In defence of the iPhone

I’m going to be on Radio Scotland’s MacAulay and Co to talk about mobile phones on Tuesday morning. The piece is partly because of the iPhone hype, and partly because of a PayPal survey that suggests a majority of Brits have no idea how to use their various gadgets. According to the survey, phones are the worst offenders – and I’d agree, because in my experience most phones are exceptionally unfriendly. You get used to their quirks over time, but there’s still a fairly hefty learning curve involved, especially if you want to do useful things such as get online. Too many phones seem to have been designed from a tech-centric perspective rather than a user-centric one, which is why even committed geeks turn the air blue when trying to make their phones do something useful.

Here’s a simple illustration of the problem: predictive text. Different firms use different keys, so even when phones have identical keypads the buttons do different things depending on whether you’re using a Sony, a Samsung, a Moto or a Nokia. Then there are differences between the predictive text systems, so the Sony Ericcson W950 loves turning the short word you’re trying to get into a huge long word you don’t want and have to delete. And there are differences between different models from the same manufacturer, so the predictive text on a SE W810 is slightly different from the system on the W950. And that’s before you get to the weird interface decisions, such as the W950’s use of the Blackberry-style thumbwheel for word selection, which is unintuitive when your fingers are on the keypad.

And that’s just texting, one of the simplest things our phones can do. Things get much worse when you start messing around with browsers (which is why I reckon everyone should dump their phone browser and use Opera Mini or Mobile instead. Unlike far too many phone browsers, Opera actually makes sense).

Reading the results of the PayPal survey and thinking about the various gadget niggles that really piss me off, it’s made me think that I’ve probably been too negative about the iPhone, particularly in the .net podcast where I took the role of Reality Distortion Field escapee.

For all its flaws – and, unless you’re a real fanboy, there are some pretty obvious ones – the iPhone’s really important feature is its interface (I’m not just saying this from screenshots – the MacFormat chaps have had a proper play with the iPhone and they’re extremely impressed). While in many respects the iPhone does much the same thing that Windows Mobile devices have done for years, the big difference between the Apple version and other firms’ versions is that its interface won’t be shite.