Originating Author: G Berton Latamore
Although I do not carry a smart phone, I have used personal digital assistants (PDAs) since their commercial inception in 1989. For the last several years I have carried a Palm Tungsten T3. I use it for everything, and the main reason I have not gotten a smart phone is that until recently I could not get one that met my needs better than my PDA, even given that I had to use a Bluetooth connection to my cell phone or an attachable WiFi device to access email and the Internet. Now, with the new iPhone about to debut on the U.S. market, I hope that the smart phones will finally catch up with my needs. So with that in mind, and based on my approaching 20 years of experience, here is what I want:
One of the big limitations of smart phone design is its size, particularly screen size. We do not like large cell phones. The criticism of many smart phones is that they are “a brick”. Even a pure PDA, which can be bigger, needs to be small enough to fit in a jacket pocket or purse, which makes its screen a fraction of the size of a laptop’s. Simultaneously, we need that screen to be big enough to allow us to see a Web site or work in a spreadsheet. When I tell people that I read books on my PDA, their first response is “On that small screen?”
It is in screen size and brightness that the iPhone is making its greatest impact. The design, while unusual in smart phones, is taken directly from the pure PDA – virtually every pure PDA today has a screen that covers nearly its entire face, with a five-way navigation button (pioneered by Palm Inc.) at the bottom of the cover, and a virtual keyboard that pops up on screen when you want it and gets out of the way when you do not. The iPhone, which is designed more for photo and film viewing and music than for work, has added a very bright screen display, much brighter and, I hope, easier to read, particularly in bright sunlight, than those of the PDAs I have tried out. I believe the iPhone will set a new standard for smart phone displays, and I want a display that will be easily readable in bright sunlight. I do not think this is the end of the thumb board, Treo design. Plenty of users prefer the built-in thumb board and accept the smaller screen. In part, it depends on what you use your device for. Personally, I prefer the Apple approach here, and the thumb board is one of the things that has kept me away from the Treo.
The other big limitation of handheld devices is battery power. The reason we cannot have a device with a perfect screen, super fast processor, huge amount of memory, etc., is that such a device would have a 15-minute battery life. The answer is replaceable batteries. No one would market a camera with a non-replaceable battery, and most normal cell phones have replaceable batteries as well. Why do so many PDAs and smart phones lack this basic design element? My T3 uses attachable “battery sleds” (I have three of them), which work fairly well. Unfortunately Apple has not yet figured this out. The iPod does not have a replaceable battery, and neither does the iPhone. Try running a full length movie on one and see how much battery life you have when it finishes.
Second, I need at least 64 MB of RAM or equivalent memory/storage. Most smart phones and PDAs (with the exception of the Palm Lifedrive) do not have hard drives, so all applications and data go into RAM. I do not regard 64 MB to be excessive — T3 had that when it was introduced more than five years ago. My ideal would be closer to 5 GB. Until recently 32 MB seemed to be the standard for some brands of smart phone, another reason I have not moved to a smart phone. I have 4 MB free in my T3, I am not going to try to cram all my stuff into half the space I have now. How much memory does the iPod have? And does the iPhone, like the iPod, have a large hard drive? We do not yet know, but if users are going to watch videos of any length on it and listen to their music as the ads hype, then I would say it needs at least 64 MB of memory. And that presumes that you keep all your music, photos and visuals online and only download what you want to watch or listen to immediately. If you need to carry it all with you..., well, my first iPod had a 20 GB hard drive, and I could only carry a subset of my music collection on it at a time.
My T3, and most smart phones today, use SD cards. I presume that the iPhone has an SD slot. Actually I would prefer a CF slot, since my cameras use CFs, and I would like to be able to take a photo with my Nikon D70, move the card to my smart phone and post the photo online or e-mail it. As a former professional photojournalist I can easily envision wanting to do this. But a CF slot requires a larger sized device, so I doubt I will get that particular wish.
Of course I want the fastest processor available for low-power handheld devices, particularly if I am going to watch videos on it. Apple has yet to reveal the speed of the iPhone's processor, but I presume it is adequate.
I am more concerned about another issue. During the iPhone announcement, Steve Jobs was almost insulting in his remarks about a stylus and emphasized that the iPhone is designed to be used with a finger. That is fine if you are opening a file or dialing a phone number. But writing anything longer than an IM really requires a pen of some kind, even with a virtual keyboard. I use a stylus that looks like a stubby metal ball-point pen most of the time, although I have several stilii, some actually converted ballpoints with plastic fillers in place of the normal ink holders. Normally I would not worry about this, but the vehemence of Jobs' remarks made me wonder if the iPhone's screen works by heat rather than pressure sensitivity, which would prevent stylus use. That would raise questions about how suitable the iPhone will be for writing e-mails, which certainly is a basic function on a smartphone.
I also need both Bluetooth and WiFi on my smart phone. Bluetooth has become standard, but surprisingly few smart phones have WiFi built in, I presume because the service providers who control device design see WiFi as the competition. I regard it as essential, particularly for downloading large files. If I am going to download and watch movies on my iPhone, I need high speed connectivity. I am particularly concerned about this with the iPhone because even the latest iPods do not have either Bluetooth or WiFi. The only way to load anything into them is through a desktop or laptop computer. The basic point of the smart phone is that it is a connected device, and users want to download music and videos as well as their email wherever they happen to be.
Finally, I want a device backed by a large community of third-party software developers. This is the main strength of Palm. I have 35 applications on my T3, including:
- Calorie-King to track my diet,
- Pocket Quicken to capture my expenses,
- ShadowPlan and (lately) SplashNotes for outlining,
- Earthcomber for finding localized services,
- Planetarium and Lunar to track astronomical events, and
- SplashTravel for travel services.
Your list would undoubtedly be different, which is exactly the point of having a large amount of diverse software available. Apple has taken exactly the opposite course with the iPhone, closing it to third-party software and keeping tight control over the applications that can run on the device. That is a strategic error that I hope Apple will correct soon. If not, the iPhone will be badly crippled compared to competitive smart phones.
Action item: The iPhone is making a huge splash as we move toward its introduction on Friday. While this is not really a corporate device, certainly individuals should take a look. However, do not be swept away by the hype – define your wants and needs in a smart phone first, then compare what the iPhone and other, more established smart phone providers have to offer with what you want and choose the device that best fits your requirements. The key to these devices is in the word “personal” – they become very personal to the owner, and the device that fits one person may not fit another. Having said this, the iPhone definitely has a high “coolness factor” that increases its appeal.