement to run custom J2ME code.
  • Given the power of the underlying hardware and the quality of the display, I was hoping to find more games for the phone. My previous two phones both had small collections of J2ME games purchased through my service provider's web site. AT&T has finally started adding games for this phone to their site, but the selection is limited, expensive, and not that great. I did at least find a few games elsewhere that are pretty fun, Atomic Cannon and Nethack. These were both pretty easy to install. Atomic Cannon, in particular, demonstrates the graphics of the phone quite well.
  • I don't use the 'Phone as Modem' capability at all. I don't have as many places where I need to use it as I thought. That said, it does work, and would be a nice way to check mail in a pinch.
June 19, 2007

Last October, I upgraded my Sony Ericcson T637 with a Cingular 2125 Smartphone. While the 2125 has since been discontinued, it's very closely related to the current Cingular 3125. The major differences between the two are that the 3125 has more memory and a different form factor; the 3125 is a flip phone rather, and the 2125 is 'candybar' style phone. Either phone has dramtically more capability than the t637.

When I bought the 2125, I had a couple main goals in mind for the upgrade. The first was e-mail integration with my employer's Microsoft based e-mail account. My second goal was to get mobile internet access for my laptops, meaning access to the web as well as to ssh and Windows remote desktop sessions. The 2125, priced at $100 with a subsidy and a rebate, was one of the cheapest ways to get at that set of features. It is a Windows Mobile 5.0 Smartphone, with a USB interface, 200MHz ARM9 class processor, 64MB RAM, QVGA display, and an EDGE network connection. Even at the time the specifications were not best in class, but it did provide the essentials, and the display was (is) gorgeous. By and large, the phone has done a good job of doing most of what I expected it to.

For me, the best aspect of the 2125 is its integration with Microsoft Outlook e-mail. Since my employer supports Microsoft's [Direct Push](http://www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile/articles/directpush.mspx) e-mail, the phone can be easily (five minutes or less) be configured to synchronize with my corporate e-mail account. Once the connection is configured, the phone maintains an active HTTP connection to the host Exchange server. As incoming e-mails arrive, the server immediately sends them back up to the phone via this connection. Once the phone receives a message, it does what you'd expect and adds them to a list, displays a notification icon on the home screen, and optionally vibrates or makes a noise. In short, it's almost idiot-proof to setup, and works exactly like every other form of text messaging on the phone. If you don't like the idea of continually being bombarded with incoming mails (or the idea of a continually open HTTP connection bothers you) the phone can be configured either to periodically poll for new mail or wait for an manual request to synchronize. Better still, there are seperate configuration options availble for user-definable 'on-peak' and 'off-peak' times. In my case, I generally leave the phone set to automatically accept incoming mails from 7:00AM to 7:00PM, and then manually synchronize otherwise.

For me, e-mail synchronization is the single best feature of the phone. I'd even go so far as to say that the jump to having mobile e-mail access has been as important a difference to me as the jump to having a mobile phone in the first place. While telephone connectivity is both immediate and universal, most of my important work-related communications happens over e-mail. Maybe it's just my job, but I get work related mails at least twenty to thirty times more often than I get work related phone calls. Not having mobile e-mail access basically means a choice between either being tied to a computer or entirely giving up access to that flow of information. In a sense, mobile e-mail access has been for me a liberating thing, a way to stay 'in the loop' but not stuck in front of a desk. The control the phone offers over its synchronization schedule then makes it easy to get 'out of the loop', assuming you have the self-discipline to not request manual synchronization too often. In practice, this has not been much of an issue for me to date. (I do not think my wife would disagree... most of the time.)

One of the pleasant suprises of the phone's e-mail features has been their integration into the other parts of the telephone. Like others, the e-mail client makes an effort to guess at 'important' content in a message: things like URL's and e-mail addresses, but also including phone numbers. Selecting a phone number in an e-mail message gives you the option to either dial the number or add it to your contact list. All of a sudden, all of those e-mail signature blocks containing phone numbers take on a whole new use. Phone number recognition also works with text messages, which pairs nicely with the part of AT&T's directory assistance service that sends text messages containing requested directory information. The phone can also use its connection to an Exchange server to provide access to the server's global phone directory. It's not integrated into the phone's standard address book and it requires an explicit search command, but that's probably a good thing considering the size of some corporate directories.

While the e-mail integration has been really useful, the other internet capabilities have been considerably less so. It is possible to tether the phone to a laptop. It is also possible to use that connection to access the web and ssh connections. However, between the fact that AT&T charges $60/month for the right to tether the phone to a laptop and the connection you then end up with is basically EDGE, it's really not as useful as I thought it'd be. For me, the low bandwidth of EDGE wasn't the problem, but the high latency was. While EDGE is two to three times faster than dial up, it takes on the order of 200-300 milliseconds for a packet to make a round trip. For interactive use of protocols like ssh, this means it can take half a second from the time you press a key on the keyboard to the time it appears in the terminal window. The net result is that an ssh session over EDGE is worse than how I remember 300 baud connections to BBS's. While I'll admit that my memory might be a bit cloudy, I can say this with certainty: despite the lower bandwidth, 56kbps dialup is far more usable than EDGE for this kind of application. More modern services like Sprint's EVDO network do not have this problem, and are probably closer to being worth $60/month. As things are now, I've dropped the $60/month tethering surcharge and stuck with a $20/month data plan that gives me unlimited data to the phone only. While I can still tether the phone to a laptop, this gives AT&T the theoretical right to charge me a per-byte amount for data the phone sends and receives when tethered to a laptop. While they do not seem to do this in practice, I confine my mobile internet access to the phone only. Thanks to the nicer display on the 2125, this is actually a usable way to read text-only web pages and blogs, which is an improvement over the Sony t637.

One other feature worth calling out on the 2125 is the fact that the directory and call history are both integrated into dialing. As you start dialing a number, the phone builds a list in real time of all matching contacts, by number and name, both in your phone book and in your call history. As the list is built, you can use the joystick to navigate through it, select a match, and either dial it or display its details. The only glitch in the logic is that the list presents matches from the call history with a higher priority than matches from the directory. If someone in your directory calls you and you miss the call, this means that the first entry in the list of matches will be the match from the missed call, and not the match from the directory. When you select the entry to see the details, what you'll see is the time the call was missed, and not the other numbers you have for that contact. If you want to call them back on a different number from the number from which they called you, this ends up adding a few steps to find the directory entry.

While a lot of the features I mention above stem from the fact that the phone runs Windows Mobile 5.0, this is not something I've really focused on in this post. I didn't care about the OS the T637 ran, and for the most part, it's been the same for this phone too. While it's theoretically possible to find all sorts of wonderful applications and games for Windows phones, I haven't found anything I can't live without, and neither AT&T nor Handango have done a good job helping me spend my money on mobile software. AT&T seems not to sell Windows Mobile software at all, and Handango makes you download a custom catalog application to see their software offerings for the phone; This catalog application did not work properly for the one application I tried to buy. I wish this situation was better, since I would be willing to at least buy a few games for the phone, and the one game I have installed right now, a clone of Scorched Earth, is good enough that it seems likely the platform could support some great applications and games. Even without games, this phone has been a nice upgrade, and it came at a reasonable price. Compare this with something like the iPhone, and it's hard to get all that excited about spending five times more money for a phone with no e-mail integration, the same lousy EDGE network, and even less opportunities for outside software.

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