So how does one rate a product that's as complicated as the iPhone? The problem here is complex. On the one hand, the iPhone is absolutely revolutionary, like a device from the future that has arrived on earth unexpectedly. On the other, more pragmatic hand, the iPhone simply doesn't deliver some obvious and common functionality that's offered by today's supposedly inferior smart phones. Yep, the iPhone is a paradox. And while I have indeed provided a rating, or score, for the device, I do so only with the understanding that this rating is inherently flawed for two reasons. First, like any review, this iPhone review is a slice in time, an opinion about a product that is in flux and will no doubt change and improve in the months and years ahead. Second, everyone's needs are different, and while I believe that the iPhone is utterly useless as a traditional smart phone, it is incredibly compelling in that it has created a new product category: The iPhone is a portable multimedia, Internet, and communications style statement, not a smart phone. They're not the same thing at all, and each satisfies different needs and wants.
Complications aside, I feel better about this review than I do about the quickie iPhone reviews that appeared in major US publications in the last week of June 2007. To read those reviews, you'd never discover that the iPhone had serious flaws, that it didn't provide some very basic features, or that it was anything short of brilliant. Those reviewers should be ashamed of themselves. The truth of the iPhone, I wrote two months ago, will be revealed only when real people have had real experiences with the device. And while a truth like that evolves over time, I'm comfortable with the knowledge that I've given the iPhone a much fairer and realistic review than anything you may have read in "The New York Times," "The Wall Street Journal," "USA Today," or "Newsweek." So much has happened since the end of June. We've seen how buggy the iPhone's iPod application is, and the steps Apple has taken to solve those problems via a number of software updates. We've watched as users returned from Europe with $1000 to $4000 AT&T bills, courtesy of the iPhone's less-than-transparent international roaming disabilities. And we've discovered that some of the iPhone's most publicized features don't work consistently or at all in certain iPhone applications. I'm curious that those early iPhone reviewers never tackled these and other serious iPhone issues. It's funny what you can find out about a product when you actually spend time with it.
Why is this important? Normally, I wouldn't care what an Apple-loving fanboy at a major US newspaper writes. But the iPhone is an important product, regardless of its usefulness today, and it will touch millions and millions of people. This is a computing platform for the future, a peek at the way things will be done years down the road. It's important to me that I get this one right, so that there's a record--an accurate record--of how things evolved when Apple inevitably improves the iPhone. And though this is a Windows-centric Web site, the iPhone is important to us all because it will impact the Windows-using world (i.e. "the world") in two ways. Windows users are the mainstream and majority market for this device; we are the ones who use the iPhone. And as with the original Mac, it's highly likely that the computing innovations seen first in the iPhone will popularize themselves further as Microsoft and other companies adapt them to their own products. Whatever happens, we'll be able to trace a major form of computing in the future back to the iPhone just as we can now trace the modern PC back in time to the Mac.
So back to the rating. I've written at length about the functional and usability aspects of the iPhone. Looking back at the first six parts of this review, we might consider rating these functional areas separately and then combine and average them to arrive at a final score. This approach has some value, but is by definition flawed because some will prefer to weight certain features higher than others. But with this limitation in mind, let's see what happens.
Core technology. In Part 2 of this review, I examined the iPhone's design and usability, as well as its core features, like the multi-touch screen with rotational capabilities, the virtual keyboard, the ambient light sensor, the device's wireless capabilities, its built-in memory (and lack of expansion capabilities), and its Mac OS X underpinnings. This isn't a huge win for the iPhone, overall: the hardware is excellent, even leading edge, but it is lacking numerous features and some core technologies--like rotation--are sparingly or only partially implemented throughout the device. It's unclear whether the OS X base is a boon or curse at this point; the number of iPhone vulnerabilities that quickly popped up the wake of its release suggests it's not much of a strength right now. And using a full desktop OS obviously adds needless complexity.
Phone. In Part 3 of this review, I looked at the iPhone's phone capabilities and found them to be excellent and truly praiseworthy. There are always quibbles, but this one is a win for Apple. The iPhone is a tremendous phone.
Applications. I looked at the iPhone's 11 built-in (non-core) applications in Part 4 of this review. Here, things are decidedly mixed: While a few of the built-in apps (Calendar, Photos) are first rate, most are middling, and one, Notes, is abysmal. Overall, I'd give the built-in applications an overall score of three stars, but for one thing: Apple doesn't allow you to modify the application list at all, so you can't even remove applications you don't want. Worse yet, Apple has closed down the iPhone so that third party developers can't write native applications for the device. That's a huge mistake and makes this device dramatically less useful and desirable than it should be.
iPod. If you're looking for the ultimate iPod, look no further than the iPhone. Sure, the 4 GB and 8 GB memory constraints of the current iPhone limit its usefulness as a movie player, but the CoverFlow interface and other leading-edge features more than make up for a few issues. The iPhone is a superb portable media player.
Internet. It's hard to exaggerate how problematic the iPhone's email and Web browsing features are. Email is particularly bad: The iPhone supports four proprietary email services natively (well, three if you exclude the Mac-specific .Mac service) but does so differently for each It also supports POP3 and IMAP email services, but offers no compatibility at all with the Exchange corporate standard. Email is a mixed bag for obvious reasons: While Apple promises a "full Web" experience on the iPhone, and not the thumbnail-sized view you get with most smart phones, it delivers that experience through a second-rate version of a third-rate browser, Safari. Compatibility is horrible, and while squeezing to zoom makes for a cool demo, it's painful in real world usage. The iPhone delivers more of the Web than other cell phones, yes, but the experience simply reinforces the notion that mobile devices work best with sites designed specifically for mobile browsers. And you don't need Safari for that. Ultimately, the iPhone's Internet functionality is just frustrating, a hint of what it can be like in the future.
Average these scores and you'll come away with a 3.6 out of 5, somewhere between three and four stars. That's not horrible, I guess, and Apple fans might argue that I should round that up to four stars. I can't do that. There are just too many tradeoffs in the iPhone to warrant a four star rating, too many issues in these functional areas that don't reflect so kindly on Apple's first phone offering.
The first, obviously, is price. At $500 to $600 for the iPhone, plus two years of monthly service fees and innumerable other fees, the iPhone is expensive. It doesn't do a lot of what other smart phones do, either. You can't connect to Exchange as mentioned above, but you also can't use the phone with a decent 3G service. It can't be used as a high-speed modem for your PC, as my Verizon-based Motorola Q can. You can't replace the battery or add memory. You can't type on a real keyboard or use GPS. God help you if you bring it overseas; AT&T international roaming fees are already legendary, and for all the wrong reasons. You can't download new ringtones, applications, songs, and other items over the air. The list of what you can't do is actually surprisingly long. The iPhone is a closed box. If you want that exact box, just the way it is, and can afford it, go nuts. But most people don't make decisions like that.
Here's one way to think about it. If you're in the market for a smart phone, forget the iPhone. It's a lot more expensive than the Windows Mobile and Blackberry competition, is tied to AT&T's lousy EDGE network, doesn't integrate or synchronize well with the Windows-based applications you actually use, and can't be expanded or extended in any meaningful way. Apple has proven painfully slow in updating the device's functionality, which is all the more important since they're the only source of new features. To date, there have been none, just a few bug fixes.
On the other hand, if you're a leading edge kind of user, the type of person that simply must have the latest and greatest, regardless of cost, and aren't particularly beholden to a corporate email system or the Windows-oriented computing paradigm, the iPhone will be almost painfully compelling. It is gorgeous to look at and use, sleek and pretty, and desirable. I've compared it to Tolkien's One Ring in that it's a jealous lover, one that will seek to betray you constantly by slipping out of your pocket on the subway. Regardless, you will love the device more than you should. More than is normal.
The truth is, no one needs an iPhone. But if you do need a cell phone, and you sort of like the idea of an integrated device that offers portable Internet functionality, excellent iPod features, and some other marginally interesting, if not fully realized, capabilities, all served up inside what might just be the nicest cell phone ever made, Apple has something they'd really like to sell you. The price is exorbitant, not just in real dollar terms, but also in the sense that you're really locking yourself into this Apple closed box. You might have to change email services to get the best experience. You might need to purchase Microsoft Outlook if you just want to access your calendar on the phone. In some ways, you'll never stop paying for the iPhone, with your time, money, and soul. It just goes on and on and on.
True gadget geeks won't care. But I didn't write this review for those who waited in line on June 25 so they could be the first on earth to have a device that, soon, millions will own. I wrote this review for you, the fence sitter. The normal person. The guy who's seen the constant iPhone ads on TV and in subway stations and has wondered if this thing, this expensive hunk of plastic, will actually solve some problems. The guy who, quite frankly, shouldn't be wasting his hard earned cash on an expensive toy that, ultimately, doesn't really solve any problems at all.
The iPhone is awesome. There's just one problem: You don't need it.