I have been using the iPhone now for about a month. Most reviews have looked at the iPhone as an iPod with benefits or as a quantum leap in cell phone user interface design. But the real question is: Can it replace my Blackberry? Because you see, I am already married and unless this new device is so good that it makes me want to divorce my Blackberry, then it will be relegated to seeing me only at dinner parties and while traveling. So before we even discuss the iPhone, we need to talk about the competition.
My love affair with the Blackberry goes way back. I had the little blackberry that looked like a pager and then several others leading up to the new world phone Blackberry 8830 by Verizon (GSM and CDMA). I have also been a loyal Verizon customer because although their customer service is mediocre and they never let you forget that they are the “Phone Company,” the actual cell phone network is second to none. Inside the Lincoln tunnel going to NYC? Sitting on a train within the tunnel to NJ? No problem. 3 bars or better. In NYC, Verizon cell phones often work in the subway until the door closes. Most folks won’t admit it, but a Verizon Blackberry can typically send and receive email several times from a window seat on a coast to coast flight. Wow.
My Blackberry is hooked up in the best configuration possible: directly to our Microsoft Exchange server using the Blackberry Enterprise Redirector. I don’t sync my Blackberry. It syncs over the wireless network in the background, all the time. When I replace my Blackberry periodically (they don’t last forever and between dropping them, banging them and somehow exposing them to submersion, I tend to get a new or refurbished one once a year), the Blackberry reincarnates itself over the network like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. I just put in just my email address and a password and my email, contacts, calendar, notes and even web browsing bookmarks show up on my new Blackberry. This is the right model for a portable device. It gets its personality from the network and the device itself is fungible.
When I respond to email on my Blackberry, it shows up as replied-to within Outlook. And if a calendar entry is added by my assistant to my calendar from a desktop computer (for example and updated location for a meeting) then my Blackberry gets it silently in the background. It is PDA nirvana. True enough that I can not watch movies or listen to music on my Blackberry, but frankly, I don’t do much of that at work. It would cut into my techcrunch time.
If someone sends me a meeting request, I can respond wirelessly on my Blackberry and it feels to the recipient that I am sitting at my desk.
So if the only PDA you have ever touched is a Palm device running Good Link or something against a POP account, you just haven’t lived. Period.
Now with that context out of the way, can I just use my iPhone?
The short answer is not yet but it is tempting.
Having to tether the iPhone via USB to the mother ship to get contacts and calendar entries is a big negative for me. That would take me all the way back to Blackberry circa 1999.
For email, the iPhone is ok – certainly the ability to render HTML email is superior to the Blackberry, but the iPhone does not continuously send and receive email in the background like a Blackberry. Instead, it periodically polls for email. That is just not satisfying enough for someone who sometimes just stares at the upper right corner of their Blackberry watching for incoming and outgoing packets.
The keyboard is workable on the iPhone, but I am faster on even the small Blackberry 8830 keyboard with its too-cramped keys. Yes, I practiced and timed myself on both. At the end of the day, I can look at the screen and type on a Blackberry because there is tactile feedback, something the iPhone does not have, even with all its whizbang predictive correction software.
I hooked my iPhone up to our exchange server using IMAP. This is probably just about the best configuration possible for an iPhone, and yet it fails to match the Blackberry in its ability to mirror the desktop experience.
The ATT network is pretty much a disaster across the board. The Edge network is too slow for anything but email, and even there it is painfully slow to watch the iPhone check mail, something that it does when you start the mail client. ATT has exactly zero bars of service in many places. I just was in the Grand Canyon this past week and took both devices. My Verizon Blackberry did have intermittent service within the Park. The iPhone? Nothing.
The iPhone will use a WiFi network, and there it is brilliant. And as has been roundly noted, the Safari web browser on the iPhone is by far the most usable implementation of a web browser on any portable device, bar none. The iPhone gets this award even though there is no Flash plugin for the thing so you can’t see any Flash content on the web. Phanfare web albums look great on the iPhone (too bad the Flash slideshow won’t play). The Blackberry browser is best used to get a phone number or other very small piece of information.
Yes, the iPhone has a dedicated Google maps app, but the lack of built in GPS is a huge missing feature to having it route you, and if you are on the road and using the Edge network, it is slow to be useful anyway. Within the office the maps feature is nice, but how far are you from a desktop computer when in the office?
As an around-the-office device, browsing the web, reading email, the iPhone’s HTML rendering of email and ability to browse the web overwhelms its other shortcomings. If only you could get WiFi speeds from the iPhone when outside your office consistently, then maybe.
As a phone, the iPhone needs a software upgrade. On a Blackberry, I can call a person with about 3 keystrokes and a click. First push brings the phone mode up, then I start typing their name and then click to call. On the iPhone, it is just comical. I push the main on button, then push the phone button, and then carefully scroll down through the alphabet to select the contact to call. Try doing that while driving.
As an entertainment device, the iPhone is spectacular. You really can watch a movie on this thing. I bring my iPhone with me when I travel and find that its off-network entertainment value as a video iPod justifies the trouble of carrying it. I recently bought a season of Firefly and watched it while traveling. Note that since the full season was too large to fit on the iPhone, and since I wanted to watch the episodes in order, I had to Google on how to create a smart list within iTunes to get the right episodes synched to the device. You iTunes-a-holics know what I am talking about. Not quite “simple.”
The user interface, as everyone has noted, is a huge leap forward for a portable device. It is intuitive and fun to use. Overall, the iPhone is an intensely lickable device that you just want to endlessly toy with. Apple tends to get the lickability of their devices right. Someone at Apple, we can only assume Steve Jobs, has great taste. We will never go back. Apple has set the bar to a new level. Compared to the experience offered by the wireless carriers (Have you tried Get it Now on a stock Verizon phone? Only a 15 year old could love it) the iPhone is like night and day. Apple knows it. The public knows it, and the wireless carriers know it. We are not going back.
So where does that leave me with my iPhone? Alas, the iPhone holds pretty much the same place my old iPod did. I will take it on a trip or maybe even play with it around the house, but it fails to replace my workhorse Blackberry. But this is the iPhone 1.0. I have no doubt that Apple will win this war. If the iPhone wirelessly synched itself in the background to some good set of web-based apps, like Google’s Mail/docs/calendar bundle, and shipped on Verizon’s network with EVDO, then this device would be hard to beat (note that today the iPhone uses Gmail only via POP).
And then there is the iPhone as a camera. In a perfect world, images and videos (if it supported video) taken on the iPhone would wirelessly sync themselves to your Phanfare account and everything in your Phanfare account would be synched in small form to your iPhone. Someday.