2013-01-29 20:40:35

The Apple Experiment: Conclusions

At this point I've used the iPhone continuously as a main phone for a month in a row. I've made serious attempts to replicate all workflows I used on my Android phone, with varying results.

Holding it Wrong

The first thing you'll notice is that data transfers appear to be really slow over GSM most of the time. It's ok for reading Twitter using the app, but if you open a web site it can take a number of minutes before you finally have at least the text to read in front of you. Under the same conditions, the Android phone could load the web site in a matter of seconds (still slow, but it's mobile, so well). Using the same carrier, of course.

There's the old joke that people are simply holding the iPhone wrong. I think it was Steve Jobs who came up with this joke when he was still alive. Either way, I tried various ways of holding the phone, including upside down, and nothing would improve the page loading speed.

To add to the pain, the iPhone interpretes touchscreen presses which arrive while the screen is darkened (to announce impending screen lock). So if you tap somewhere on the screen to keep it awake while loading the page, it suddenly follows some not-yet-displayed link and you'll never see the page you wanted to go to.

An additional annoyance is the switch to turn sounds on and off. It is generally a good idea, however, you will always end up switching sounds on and off like mad with your pocket.

Which brings us to the general point that the iPhone hardware is incredibly fragile. Android devices appear relatively sturdy with their gorilla glass. If you drop them by accident, they aren't usually damaged. If you drop an iPhone on the floor, the glass will typically be shattered, and worse effects may occur.

Multi-singletasking in Mind

One of the biggest points you will notice quite quickly is that there is an enormous lack of integration of the different apps. Imagine for example that you want to share a link to something. You have Twitter, Google+, Delicious, Soup (well ok, they don't have an iPhone client), mail, chat, etc. on the phone. However, there is no common sharing dialog like in Android. Every App has to integrate all those programs itself in its own sharing dialog. This means that you can only share to whatever the App writer was aware of.

Likewise, there are no URL namespaces. If you get a Google Docs link in mail (not GMail, which tries to work around this), it will be opened in the browser. YouTube links? Open them in the browser. Google+ links? Open the browser, too. It would be much more valuable to use the dedicated apps for those purposes instead so people can use the service more efficiently, especially given the painfully slow page loads.

To address this problem, App implementors have written the most useless workarounds. If you click on a link in the Twitter app, a new embedded browser will be launched inside Twitter, because Twitter doesn't want to lose everything which was currently open. That makes sense for Twitter, but not as a whole, especially since that embedded browser lacks some controls and is really awkward to use. Especially as you now have two back buttons. And you can't switch to a different tab from the main browser instance, because it is not the browser.

Another issue is copying and pasting. Just like in early Linux days, it works part of the time and sometimes you get inexplicable results. Some Apps just don't seem to care though and just don't offer copying and pasting. I would have expected this to work ok in anything implemented after 1993.

To add insult to injury, apps which don't get the focus for a while are quit. This is quite annoying when you use a Jabber client on the phone, because you have to get it back into the foreground every couple of minutes to prevent it from quitting and being disconnected. As a workaround, many Jabber clients send you push notifications a minute or two before they're terminated. But that's nothing more than an ugly, annoying hack and far from the nice integration of Jabber clients as background tasks in Android.

Notify … but about what?

Notifications (”push messages“) are another issue where the current solution is unbearable. It appears that every app has its own notification process which cannot communicate with the main process. This goes even as far as to add a counter to the app icon. For example, you have 2 Twitter notifications. They are displayed on your screen lock, although truncated. You unlock the screen and find that the Twitter icon has a small ”2“ besides it, indicating that two unread notifications have been received.

Then you open Twitter and you don't see anything at all. It doesn go to the replies tab because apparently the App doesn't know you want that. You open the replies tab and realize it doesn't have your reply yet because it hasn't been reloaded since the message arrived. Given that Twitter ran in the background, that's kindof logical, but it isn't helpful and not a way in which I would want to implement my Apps. And it doesn't just affect Twitter: it's everywhere! TweetDeck has it, Mail has it, GMail has it, even the App Store has it. If we're fetching all that data for the notification, why can't we just have it in the app as well? What kind of notifications are those? Especially given the poor data transfer rates of the iPhone you really don't want to wait for all your replies to be downloaded again.

Even worse, it's quite difficult to actually follow notifications because when you click on one, all the others tend to go away. So you will know that something happened but you have no way of following up without looking through your phone and installed Apps. Why?!

And since I mentioned the icon: there is no reasonable way to sort a list of generic things other than alphabetically. The phone knows the language of the user and thus the sorting alphabet to use. Yet all apps appear in the order in which they have been installed. That's cool if you just installed something, but in a few days you won't remember if you installed SecureChat before or after pterm. So either let the user categorize the icons into desktops, with grouping functions, all by themselves, or don't assume anything and just order the icons alphabetically. I know that SecureChat comes after pterm in the latin alphabet.

If you buy an iPhone, you must be rich

Another really big minus is the pricing of iPhone apps. On Android, you get a great variety of good apps for free. For example, you have ConnectBot, a decent SSH client which someone implemented. People like to share stuff for Android for free. And the average Android app in the market costs CHF 1.99, so not terribly expensive.

On the iPhone, the general idea appears to be ”You paid a lot of money for your phone, so you can pay a lot of money for your Apps“. The most reasonable SSH client appears to be pTerm, which costs CHF 5.-. It's merely a port of PuTTY to the iPhone, so it's based on Open Source software, yet you pay more for it than you pay for a loaf of bread.

The regular iPhone port of the RealVNC viewer is sold for CHF 10.-. It's even twice as expensive as the already-expensive SSH client. It costs more than a loaf of bread and a decent piece of cheese. Nagios clients cost between CHF 15.- and 20.-. A client for a web interface which lets you view fields and click buttons.

In this respect the so-called ”Genius“, a function in the App Store which advertises you Apps you could buy, becomes even more ridiculous.

Welcome to the iCloud, where everything

And then there's the iCloud. I already mentioned all the fun I had with trying to create an account there. Once I had my account I couldn't import my calendar from anywhere. Because why would you want to do that? Now that you have an iPhone you can make totally new, more shiny friends!

Then I tried exporting an ical file from a web site and importing it into iCloud. The phone didn't really know what an .ics file is supposed to be, so I tried using the web interface. It's full of fancy features for creating calendar events, but the one thing it cannot do is importing calendars. The data is siloed in the iCloud, no communication with the outside is permitted. No matter which way.

What went well

There are two things iPhones are really good at. The first is good support for customer apps by companies. For example, Crédit Suisse so far only released their online banking App for iPhones, not for Android. The same goes for the german institute Deutsche Bank.

(On the other hand, small indy apps like Soup tend to be more widely available on Android.)

The other thing is podcasts. Apple has had a lot of time to implement a good podcast App, and so far there appears to be no good equivalent for Android. There are some podcast apps, some of which even work ok. But none of the tested ones have the comfort of the Apple Podcast App at this precise moment.

Conclusions

It is possible to use the iPhone as ones primary device for a period of time. However, the discomfort of doing so and the various annoyances suggest it is not a good idea. I was extremely happy when I could finally pick up my Galaxy Nexus and use it again. All in all, the iPhone feels like the bad phone hardware from 2005 mixed with an operating system from 1993, which is not a very pleasant experience.

Especially given the high price, required involvement (owning and maintaining a Mac, buying MacOS upgrades, buying an iPhone, buying apps, etc.) and the high risk of damaging the phone, it seems a rather questionable investment.

In my opinion, the iPhone needs a couple of years to come to the same level that other phones already have. The entire operating system needs to be better integrated (like Linux desktops, for example). The hardware needs a revamp and needs to catch up with recent developments like gorilla glass and covered switches, or more sturdy hardware in general.

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