Re-Examining The iPhone

Apple's iPhone is unveiled at a press conference in central London, 18 September 2007. generic
AFP/Getty Images
It seems Apple is morphing the iPhone into a full-fledged pocket-size computer, complete with third party software. But, just because the phone will run lots of applications doesn't mean it's a good telephone.

Apple announced Thursday that the iPhone will soon be able to play games from Electronic Arts and Sega, and connect to Microsoft Exchange servers for secure corporate email and contact management.

The company also released details about its plan to encourage third party developers, including a $100 million "iFund" to seed companies with development capital. The iFund is being operated by Kleiner Perkins Caulfied and Byers, one of Silicon Valley's most successful venture capital firms, whose principals have backed giants including Google and Amazon.

I've spent a fair amount of time using an iPhone as my primary cell phone. I used it daily during all of July and August before returning the phone Apple loaned me the day it was released. I then borrowed another phone two months ago to try out new software and again used it as my primary cell phone.

As some readers may recall, I was one of many columnists who gave a general thumbs-up review to the iPhone the day it came out, and I'm still impressed with many of its features.

Apple's multi-touch interface, which has now been added to its notebook Macs and the iPod touch, is an incredibly useful way to resize a photograph, zoom in on a Web page or move from one page to another by flicking a finger. I have a feeling that Apple is going to get a great deal of mileage from that innovation, especially if it someday winds up making Macs with touch screens.

Apple is to be congratulated for having created the most revolutionary phone on the planet and it's hard to argue with its overall success.

But I'm still not a big iPhone fan. While it's a great way to look at photos, browse the Web and consume media, it's just not that great when it comes to making phone calls.

Call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to making phone calls, I like buttons. Not virtual buttons and preferably not teeny-weeny PDA-size buttons. I'm happiest with an honest-to-goodness dial pad. I say that, not just from my experience with the iPhone, but also with Verizon's much-hyped LG Voyager touch phone, which I used for a few weeks.

What both phones have in common is that you use a touch screen to dial and perform many of the functions. The iPhone is touch only - there are no physical buttons other than a menu key, a key that puts it to sleep, a volume control and, cleverly, a switch that turns off the ringer. The Voyager doesn't have a physical dial pad - it, too, has a touch screen, but it does have a full physical QWERTY keyboard that you access by opening up its clamshell-like cover.

One problem with a touch screen is that you need hand-eye coordination to do anything. I know I'm not supposed to dial a phone while driving, but with a standard cell phone I can easily use the speed dial function without taking my eyes off the road. Trying to make a call using a touch screen while driving is a recipe for disaster.

I can't tell you how many times I've misdialed with the iPhone. Although I love its visual voice mail, sometimes instead of listening to a call, I accidentally press the call-back button. I've also found myself accidentally redialing someone I spoke with earlier.

The iPhone's contact list feature is great - I imported more than 2,000 contacts from Outlook, but there is no search feature. To find someone, you have to touch the first letter of the person's last name, but those letters are so tiny that even people with small hands can easily touch the wrong one, as I've done many times.

Verizon's LG Voyager, which sells for $299 after the usual two-year contract and rebates, has some advantages and some disadvantages compared to the iPhone.

To its credit, its touch screen gives you some physical feedback in the form of a light vibration when you touch one of its on-screen virtual keys. Also, you can open it up to reveal a PDA-like keyboard. Although the virtual keys are a lot bigger than the number keys on the keyboard, I found myself dialing from the keyboard most of the time because I still made fewer mistakes than with the touch screen.

Using the Voyager in this mode is a lot like using a BlackBerry, Treo or other smart-phone, except the Voyager doesn't sync with Outlook, so there was no practical way to get my Outlook phone directory into the device. The phone also has a very slow and cumbersome email program compared to the iPhone, BlackBerry, AT&T's Samsung Blackjack, Sprint's Samsung Ace and most other smart-phones. But, at least you can use the real keyboard to type your messages.

I'm more impressed with Verizon's eNv, also from LG, which sells for $149 - half the price of the Voyager. This "candy bar" style phone looks and works like a regular cell phone, with a decent size standard dial pad. But when you open up its clamshell, you get a QWERTY keyboard for PDA-like functions.

I'm not against touch screens. As I said, I think touch adds some incredibly useful features to the iPhone, but I don't like using a virtual keypad to dial a phone or type. I'd be happy if my next phone had a touch screen, but I don't want to sacrifice usability. If I got to design my phone, it would have Apple's multi-touch with Voyager's physical feedback, plus a full-size dial pad and a QWERTY keyboard.

There would be versions for all the major carriers and the Verizon and Sprint versions would have an unlocked GSM SIM card option for overseas use, as is now the case on some BlackBerry devices and Sprint's new Samsung ACE.

My dream phone wouldn't be the smallest phone on the market, but it would fit in my pocket and comfortably in my hand, and I wouldn't need to refer to the manual for basic tasks like making phone calls. Is that too much to ask?

A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid