Several people have written tomes about the technological advancements and "revolution" the iPhone will bring to cellphones, both in software and hardware. Many have written tomes of the evils of it, and how they are in bed with AT&T, known to ignore your privacy. As an early adopter, I was expecting some shortcomings. What I came across, however, was a hidden landmine that will cost me hundreds of dollars paid to one of my least-favorite companies, ATT.
For those that don't know, the iphone will automatically search for wifi, and piggy-back onto those networks if allowed. If it doesn't find any, or if it can't connect for whatever reason, it falls back onto the slower cellular Edge network. This seems like a very good default and it works really well for most cases. Browsing on the iphone still amazes me on the clarity and fact that if I'm ever bored, I can just fire up a browser no matter where I am. It even downloads my email locally, and pulses when I receive a new message. You can be perpetually connected to your websites and email.
It is a geek's dream, and I'm living the dream.
Recently, however, this dream turned into a nightmare. I was on travel in the Caribbean. As soon as I powered up my iphone and took it off of the airplane mode, the iphone dutifully retrieved my email automatically incurring roaming data charges. This is, of course, despite having unlimited data in my contract with ATT. This was also happening unbeknownst to me, and there was nothing I could do about this even if I had known, except turn the radio completely off! Even if I purchased local wifi use or used a free hotspot, if it ever lost wifi connectivity it would fall back on the Edge network and incur roaming charges. Turning off the radio would prevent roaming, but would also disable use of local wifi and bluetooth. There is simply no way to tell a registered iphone to never roam without disabling the radio completely.
I discovered this only after I received a $550 bill for roaming data charges. Not once did I make an actual phone call, although I did intentionally send a couple photos I took. Most of this data transfer was from things like the phone automatically downloading my email (which I subsequently read), a little bit of web browsing, and even checking the local weather report. After a somewhat shocked call to ATT, they offered to forgive $150 of it which I accepted, but I did so without agreeing that I wouldn't pursue this further. I'm hoping this article will help prevent others from having such a surprise and financial burden.
[added 13-sep] My case of ignorance coupled with Apple's failure to program an anti-roaming feature is not unique. Rules lawyers argue that the defaults for email had been changed, or that "the phone wasn't off". But what use is a phone that has to be disabled in order to prevent racking up roaming charges? I would have still gotten roaming charges had I used the local wifi. That's because the wifi antenna is not particularly sensitive, and it's extremely unlikely it wouldn't fall back on Edge at some point. And heaven forbid my local wifi drops while I'm not actively using the phone, or once again, it'll do exactly what it's programmed to do: fall back on the Edge network and continue downloading. Works great in the US, but is a horrible default outside the local network boundaries.
Although I'm very disappointed and quite annoyed at the roaming fees, here is a quick rundown on the pros and cons of the iphone from my perspective. More importantly, it is weighted with the perceived importance. Some big "problems" that iphone detractors proclaim really are not very significant in practice, and there are several problems I've encountered that I never see stated.
I purchased my iphone knowing it would be hacked/opened at some point in the short future. It is intuitive and made for the masses, but also a perfect device for hackers - a hand-held Unix device with a radio and camera. Potentially completely programmable. Multiple inputs, bright and colorful display, a glass screen, and damn sexy, too.
The reasons I bought an iphone are largely self-explanatory:
- Multiple touchscreen inputs (probably the first COTS handheld device with this).
- Excellent hardware and looks (no moving parts, bright glass screen, responsive, built tough, and damn sexy).
- Geek factor - runs Unix (which was destined to be hacked).
- Full web browser. (Except for flash, which I don't use anyway. Or Java, but again, I'm a luddite in some ways.)
- 2 Megapixel camera has about double the pixels of older phonecams.
- Video playback with sound.
- Wifi and data.
- iPod functionality.
In addition, here are some great features I discovered after owning the iphone:
- Icebreaker. It's like carrying around a cute puppy - people love it.
- UI: scrolling voicemail allows you to listen out of order. Surprisingly useful.
- UI: scrolling through ipod songs and videos makes it really easy to find the song you want.
- UI: google maps is great fun, and quite useful.
- Hardware is even better than I thought it would be. The screen is nothing short of amazing, and the touchscreen works great.
Here are the problems, with my comments on the significance:
- Sometimes hangs/crashes, needs a full restart. This bit me a few times, especially at first. The system crashed continually, I received no voice messages or SMS messages, and it was very frustrating. A simple reboot (holding down the power key for 6 sec) solved all the problems. Although a BIG issue, I solved it by accident. And this is happening to a lot of people.
- Sweaty fingers don't work so well. Anyone with sweaty hands knows how difficult most laptop touchpads can be -- this is not quite as bad, but noticable. Also, the smudges on the screen are not an issue like many people thought it would be. My glass screen is still pristine, and just takes a simple wipe on the pant leg to clean.
- No "thumb" on the webpage. Scrolling to the bottom of a large webpage is simply stupid. Am I missing something?
- Where's the tilde? Finding some of the special characters on the typewriter took some work. (Hint: you have to hit shift after going to the symbols page.)
- No addons to Safari. This concerns me, but I suspect this will be solved soon enough. I can't wait for someone to port firefox, though.
- No Flash in Safari. This really doesn't bother me. Flash has very little user-control, except through addons to prevent it from running, and I definitely don't want it installed if I can't disable it somehow. In the rare cases I allow it on my normal browser, I would miss it on the phone. But for the most part, I see flash as an annoyance, used by advertisers and idiots to ram content down your throat. For the most part, flash makes my browsing less enjoyable, not more, so I don't miss this at all. Besides, it'll be ported soon enough, I'm certain.
- No flash on the camera, either. Despite having more pixels than most older phones, the camera is not really that high of quality, especially compared to some cellphones coming out today. It'll take great pictures in good indirect light. But if you put a bright spot anywhere, or take pictures in subdued lighting, your colors and pictures will be poor. Impressive in good conditions with good colors and clarity, but lack of any programmability of light sensitivity or zoom means you get mediocre pictures in all but perfect conditions. Also, the capture is a little slow (perhaps 1/2 second, which is enough to lose the perfect shot). Lastly, the shutter button is on the screen so it's more difficult to hold the phone in awkward positions to take photos (e.g. of yourself or over your head).
- No video recording. For some people, this killed the iphone for them. This is not the case for me -- I don't really mind not having video. All current phone video is such poor quality that I question the ability as simply a useless bell and whistle. Use a real camera to make real videos.
- Poor speakerphone. Rarely mentioned is the low volume of the speakerphone. Or for that matter, the low volume of the ringer, too. The tiny speaker just cannot belt out the sound. And this is annoying if you're trying to use the speakerphone while driving. Get a bluetooth headset which will work really well.
- 2G, not 3G radio. Apple could have used a more modern radio and a faster data network, but did not. They use the Edge network, which is a bit pokey, and the fact you can do full browsing makes it feel even slower ... it downloads the pictures so webpages take much longer to load. But that's the price for the quality of the browser. I can live with this, but it is annoying.
- No GPS. What was apple thinking? Integrate maps into it, but not tell you where you are? And how the heck can you save the current location as a bookmark in the maps, to look up later? IMHO, the intuitive interface loses a bit in the mapping software.
- No 3rd party apps. Not an issue... they're coming whether Apple likes it or not! Already you can get screenshots of web pages, voice recording, arbitrary ringtones, etc. You can even ssh into your iphone, and *gasp* run apache on it. No, really.
- Lack of "buttons" makes it difficult to type. Minor issue, and noticable when using the camera. Most of the time when you'd be fumbling around (like driving) you can use the "favorites" to make calls and not the keypad. The typewriter is easy to make typos, but the software works surprisingly well to correct errors and typos. Seriously, it's good. After playing with it a weekend, you'll be typing like a pro. Well, not a pro, but you can do 20-30 wpm which is plenty good enough for a handheld.
- No voice dialing. I'd bet someone will be able to make an app to do this in the future. It's a big oversight by apple, but only a moderate problem.
- Mono-only bluetooth. Not an issue for me, but could be for others who use bluetooth headphones to listen to music.
- Incompatible with many ipod addons. This is a big issue which I think will affect many people. Not only do the ipod functions not send sound through the docking port (so most ipod speakers and car kits will not work), but the earphone jack is recessed which makes most minijack plugs incompatible.
- Cannot set your own background image. This is false, but I see a lot of people claiming it. You can set a background image easily. You simply tell itunes to sync photos to a folder on your computer, and drop your background image into this folder. Then you can view it on the phone and set it as your background.
- No Instant Messaging. I suspect this will be coming soon, through a 3rd party app. Someone will port gaim or write one. But then your battery life will probably go to hell.
- Poor support for sending photos. No MMS support at all, and you cannot crop photos sent via email. A big oversight for a phone that is supposed to integrate such features.
- Battery replacement requires mailing the phone in. To me, this is only a minor issue. The reason why it's minor is that I reap huge benefits from it. Because apple did not have to invest in packaging the battery and terminals, they could make the battery significantly larger. And I'm happy to lose my phone for a week, in order to have an extra hour or two the rest of the two-year expected battery life. It is a good tradeoff, although granted, could be an annoying one to some people.
There seems to be a lot of "cons" compared to the "pros". So, would I buy an iPhone knowing what I do now? The answer is still a solid "Yes".