March 29th, 2009 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Apple, iPhone, Tech

I’ve had my new iPhone for a bit over 5 days now.  Combined with my earlier iPod Touch experience, that’s long enough to start forming some thoughts about what I like and what I don’t like.

Battery Life

Youza!  If you use the data connection a fair amount, you certainly do have to keep a charger nearby.  I set up the phone with the login info for my email and set it to check for new mail every 15 minutes.  I’m not really that impatient about getting my email when I’m away from my desktop, but I knew from past experience with the AT&T Tilt that accessing email that often would give the battery a good workout, and I wanted to see how the iPhone did.  I had plans to attend the Game Developer’s Conference show on Thursday and Friday, so it was a good opportunity to test out the phone in the field.

My previous phone was the AT&T Tilt, a 3G-based Windows-Mobile also known as the HTC 8925.  In fact, last year’s GDC show happened shortly after I had started using the data plan for that phone.   I didn’t really think about it until after the fact, but for all intents and purposes I gave the Tilt very much the same test drive last year as I did with the iPhone this week. 

At the show, I was checking my email every so often and occasionally looking up something on the web.  I tweeted a few times as well, which I didn’t do last year with the Tilt.  (I dunno if Twitter was around yet back then, but I didn’t know about it if so.)  I made a few calls, but mostly I used the phone as a web & email device. 

At the end of the evening, I was down to perhaps 30% battery remaining.  That’s really not terrible, but I now see why there’s a booming market for add-on batteries for this thing.  Someone who used the phone more could easily have run out of juice.  

If I remember correctly, I also used up roughly the same amount of battery life on the Tilt last year.  However, the iPhone is significantly thinner and lighter, and has a much smaller battery. And I could probably have saved some battery life by changing my email check to every 30 or even every 60 minutes, or by just doing it manually when I was actually looking at the phone.

Ultimately, I don’t think the battery life will be a problem any time for me soon… I am usually close enough to my car or home, or somewhere else I can plug-in to charge.  But it is something I’ll need to pay more attention to.

MMS

Multimedia Messaging Service.  Basically it’s an instant message with embedded video or an embedded still image.  It’s been around for years and years… quite literally since the 20th century.  It’s been around almost as long as Short Messaging Service (SMS), otherwise known as the basic text message.  There’s nothing particularily special about the format.  A device that’s otherwise capable of handling video and still images should have no problems with the requirements of MMS.   And yet… the iPhone doesn’t support it.

It’s supposed to be included in v3.0 of the iPhone software, coming this summer.  But that is then, and this is now.  I’ve searched the web for any sort of explanation from Apple about why MMS support wasn’t included in earlier versions of the iPhone’s software, but haven’t found anything but end-user speculation.  Frankly, I suspect Steve Jobs must have been frightened by a rogue MMS message as a young child, and it scared him for life. 

I was on my 3rd or 4th call with the new phone when I realized I wanted to take a picture of something and send it to the person I was talking to. I really hadn’t thought too much about the iPhone’s lack of MMS support before that.  On the last few phones I’ve used, it wasn’t terribly easy to step from the “Phone” screen to the “camera” screen to take a picture, so I didn’t really do MMS much.  But it was so easy to get to the iPhone’s camera while in the middle of a call, that I didn’t even think twice about it.  It wasn’t until after taking the picture that I got somewhat annoyed when I remembered I couldn’t just send it to my friend’s phone.

It’s true that a lot of modern phones support EMAIL, and you can do pretty much the same thing with an EMAIL message that you might do with an MMS message.  However, email support isn’t quite universal. In particular, my friend’s phone doesn’t support EMAIL, so when I ended up emailing the picture instead, it meant he had to wait until he got home to see the picture, instead of just getting it on his phone while we were talking.

There are a couple of apps out there that do what amounts to a workaround for MMS.  Generally, to send a message, the information is uploaded to an intermediary web server, which then formats and sends a REAL MMS message.  From the iPhone user’s viewpoint, it’s fairly seamless.  The downside is that you’re at the mercy of the intermediary website, which may not be operational 24/7.

Receiving messages is a bit more problematic…  because the iPhone can’t directly receive MMS messages, when one comes your way, AT&T sends you a regular SMS text message that has a link to a web page where the original MMS message can be viewed.  The better MMS receiver apps seem to work by grabbing the link from the SMS message and downloading the information  from the AT&T website.  I’m not sure how much easier this is than just viewing the message in Safari, but I haven’t tried it yet.

This is something I need to play around with a little bit… as an iPhone developer, I could simply install the beta 3.0 software now, but I’m not sure if that’s what I want to do just yet.

Video

I can say with some confidence that I didn’t record video on my Tilt more than a handful of times.  There were many reasons for that, like the camera’s poor performance in low-light situations (i.e. anything but broad daylight).  The unwieldy controls were another factor.  However, it always seemed to be a feature that I sort of wished I could use more often. 

I knew the iPhone didn’t “officially” support video recording when I bought it, but I also knew that if one was willing, you could “jailbreak” the device in order to install unsanctioned applications such as video recording.

Apple recently made some statement that one of the reasons video recording wasn’t supported was that the iPhone’s internal flash memory was subject to increased error rates when you do video.  On the surface, that sounds reasonable, but interestingly, when I search online for reports of problems from people who have been “unofficially” using their phone to record video, I don’t find any mention at all of any problems caused by failures with the flash memory. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but if it was really that big a problem it wouldn’t be that hard to find news about it.

Rumors about the next version of the iPhone hardware have included whispers about video recording capability.  I honestly can’t imagine that the current hardware uses some sort of flash memory that’s different from what everybody else uses, so if there’s really anything to Apple’s claims, the only way around it that I can see would be for Apple to include some sort of slot for removable memory.  I’d welcome the addition of a Micro SD slot to the phone, especially if it meant extra storage for video and music playback as well as video recording.  I really don’t want to have to buy a new phone just to get video recording, since it will be another two years before I’m again eligible for an equipment discount, but if the new phone included a memory card slot it’d be worth considering.

Coming In Part 2

In  part 2, I’ll talk about about some of the apps that I’ve tried so far.  Also, a word or three about iPhone accessories.

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March 21st, 2009 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Apple, iPhone, Tech

I may not have an iPhone just yet, but I’ve played around with those belonging to friends.  And I do have an iPod Touch, so I’m not completely ignorant of the basic iPhone experience.  Since it needs a WiFi connection to do most of the really cool stuff that the iPhone can do, my iPod Touch gets used mostly as a music & video player.  Not surprisingly, it will be going up for sale if I decide to pick up an iPhone, but in the meantime it does let me play around a bit with a lot of the same applications.

I wrote my previous article To iPhone, or Not To iPhone just a few days before this past week’s Apple press event where they rolled out all the news about the new iPhone/iPod Touch v3.0 software.  My existing two-year contract for cellular service on my AT&T Tilt Windows Mobile based phone was due to expire just a few days later, so I was especially interested to see how many of my previous nit-picks about the iPhone were being addressed in the new version.

Copy, Cut, Paste

The first big new thing in v3.0 is the addition of basic clipboard functionality.  On the one hand, it’s good news that it’s finally included.  On the other hand, I have to think, “Seriously?  Not there until version 3.0?“.  This is a feature that people take for granted until it’s not there.  I’m sure this is something that has been bugging iPhone users since day 1, but as a non-user, this was never even on my list of nitpicks.  Until fairly recently when the buzz about today’s event started to appear online, I would have not even been aware this feature was missing from the iPhone.

As demonstrated at the Apple event, the implementation seems pretty straightforward.  One drags a pair of markers through text to mark the beginning and end of a block of text to be copied or cut.  Can’t really imagine how much different it could be, and yet Apple’s insisting that the reason it was missing until now is that they wanted to make sure it was done just right.  I understand the sentiment, but I’d fire any team of programmers working for me that took two years or more to implement something like this.

Landscape Keyboard Mode

Another new feature is the ability of the on-screen keyboard to work in landscape mode in all applications, instead of just in the Safari browser.  This is nice, but once again it’s something that until recently, I would have simply presumed was already there.  I mean, it’s a very basic function, and since the ability has been there for Safari, why wouldn’t you expect it for every place else?

Come on guys, we’re talking version three-point-oh here, not version one-point-one.

MMS

With 3.0 the iPhone gains the ability to send and receive MMS messages.  Those of you who were doing this on your Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola phones 8 or 10 years ago may be wondering why this is only appearing for the iPhone just now in 3.0.

While I was always aware that the iPhone didn’t support MMS, I have to admit that I never have managed to come up with a good idea to explain why.  I mean, it just doesn’t make sense.  You pretty much have to have a data plan to use the phone, and you can do similar stuff via EMAIL anyway so bandwidth and data usage shouldn’t be an issue.  The phone has the ability to manage images, take pictures, and record and playback audio, so nothing there should be an issue.  Formatting and sending an MMS message is actually less complex in some ways than sending or receiving email with attachments, so… who the heck knows?

Tethering

During the main portion of the event, nobody from Apple mentioned anything about tethering.  However, the question did come up during the later Q&A session.  Apple’s response, essentially, was that software support for tethering was built into v3.0, but they suggested that this feature might be somewhat dependent on the service providers.

This is one of those things that belies the concept of an “unlimited data plan”.  While the AT&T data plan for iPhone is commonly referred to as “unlimited”, the truth is that they haven’t really allowed for that in their pricing.  Their pricing is based on having carefully calculated exactly how much data you’re likely to transfer using the phone’s basic functionality.  It turns out that this is a much smaller amount of data than might be transferred if you’re using a regular computer.  For example, other than downloading a video stream, nothing you do on the iPhone is going to involve really large data transfers.  On other hand, people using a computer with a broadband connection would think nothing of kicking off a 300mb download several times a day.

So, the bottom line is that people who do tethering end up using a lot more bandwidth than people who do not, and the fine print in your service agreement says AT&T can cut off your service if they think you’re using too much.  All this means that the basic $30.00 iPhone data plan just isn’t going to cut it.  For my Windows Mobile phone, AT&T offers a different “unlimited” data plan that specifically allows tethering, but at $59.99 a month it’s double the cost of the current iPhone plan.

I honestly don’t mind paying a bit more for a tethering option.  I am not happy that the basic “unlimited” data plan for Windows Mobile phones without tethering is something like $45 a month, compared to $30 for the iPhone, but maybe that means that a tethering iPhone plan will be a bit less when they finally get around to offering it.

Video

Apple still failed to announce any support for recording video with the phone.  They also failed to announce anything about streaming live video from the phone.

As regards video playback, during the Q&A when “video” was mentioned, the Apple guys mentioned that there was support for the new HTML v5.0 tags for embedding video in a web page, and mentioned a few other things about video playback, but they basically ignored dodged the issue of video recording/uploading.

Flash

No Flash player for Safari?  Yup… that’s right.  Still no Flash player for Safari.  The word on the web is that Apple wasn’t happy with the performance they saw from the version of the Flash player done by Adobe, and that’s why we haven’t seen it for the iPhone.  Frankly, given the crappy examples I’ve seen on some older computers, I can’t imagine how bad the performance would have to be before you decide not to include it at all.  Allegedly Apple has been in discussion with a 3rd party about creating a player.   Maybe they could optimize the Actionscript parsing somewhat, but the basic rendering and animation engine has been highly optimized over the years and I honestly can’t see how a 3rd party is likely to provide much more than an incremental improvement. 

I think that the performance issues are a smokescreen and don’t really have anything to do with the real reason why we don’t have a Flash player.  Flash isn’t supported for the same reason we don’t see a Java runtime for the iPhone.  Either would provide a side door into the system that could easily completely bypass Apple’s iTunes setup and the App Store as a means of getting software into the iPhone. 

While both Flash and Java are often seen as a mere component of a larger application, both provide an essentially standalone operating environment.  A fully-supported Java runtime provides much of the same basic functionality to Java apps that OS X provides to native code apps.  The Flash runtime is much smaller and geared towards graphics and sound, but would still provide everything needed for many applications.

So the bottom line is, allowing Flash or Java means giving up complete control over the system.  While users and many developers might see that as good, Apple undoubtedly sees it as bad.  They’re making a crapload of money off the 30% cut they get from App Store sales and certainly don’t want to allow anything that could cut into that.

I don’t see full-blown Java support happening any time soon.  Maybe for applets embedded in web pages, but not stand-alone apps.  With Flash, however, I could see some sort of limited support happening down the road, if it had the right security wrapped around it to prevent it from circumventing the App Store.

Time will tell.

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