iphone4s_wide_hero_0

When I'm out and about in the world, I observe how people use technology. So in an airport, or on a plane, I see what PCs and computing devices people are using and, when possible, what they're running on those devices. Walking around a city, or on public transportation, I see which phones and MP3 players are in use, and how people use them. I suspect many of you do the same.

On a recent trip to Paris, for example, I noted to my traveling partner that it appeared that a whopping 50 percent of people on the Metro, over the course of the trip, were using iPhones. They were everywhere. As surprising, the remainder of the phones I saw were almost evenly split between Blackberries and pre-smartphone candy bar or slider phones. I don't think I saw a single Android handset on the entire trip.

And in Washington D.C. last weekend, I pointed out to my wife that everyone who had an iPhone seemed to be covering it up with a case. And not just a regular case or slipcover, but strangely huge and bulky cases that made the slim device seem to float inside a huge bubble of protection. Almost to a one this was true, and once I had pointed it out, neither of us could stop noticing it.

Why would iPhone users take one of the thinnest, most elegant devices ever made and hide it under thick gobs of protection?

I mean that somewhat rhetorically, since it's obvious why they're trying to protect the iPhone, which is covered in glass on both sides and is as delicate and fragile looking as it is beautiful. But it's curious to me that few people are using a form of iPhone protection that's a beautiful as is the device. Maybe there simply isn't anything that matches both criteria. (And why isn't there an iPad 2-like magnetic cover?)

Seeing and using the iPhone 4S this week, it's as obvious why people want it as it is why they'd want to protect it. You feel an almost paternal (or maternal, I guess) desire to ensure the thing doesn't get scratched, bumped or prodded. I could picture someone bursting into tears if they actually dropped it.

The iPhone 4S, thus, is a thing of beauty. But in falling for this example of form over function, you must also confront the horrible truth that you can't really just use it as-is. You must protect it. I pre-purchased one of Apple's bumpers for this very purpose, seeking to find a solution that was as elegantly designed as the phone. But even this minimalist protection is an affront, of sorts, to the very design of the device. I'm as unhappy using it as I am using the iPhone 4S without any protection at all.

This could have been avoided. In Steve Jobs' recently released biography, the mercurial former CEO of Apple admitted to the author that his mantra of design over engineering occasionally "backfired", and never so obviously as with the iPhone 4, which is identical to the newer 4S.

"Jobs and [Johny] Ives insisted on using a solid piece of brushed aluminum on the edge of the iPhone 4 even when the engineers [at Apple] worried that it would compromise the antenna ... Ive's design bumped into a fundamental law of physics that could not be changed even by [Jobs'] reality distortion field. Metal is not a great material to put near an antenna ... [it] diminishes the signals that get in or out ... If you held the phone a certain way, you could lose your connection." The book describes this issue as a "flaw" and notes that Jobs belatedly "realized there was a problem." (Apple doesn't adequately test products before releasing them for secrecy reasons.)

People who misunderstand my relationship with Apple probably imagine me holding the iPhone 4S in every possible way to bring on the infamous connection attenuation issue that dogged the first iPhone 4. But I never did that, and accept that Apple's engineers actually solved this issue through software. They're dogged in that way. I'm more confused by how to deal with the very design of this thing. Not just the protection issue described above, but the sheer glassiness of it.

One of my complaints about the original iPhone form factor, which persisted through the iPhone 3G and 3GS versions, was that it was the electronics version of a wet bar of soap, and far too easy to squeeze between your fingers and jettison into the air. These sealed devices often meet with an unhappy fate once they hit the ground, unlike the plastic-covered Samsung Focus I've been using for the past year, which can be dropped with impunity. (It comes apart nicely, with the back and battery popping off; just put it back together, and turn it back on, and you're up and running.)

The iPhone 4S is even worse. Its front and back are made of glass, and while this does impart a feeling of quality and expense, it's also very slippery. Slippery and, well, odd, since the back feels exactly like the front. I find myself just rubbing it, like it’s the One Ring or something.

My precious.

Around the sides, there are hard mechanical buttons, with solid clicks and a quality feel. Someone, Apple probably, must have compared them to those on a Leica camera, because that's what they apparently remind me of, even though I've never owned or used such a thing. They are hard-edged in the same way that MacBooks (and, previously, PowerBooks) are hard-edged. Industrial. Strong.

Folks, the iPhone 4S is a work of art. My only real concern is with the notion I started with. I love this thing because it's beautiful.  I want to protect this thing because it's beautiful. But if I adequately protect this thing, I won't be able to experience that beauty any more. It's like buying a priceless Vermeer painting and putting it in a vault where the only viewport is a tiny, dusty window that makes viewing difficult.

And that is the paradox of the iPhone 4S. Form over function? You bet. But it is wonderful.

And that's before we even get to the software.