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I hate the iPhone, says Aidan Walker, eating his own words heavily spiced with chagrin

Gird your mental loins, dear reader, prick up your eyes and ears, sit up straight and pay attention. You are about to enjoy a spectacle which few readers of design magazines are ever vouchsafed – that of a ‘distinguished design critic’ (humble self in this case) eating a) his own words and b) an extremely large helping of humble pie. Perhaps those same words were key ingredients in that notable recipe, just lying in wait, ready to come back, haunt me, and demand to be munched upon. For munching I am, and the taste is bitter indeed.

Here is what I said about the iPhone in April, for your June issue of FX: ‘Here is an object of desire that looks beautiful and works not just well but beautifully, inside and out. It’s so… right. It’s also got icons. And as for whether that does or doesn’t make it a piece of iconic design, frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn.’ How deeply, bitterly embarrassing. Shoot me, do away with me painfully, I deserve it.

I wrote those words without having owned and used an iPhone. I had given several of them a bit of a run round the block, enough (I supposed) to come to some conclusions, but not the same at all as living and working with one. I have now had one for about six weeks, and I can tell you without fear or favour – it sucks. It just doesn’t work.

The humiliation of having been caught out by my own lack of rigour in delivering critical opinion is made worse, far worse, by the fact that I had heralded the iPhone as the ‘smart phone’ to end smart phones, the one I had been waiting for, long before it was even announced. After endless frustrations with Treos and Blackberries, the back of my hand to them, full of Macintosh-unfriendly functionality as they are, I saw the iPhone as the answer to my prayers, a further proof of one of my basic tenets of design philosophy, which is that Apple computing is best in every way and never shall I tread the vale of tears named ‘PC’, inhabited by illogical and ‘inhuman’ product and systems design. Apple’s computers say: ‘I am a computer but I will look nice and try and talk your language, O human’, while PCs say: ‘I am a PC. Get used to it. Learn my language, human, or suffer. Or both.’ But this time Apple’s fabled arrogance – we put up with it because their products are so good – is intricately commingled with straightforward bad design.

Time and time again, it just doesn’t come up to scratch. It doesn’t deliver. Which strikes directly at the heart of my basically enthusiastic and occasionally forgiving attitude to Apple’s products. It has damaged our relationship.

I won’t bore you with the endless detail of what and how doesn’t work on the iPhone, but I will give you a ‘sample’ list. First and foremost (apart from the woeful battery life), its ability to pick up the network signal is worse, far worse, than the crap phones of years ago. On the M1, the M25, in central London, Gatwick airport, you name it. ‘No service’, when you know and I know that there is plenty of service. Look at all those people around me using their phones, while I stare in frustration and anger at ‘no service’. Pretty much the only way out of this is switch it off and back on again – you might get it to cotton on to what every other phone in the vicinity already knows – but ‘shutting down’ takes about 15 seconds, and ‘booting’ more than 30. I timed it yesterday and it took 36 seconds to come back to life. Not likely to improve one’s mood in a hurry. And if and when you do finally get it to admit to the existence of a cellular network, it sometimes looks and feels as if it is ringing but doesn’t connect. Why? No idea. The answer? Switch it off and on again.

Much of the other crap stems from this basic inability to connect to the network. But not all. You’d imagine a smart phone that does emails and all sorts of other functions based on text input would have a copy, cut and paste function wouldn’t you? A pretty basic requirement, one would say. Apple seems to disagree. Can you copy, cut and paste? No, you cannot.

Let’s have a quick look at some of the other ‘functions’. Email. Why does the little ‘connecting’ wheel go round and round with no result? Don’t know. Switch it off and on again and see if it works. Ah yes, at last. And cool, here is that pdf Fred was sending me. Aha, can read it, yep good. Here comes the train, will look at it in a minute. Get a seat. Now, the pdf. Er… where is it? Crap. Gone. Suppose I’ll have to download the email again then save it. Er, no, can’t download the email. ‘This message has not been downloaded from the server.’ Yes, I know that. Why? Because your server is told to delete messages immediately after downloading. So re-set it (you’ll need to be at your computer to do that), then you can read the damn pdf, as if you wanted to by this time. Best to save it, eh. Er… where? How? Nowhere. No way of saving files for future use that I can find. Maybe I can just Bluetooth that pdf across from my own computer? Nope. iPhone is not configured to receive files via Bluetooth. Really? Confidence in your mobile communications device beginning to wane?

And here’s another totally maddening email thing, related to that inability (or downright bloody-minded refusal) to make a place where ordinary files can sit to be read whenever is convenient. You’re in the middle of writing an email. The train comes or the phone rings or whatever. You put it in your pocket or go to a different ‘function’, expecting to go back to the email when you’re done. Not likely. Gone for ever. Where? Search me. I had to re-write the same email three times yesterday. Same with texts. They just disappear. (By the way, you can’t forward texts. No, really, you can’t.) There is an ‘outbox’ for emails, but they only sit there when you’ve pressed ‘send’ and they haven’t gone yet. If they go and end up in the ‘sent’ folder, you can see them but not edit them to re-send. My God!

Oh yes, Notes. Nice little Notepad app that, just do a few words while I’m waiting, start the article maybe, and carry on when I sync it to the computer. Er… no. Can’t sync ‘Notes’ to the computer. Why not? Why the hell not? (Voice rises in a strangled shriek…).

This is only a sample. Almost wherever you turn with the damn thing it frustrates and disappoints, refusing to deliver the basic functionality I have every right to expect. Search contacts? Fine, as long as you can remember both the name and the company – because if the company you’re after is in the wrong box on the contact field, ‘search’ won’t pick it up. You know it’s there, but the phone doesn’t. What extra effort is need to make software do this simple thing?

Delight it has, in its yummy little touch-screen way – which, incidentally, can be infuriating in itself, being slower than a keyboard and when you need to input text you have to wait for the keyboard to ‘arrive’ – but functionality it does not. Obiwan 69, one of those nameless individuals on one of those numerous forum type things with which the web overflows, puts it in a nutshell at http://joeygadget.com/2008/06/10/contact-search-finally-added-to-iphone-in-iphone-20-update:

‘The iPhone 3G is a toy. It’s not for work.
 It’s not possible to search into contacts, notes or calendar
- It takes ages to add a task into calendar
- There is no “week” view for the calendar
- cut, copy, paste are not available
- it does not synchronise ‘To Do’ lists and Notes with Outlook. If you want a PDA for work, find an old Palm Pilot from the previous century, it’s much more useful. But for listening to music, playing games or drink a beer with iPint, it’s great.’ (It’s not even that great for listening to music, Obiwan. It was playing what it wanted to play last night, not what I set it to play and not in that order.)

There you have it. Of course, there are many and many developers out there writing little programme-ettes for it, which I suppose Apple can feel smug about, given that so many people are so disposed in the iPhone’s favour they are prepared to write their own software to remedy its shortcomings. I’m not one of those people. By what definition of good design does the user constituency muck in and add its own modifications and enhancements? I demand that good design not only looks good and makes you feel good, but that it works. And the iPhone damn well doesn’t. Don’t buy one. Or if you must, wait another year or two for all the things that it should have had in the first place. By which time ‘early adopters’ will be on their third or fourth, Apple’s stock will still be rising, and most of us will forget just how underdeveloped and under-delivering a device it was. But not me. Me and Apple used to be like that. Now we’re estranged. It is nothing short of cynical, an outrage on the poor smart phone user. Apple, the back of my hand to you.

(Final word to Apple – if I’ve failed to find these functions through my own stupidity, please tell me and I’ll eat another slice of humble pie. Publicly.)

 

CAPTIONS

3437: Notes – all very well if you don’t want or need to transfer them to your computer. Third party ‘apps’ will allow. Why not Apple?

 

3438: Contacts – lucky I knew Caroline was in there as editor of Grafik. Because searching for ‘Grafik’ brought no result. Yes, that’s right. Nothing.

 

3439: Forward this text to your missus to remind her to remind you to do your insurance? Nope. Copy and paste it into an email? Nope. Throw the phone out the window? Yep.

 

3440: Aha, an attachment. Good, I’ll be able to read that….

 

3441: … even if it is way too small, because I can ‘swipe’ and magnify the tiny text. But what else can I do with it? Save it? Nope. Edit it? Nope. Maybe third parties can help here…or it’s the window solution again.

Posted in FX Column - assorted design writings.

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