iPhone 3GS

Hardware encryption, voice synthesis, macro (10cm) photography, extensive voice control — and all the stuff everyone predicted. The macro photography is actually a very nice feature, since it makes the iPhone a pretty dandy scanner in a pinch. Voice control for the iPod is, for me, a bigger win than voice dialing — but then I don’t talk on the phone much. Voice synthesis I like because of one of my pet back-burner projects.

As for the stuff everyone predicted. The old iPhone 3G is now $99. The new 3GS has a compass, 3MP camera, autofocus lens, tap-to-focus, supports video, in-iPod video trimming, supports turn-by-turn navigation, 2-3x speed improvement, push support, 16/32 GB for $199/299 (and of course you need to commit to AT&T for two years).

If you’ve got an iPhone 3G, the new model will cost you $400 more ($599/$699). Ouch.

Stuff that didn’t seem to be there: more actual RAM on the iPhone, (Edit: correction, a German website accidentally revealed that the new iPhone does indeed have 256MB of RAM) background apps (does anyone really care?), 802.11n.

Available June 19th.

Palm Pre

Two Years Too Late, Too Big, Too Heavy, and With Too Small A Screen

The Palm Pre is now entering the upper reaches of the hyposphere.

It’s been two years since the iPhone launched, they’ve had the benefit of hiring a bunch of Apple veterans to work on it, and the iPhone to steal ideas from. Oh, and a long history of developing smartphones and PDAs to draw upon. As you’d expect, with all these advantages, the Palm Pre is bigger (see note 1), heavier (see note 1), has a smaller screen (see note 1), and makes no mention of processor capability or battery life on its main tech specs page.

According to Jon Rubenstein — formerly of Apple, now the chief technical guy at Palm — if there’s one thing he hopes he learned at Apple it was “taste”. And the best they could come up with is a black puck with rounded corners?

Here’s an interesting video from All Things Digital (D7) featuring interviews with Palm’s (now) key people and demos of the Pre in action. My initial impressions are that the UI looks fiddly, early reports (see note 2) are that the keyboard is very hard to use (it actually sounds worse than the iPhone’s glass keyboard, since the latter is designed to compensate for mistaken keystrokes).

The iPhone's "glass keyboard" next to the Pre's plastic one. Note that the iPhone's keyboard expands if you turn the phone sideways (and becomes very easy to use).
The iPhone's "glass keyboard" next to the Pre's plastic one. Note that the iPhone's keyboard expands if you turn the phone sideways (and becomes very easy to use).

Also, if you look at the demos in the video, the “multitasking” WebOS looks (a) slow, and (b) somewhat faked. I’m guessing when an app slides into view, you’re looking at a screenshot, which then sits there for a moment before suddenly coming to life. (I’m guessing that they give background processes very small time slices and then give them a chance to update their screenshot when they’re within “sliding distance”.) This may make the demos look smooth, but it will rapidly become annoying to users (much as I get infuriated by Windows’s tendency to sit frozen for two minutes after booting).

Attention to Detail

If you look at a bunch of screenshots of the Pre, one thing you may notice is how little information is on each screen. For example, in the “send a mail message” screenshot most of the screen is wasted on crap like a photograph of the recipient and a big grey — sorry gray — bar to stick it in. The Photo Albums screen shows five photo albums vs. seven with a hint of an eighth for the iPhone. The launcher app has room for nine icons, while the iPhone manages sixteen. In summary, every screen seems to have been designed to look good rather than function well. (It’s also probably a result of the Pre’s slightly smaller screen.)  The problem is that when you don’t balance form and function you tend to produce an uglier and less useful result. You know who else makes this kind of mistake when ripping off Apple’s ideas? Microsoft.

Palm wasting screen real estate. If I have a small screen you'd better be damn sure to use 40% of it to tell me who the email is from, to, and its attachments. (See note 3.)

You may remember Tufte complimenting the iPhone UI design as removing a bunch of “debris” from the user interface. Well, Palm put it all back in.

What Palm Isn’t Dwelling On

There’s a golden rule in advertising. Take your shakiest feature and make like it’s your strongest feature. But as a corollary, if you are completely missing a feature or you’re an active laughingstock, don’t mention it at all. This is, presumably, why AT&T and Verizon both claim to have fabulous network coverage (they both suck, of course). It’s why GM is advertising about how it’s a company you can depend on (maybe that might stop now as this claim moves from shaky to laughable). And it’s probably why Comcast never mentions customer service in its ads.

The Pre web pages don’t offer any screenshots of web browsing. (Apparently web browsing is not WebOS’s strong suit. Ironic? Edit: looks like it’s not a big problem at minimum, see Update 2)

Predictions

Will every iPhone 1.0 buyer get a Pre? I very much doubt they’ll jump at it without seeing the iPhone 3.0 (and possible new hardware) announcement. And anyone who has been keeping track knows that the features Apple has already revealed in iPhone 3.0 already exceed many of the Pre’s headline features (e.g. universal search, turn-by-turn GPS navigation). Apple has known what the Pre was going to offer for over six months, and it may be many things, but stupid isn’t one of them.

Updates

Walt Mossberg just reviewed the Pre, and didn’t say anything about web browsing. David Pogue’s Pre review likewise fails to even mention browsing at all. When you’re given a review copy of something the PR Agency (or whatever) handling it will send you a helpful review template to base your review on. Interesting, huh?

In her Pre review, Ginny Mies of PCWorld at least mentions that:

The Pre’s full HTML Web browser renders pages beautifully. You can have as many browser windows open as you want (you’re limited only by the available memory), and you can still save pages for offline viewing (say, while in flight)–a huge boon that Palm OS devices have always had, and that competing devices lack.

It seems to me that the overall tenor of the reviews is “wow, it’s actually almost as nice as an iPhone”, which is hardly going to do Palm much good given their dismal third party app situation and the fact that their point of comparison will be obselete in a few days.

Update 2

Daringfireball links to two more reviews from Gizmodo (“If Palm had just been able to make the Pre feel and look less plasticky, the closed-state exterior would be almost perfect.” — the reviewer hated the phone when open, demonstrating that you could cut cheese with its sharp exposed edge) and Engadget (the web browser is fine and “In a somewhat unscientific run of repeated DSLReports mobile speed tests, we found that the Pre averaged 634Kbps downstream, while the iPhone and G1 nabbed 552Kbps and 413Kbps, respectively.”, it can view office docs and PDFs, but falls over with largish/complex docs) — so I stand corrected if that’s true).

And finally, from the Gizmodo review: “I’m bored of the iPhone. The core functionality and design have remained the same for the last two years, and since 3.0 is just more of the same, and—barring some kind of June surprise—that’s another year of the same old icons and swiping and pinching. It’s time for something different.” Ah Gizmodo! Now there’s one of the iPhone 1.0 buyers who will jump ship instantly. Who needs consistency?

Notes

  1. The iPhone has a 3.5″ screen and is 115.5 x 62.1 x 12.3mm (88cc), 133g. The Pre has a 3.1″ screen and measures 100.5 x 59.5 x 16.95mm (101cc), 135g.
  2. “When you try and type on the top row of keys, your finger hits the bottom part of the front piece and on top of that, you often hit multiple keys at the same time while typing” Boy Genius Report
  3. The ability to view Office and PDF documents is another feature conspicuously absent from the Pre’s advertised features.

Typing on the iPhone

Daringfireball posted this link today. It’s a challenge to type “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” while riding shotgun in a rally car going full tilt, using either an iPhone or an ASUS netbook. Rather than expect you to go watch the video (which is fairly long), let me just tell you the outcome — the iPhone won so easily it flabbergasted me. Basically, because the guy was typing correctly spelled words, the iPhone autocorrected everything to perfection, and the only mistake was the guy typed the words in the wrong order. On the netbook he couldn’t type a single recognisable word.

Now, I don’t particularly enjoy typing text on my iPhone (if you get a four word email from me, you know where I typed it), but I will say that in landscape mode I find the keyboard actually very good (it pretty much sucks in portrait mode, and I struggle constantly with the autocorrect to type in names, etc.). What this really points to is the advantage, in this particular situation, of (a) having autocorrect, and (b) being able to use a device single-handed. If the finger you’re typing with is on the same hand you’re holding the device inwhen in a rally car, I suspect that’s a huge proportion of the advantage.

But this is post-hoc rationalization. I fully expected the netbook to win easily.

Expectations Dashed and Exceeded (iPhone 3.0 Addendum)

Whatever iPhone 3.0 features Apple announces—copy-and-paste, push notifications, video capture, or hourly affirmations of what a swell human being you are for owning such a superlative phone—somebody, somewhere will declare that Apple’s announcement failed to live up to expectations. From Macworld.com “Apple and the Expectations Game”

Apple has added a bunch of things to the iPhone (as of 3.0) that folks like Engadget (and I) didn’t even think of wishing for. Bluetooth networking for collaborative apps (such as games) and perhaps third-party tethering if Apple doesn’t give it to us out-of-the-box. Apps that can talk directly to third-party hardware. In-app purchasing (so you can sell a magazine app that adds new issues, or a game app that adds new levels). Deluge of new APIs, including wrapping functionality from Apple’s apps (such as Google Maps) into APIs so any developer can easily use them. Support for turn-by-turn directions (provided you supply your own map database). Push notifications (finally — and Apple cited concrete reasons for using them instead of background apps, namely huge drop in battery life and significant hit to performance). Voice memo recorder (seems like an obvious function, but why not integrate it with Notes?). Support for calendars other than iCal and Exchange (yay). Spotlight feature (allows searching throughout the iPhone’s app data and apps — kind of like Spotlight on a Mac (obviously) or the Newton’s search function). Auto-fill (seems like a no-brainer but nice to have it).

When the Apple folks say “over 1000 APIs” one can only assume (and indeed hope) they mean something like “1000 API calls” or “1000 newly exposed classes, methods, and properties”. Another term has become devalued.

Now, back in the realm of things that did appear in wish lists: Cut, Copy, and Paste. (I see they’ve mapped double-tap to clipboard functions… That’s a bit of a shame. The Newton’s “draw a circle around it” gesture would have been nice.) MMS (multimedia messages … inevitable but … sigh). Landscape mode for all major (Apple) apps. Stereo bluetooth.

Post Script

In the Q&A after the main presentation it emerges that tethering is supported in 3.0, but there’s a question as to which carriers will permit it.

iPhone 3.0

I’ve just finished reading an article purporting to reveal what Apple needs to “fix” to keep the iPhone competitive. The correct answer is, of course, whatever it’s currently doing is just fine. It’s like asking what Honda needs to do to remain competitive. The iPhone is going to be “competitive” for quite a while even if Apple does nothing because nothing its competitors have produced or demoed but not yet actually produced can actually face off against the iPhone as it is right now.

The Good

Copy and paste does seem overdue. I don’t think anyone would argue that.

Faster CPU. If we can have a faster CPU without losing battery life (or better yet, while gaining battery life) then definitely.

Faster GPU. See Faster CPU, above.

The Bad… er Difficult

Search. Not being able to search emails, notes, appointments etc. is hugely annoying. This is why I use gmail (in Safari) over the built-in mail program (by the way, it works brilliantly on the iPhone — great example of an iPhone web app) — it lets me search my mail server-side. Apple could provide this kind of functionality via the built-in mail program for MobileMe and gmail customers, but not for arbitrary IMAP back-ends since it isn’t downloading your entire mailbox.

Video. This seems like a no-brainer — except that the microphone points the wrong way, so audio is going to suck.

The Stupid

Multimedia text messaging. OK, I’m not a big SMS user so I’m not really one to judge this, but my guess is that Apple is hoping that iPhone users will realize that the correct answer is email. The reason we can’t use email the way we use SMS is purely a UI issue. Being able to attach video clips to SMS messages is just retarded.

3.5MP camera. It’s not the megapixels, it’s the sensor size, lens, and the image processing.

Being able to run background apps is supposedly a killer feature. Even Guy Kawasaki thinks so! Well, let’s find out what people think of the Palm Pre’s battery life when apps run in the background before we decide the iPhone must have this feature. It seems to me that gaming performance and battery life are stupendously more important than running background apps to most users. I’d suggest that just possibly providing apps with a very limited ability to keep a lightweight background process running (or handle certain events) might be a good idea, but actually background apps is just stupid.

Thinking Outside the Box

OK, ignoring engadget, here’s some of my thoughts as to what Apple should be doing with iPhone 3.0 (or 4.0 or whatever).

I’d like to see a Message Center app on the iPhone that unifies SMS, email, phone calls and voicemails, to dos, and calendar reminders. (I’m surprised this wasn’t part of iPhone 1.0 as it seems like the whole point of the iPhone.) You could simply filter it as you saw fit. You could reply to an email with an SMS, or phone a person who just sent you email, or email someone you have an appointment to see. This would be clever and innovative (and useful). It would also reduce the number of app icons you’d need to bother with.

I’d like to see more flexible lists, and UI innovation in general. If you make a lists vertical, then you can only list 8-10 items. But if you use grids you can list 32-40 items. Or 28-36 items + a single line display to show more information about whichever item you tap. Some more flexible UI elements could make more efficient use of screen real estate where appropriate.

Here’s a simple thing — do a better job of picking which keys to make available by default on the on-screen keyboard. E.g. it would be really nice to have “@” and “.” available on any keyboard inside a web form. Oh and I’d like the autocomplete popup to be made about 50% bigger so I can actually tap on it reliably.

I’d like to see some standardized on-screen game controls that would transparently be mapped to hardware controls if and when available. (I always thought Apple shot itself in the foot by not giving the original Mac a standard game controller (joystick, etc.) that developers could build against.) This lets game developers use standardized controls (e.g. virtual joysticks, 4-way and 8-way controllers, etc.) and gives Apple the option of creating or licensing hardware game controllers (either built-in or as accessories) in the future.

And finally, a Modest Proposal

I’d like to see Apple allow Macs to run iPhone software. Apple could obviously do this (the dev kit lets you do it). Suddenly, there are more games for the Mac than there are for the XBox 360, PS3, PSP, Wii, and DS.

I’d like to see Apple allow the AppleTV to run iPhone software. Again, since AppleTVs are in fact low-end single-core Macs, see previous item. Suddenly, Apple has a credible set-top box.

Note that these last two suffer from the problem of Macs (and AppleTVs) lacking multitouch. So it’s not quite so simple. My standardized game controllers idea is something of a prerequisite… or the alternative which is providing an iPhone-like multitouch controller for Macs.