I’ve been using an iPhone 6 as my primary device since launch day, 9/19, and iOS, at length, for the first time since the iPhone 3G-era. That was during the days of iPhone OS 2.0, which brought along the App Store, officially supporting third party apps for the first time. For the past 9-10 months, I’ve used a Lumia 1520 and Nexus 5 interchangeably, getting to know their hardware, software and ecosystems. At this point, I understand what each Windows Phone and Android have to offer, and surprisingly, after nearly a year, neither device feels outdated (a sign of slowing generational leaps in smartphones, surely?). However, I’ve been itching to see where Apple is and experience the “just works” commentary I hear from users and the top-rated app ecosystem. Here are my early thoughts in two sections, Hardware and Features.

Hardware

  • It looks less “distinctly-iPhone”, with its larger size, rounded and curved corners and nondescript back. The Apple logo and the round home button on the front remain, so don’t worry, folks will still know you’re using one. Given so many phones are using the chamfered-chrome-band look, recently, perhaps this move to less glamorous accoutrements will, ironically, make it more distinctive.
  • First impression upon taking it out of the box was one of amazement of its thinness and lightness, having come from primarily Lumia devices over the past couple years.
  • My second impression was that it’s hellishly slippery. The very finely anodized aluminum contributes, as does the fact that it’s so thin (and rounded). I don’t even have clammy hands to help; it’s like holding a wet rock.
  • Apple barely met the competition on display resolution this generation (and undershot a bit with the iPhone 6). However, the selection of in-cell touch (LCD display + capacitive sensors being one and the same) and cover glass make displayed contents appear to be splayed directly on the glass’s surface. Contrast is also very good, maximum brightness very high, meaning viewing quality, both indoors and outdoors, is relatively high.
  • When the rumored iPhone 6 chassis first leaked, I was convicted that they were fakes, due to the unsightly plastic antenna domain dividers. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; they were the real thing, and the lines remain ugly. I specifically picked the color variant that I thought would make it show up the least, Space Grey.
  • The aesthetic problem with the antenna lines are two-fold, in my opinion: first, they’re too thick to look well-integrated, and second, the way they wrap around the top and bottom curved portions of the phone make them appear less like a deliberate part of the design. Instead, it’s as if the phone was designed without them, then realized, shoot, antenna performance sucks!
  • I picked Space Grey, and the curved black display and bezels blend together into a smooth, monolithic mass. From the front, it’s nice and minimalistic. I like it.
  • The camera bump is a non-issue (thus far).

iPhone 6 - DisplayiPhone 6iPhone 6 - Camera

Features

  • I’m now addicted to unlocking my phone with Touch ID. One lazy press of the home button, with my thumb, and I’m taken to the home screen, even though I have my work Exchange connected and corporate security policies applied. It’s also a fantastic way to skip typing passwords. It might be my single favorite feature, because it’s fast and reliable (camera performance rivals for this prestigious award).
  • Regarding display resolution, mentioned above, one way Apple makes up for no-longer-class-meeting specs is in font rendering. In apps that are updated for the display resolution of the iPhone 6 (largely the first party apps, at this point), text is incredibly narrow, smooth, and clear. Reading web content maintains this crispness, while fitting more content onto the display, now that it’s larger.
  • The rear image sensor remains 8MP in resolution, but optics and processing have been marginally improved (see this wonderful comparison of iPhone family camera IQ). Most significantly, phase-detect autofocus (on-sensor) has been added, helping in two regards: faster autofocus and more reliable focus tracking (with continuous autofocus). The second benefit supports grabbing in-focus, fast action, 240fps video.
  • The practical benefits, for me, (I care largely about stills) are insanely quick and accurately focused photos. The focus and shot-to-shot performance difference versus my Lumia 1520 (which, albeit isn’t known for quick autofocus) is similar to a DSLR versus a point and shoot camera. And though the final image quality isn’t as good as what the Lumia 1520 can achieve, it’s more consistent, giving me more confidence I can get at least a shot. Additionally, taking panoramas is an incredibly smooth experience, and the stitching speed and quality are top tier, as I discovered first-hand at Mount Rainier, the first weekend out with it.

rainier_ios_pano

  • I’ve become unfamiliarized with iOS since I last used it many, many years ago. I’m still a huge kludge, not yet habituated with the information and interaction hierarchies, particularly, as some common actions are quite different from Windows (Phone) or Android. For example, I constantly look to the bottom of apps for more options, settings, only to have to remind myself that they’re largely in the central settings store. I’ve not yet decided whether one is worse or better, just different, at this point.
  • Most interactions in iOS are highly polished, though. At least on latest-generation hardware, all the animations and transparency effects are smooth, menus well thought out, and a general air of cohesiveness and consistency is found throughout. The icons and colors haven’t grown on me, yet (it feels a bit… amateur?), but at least they’re everywhere. A few head-scratchers and complaints do exist:
    • In the notification drop-down, I really want a single gesture to dismiss items. Instead, you swipe to the left, then hit a small (x) target.
    • In the same area, app notifications are not cleared after visiting the app directly and viewing the reason for the notice in the first place (a very common example of this is email). Instead, one must manually dismiss the notification.
    • Speaking of notifications (:)), if I step away from my phone for a while, during which time, I receive a notification, no indication is made in the status area that I have pending notifications. It’s a surprise every time – ooohh, do I have notifications? Ahhh, not this time!
    • The little bubbles atop app icons indicating the number of missed items does not get dismissed after entering the app; only when your email inbox is clean, clean, clean, will that number go away. So, it’s a perpetual reminder that I’m very bad at triaging my inbox.
    • I’ve been spoiled by Windows Phone’s amazing handling of contacts, intelligently linking them if you have multiple input contact services, (such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Lync, etc.) and reducing clutter in your contacts list. iOS does nothing of the sort. Not only is the contact list a bee’s nest to navigate, it also complicates other apps that use your central contact list. For example, I ended up with 2-3 duplicate “favorite” entries for many, many contacts in WhatsApp. I went from 99 suggested to 43 real.
    • I’ve also been spoiled by the fantastic inbox productivity apps in Windows Phone, particularly as it pertains to supporting Exchange (the reason might be a no-brainer). Neither iOS nor Android do as a good of a job of exposing rich options for managing email-calendar invites and neither do a job at all of displaying Information Rights Managed email. I’m pretty sure there’s an app for that, though…
  • Top tier apps are impeccably polished, not to mention anything you’ve heard of is available, of course. They’re all fast and fluid, use reasonable layouts (although very, very few take advantage of the increased screen real-estate of the iPhone 6, much less the 6+), and I haven’t seen app crashes, thus far.
  • I’m not blown away by having so many apps at my fingertips, though. I don’t seem to have the urge to explore a bunch of apps. Perhaps that’s what using an app-deprived ecosystem does to you. You don’t know how to behave in the presence of them anymore. Assuming battery usage is a good indicator of what I use on my phone and how frequently, my iPhone is where apps go to die: 39% Email, 22% Safari, 11% Home & Lock Screen, 6% Messenger, 4% Stocks, 2% Calendar, 2% Gmail, and nothing else creeps above 1%.

iOS Utilization

Summary

There’s generally much to like about the iPhone 6, and while I’m not certain I’m any longer a representative smartphone user, I’ve had my memory refreshed as to why so many people prefer iOS and the iPhone hardware ecosystem. They generally look nice, developers put the most effort into their iOS app manifestations, and there are some genuinely excellent capabilities that many people care about, from a consistently good camera to simplifying security with Touch ID (and I’m looking forward to Apple Pay, as well). It’s also interesting to note that it’s been the first time in many generations since Apple’s hardware industrial design prowess has been questioned, with both the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch questioned for the camera bump, antenna lines, indistinctiveness or gaudiness of design.

It will bear watching whether this is a temporary bump in the road, one smoothed out by the evolution of tastes over time, or something more persistent, an indication of a missing filter in Steve Jobs. iPhone 6iPhone 6iPhone 6 - Curved DisplayiPhone 6

Magical, Revolutionary Folders

It’s the day of the highly-anticipated WWDC keynote, and I’m parking myself in front of a computer to read the live-blogs of the event. I am curious about a fourth generation iPhone as well as whatever else Apple decides to announce today, but as always, I can’t help but chuckle at the promotional posters Apple hangs at the Moscone center.

iPhone OS4 FoldersCourtesy of Engadget

Oh boy, folders! Only Apple. 🙂

Return to BlackBerry – A Bold User Experience

Full Circle

My cellphone pants pocket has come full circle over the course of a year and a half. Back then, I was sporting an iPhone 3G, and got my hands on an early retail BlackBerry Bold. My comparison concluded with a preference for the iPhone, citing my consumer leanings, and some serious drawbacks to the mapping application and smaller display of the Bold.

BlackBerry

Over the course of the past year, I grew extremely frustrated with the iPhone’s touchscreen typing (I am atrocious at it, even with its great error correction), and moved on to a Nokia E71. I spent a good 9 months with that phone, before I swapped over to an HTC Touch Pro2. The Nokia provided me a return to the physical keypad and I loved it, but at the same time, I wasn’t very pleased with the lower resolution display. The TP2 had a fantastic 3.6″ WVGA touchscreen display (800×480) plus a giant physical keypad.

In a bout of prescience, I had commented in that iPhone – Bold comparison that HTC’s TouchFlo 3D looked great, but would be worthless if it came at the cost of a lot of performance. The TP2 was a dog of a performer, requiring regular reboots to keep in a good working state. Integration with Exchange was fantastic and MyPhone was a great feature, never leaving me worried about the synchronization state of my computer’s and phone’s contact lists.

My focus on a physical keypad was based on a significantly higher ratio of written communication than ever before. I get on average 10-15 emails per day and go through around 10 text messages in that same time-span. That reliance on email made me reconsider the BlackBerry once more (I had used a BlackBerry Curve for quite some time). A friend recently purchased a BlackBerry Bold 9000, and showed me how the platform was “just getting good when you left it“, as he put it.

So I bought a used BlackBerry Bold.

In Use

I’ve been using the Bold for the past two weeks, with a Rogers BIS data plan. Email has been much more reliable than the Touch Pro2 (I  now receive them on in prompt fashion) and the device itself is far, far more responsive. I immediately loaded BlackBerry OS5.0.411 (Swedish 3 network version, not the Bell version) onto the device, and combined with the Reverie D theme with transitions, the interface is sublime to use. Screens fade in and out without the least bit of hesitation. Things load faster than anything else I’ve used, and just as I noted even 1.5 years ago.

BlackBerry Bold 9000

The keyboard, while not nearly as large as the one on the TP2, is fantastic to use. The keys have positive action, and a nice soft click when depressed. The slight ridges on the keys make typing very accurate, despite the size. I’m finding myself belting out more emails and text messages on the go than ever before. I always needed to slide up the screen of the TP2 to expose the keypad before I could really use that device to write anything. The candy-bar format makes this more convenient.

Furthermore, the Bold 9000 is built like a tank. The fake leather backing feels great in the hand, yet at the same time resists normal day-to-day wear, unlike the iPhone’s scratch-prone surface. Not unlike the iPhone’s monolithic bulk, the Bold also has no creaks or groans during use. I popped in an 8GB microSD card, and with the included 3.5mm audio jack, I can listen to some music on the go too. The screen isn’t glass-covered, and there are a couple  hairline scratches on this used copy, but it seems like even moderate care should prevent any serious damage to it. The TP2’s resistive screen on the other hand seemed extremely delicate. Over the short while I used it, it developed several scratches on the screen. And I take care of my gadgets. All in all, a very positive feeling for the Bold’s durability. I have no worries using it anywhere.

BlackBerry Bold 9000

Browsing on the device is decent, not great. The browser that comes with OS5.0 seems capable of handling most any site I visit, with the exception of my university’s online course materials portal. Then again, an iPhone doesn’t do well on that site either. While the screen is far smaller than the iPhone or the TP2, the resolution is on par with the iPhone’s (480×320), and text looks extremely crisp on the Bold. Cramming that many pixels into this (relatively) small display creates a very vibrant, detailed experience. My previous experience with the Bold involved some frustrating time with BlackBerry Maps. I didn’t bother loading it up this time, instead opting for the free Google Maps application. On 3G, tile loading rates are good and GPS works just fine and dandy.

To top things off, I purchased a BlackBerry charging pod, which I now use as my alarm clock. It sits on my desk and I simply plop the Bold into it when I come home. It turns into a big digital clock, and I’m able to set as many different alarms as I want via the calendar. This works great as I have morning classes on Mon-Wed-Fri, but still want to wake up at a decent hour on the other days of the week. The dock looks fantastic, provides an extra bit of functionality, and ensures that my phone is always charged. Well worth the investment.

BlackBerry Bold 9000 in dock

Speaking of charged, battery life has been solid. Over the course of a normal day from 9am through 9pm, usage includes around 10 text messages, 10 minutes in calls, 20 minutes of web browsing, 20-30 minutes of Brick Breaker, some time on Google Talk, and 4 email accounts being pushed, with 3G and Wifi enabled, the phone runs down to about 70% battery. On another run over 3 days, with one day of heavier use (on par or more than the above scenario) and two of light use, always with the 4 push email accounts, the battery ran down to 15%, at which point I got a low battery indicator. Overall, very good.

But not all is hunky dory. With only BIS through Rogers, I am unable to sync my contacts and calendar over the air with my computers, without some crazy proxies in between (such as using Google Calendar). Furthermore, I have a hosted Exchange server, which syncs my desktop and laptop. With the Touch Pro2, that also meant I could use ActiveSync to sync my phone. Microsoft MyPhone also gave me a backup option, even if there was no Exchange. With the BlackBerry, neither of these options exist without BES. A real bummer. Perhaps Mike Lazaridis’ announcement on Tuesday will address this pretty key drawback.

Wrap

After 1.5 years, I find myself back with a Bold, except this time, it’s mine and I’m loving it. The level of importance I place upon reliable communications has risen over the years, and the BlackBerry platform just makes sense for me right now. The Bold 9000 is snappy and responsive and performs its key competencies, email and communications, just so very well. The QWERTY keypad is fantastic to use, the form factor is good, and BrickBreaker’s pretty darn entertaining. It’s not a multimedia powerhouse like the iPhone or other touchscreen devices, but all I need is a cursory music player, and it has that.

BlackBerry Bold 9000

If Research in Motion would go ahead and give me OTA sync of my calendar and contacts with an Exchange server or some other cloud service, without the need for BES, I’ll be very content indeed.

Windows Phone 7 will be shown off tomorrow morning, and I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen so far at Microsoft. I’ll be waiting with great anticipation for actual shipping hardware. Until then, the Bold will be in my pocket.

Application Stores – Purveyors of Innovation

One of the reasons I’ve remained enamoured with the computing space is the potential for software to do amazing things. It’s one of the few subjects in which a single person can formulate a vision, undertake its design, and carry out the implementation of a complete, functional system, a system that can change the way people use technology to solve real world problems. However, the software developer is faced with a pretty big challenge.

Distribution.

How does that developer, with near-zero capital, get his application into the hands of people who might find it useful? In the past, it was nearly impossible to reach more than a handful – you could host the application on your personal webpage, and hope people find it. If you were giving the program away for free, you might get a few nibbles. If you were charging for it, you’d have to think about a secure payment system (PayPal, perhaps?). You’d almost certainly get very few users, unless you were discovered by some larger publication.

In fewer words, it was difficult as hell to make any money from your software development efforts.

And that’s why there were relatively few indie developers making anything decently worthwhile. The distribution method for most successful software has been shiny media in retail stores, or bundled on OEM computers.

Shiny Media

Say what you want about Apple’s closed application ecosystem on the iPhone OS, it opened up the floodgates of eager developers who had amazing ideas but no way to show the world their creations. More importantly, the Apple App Store provided these individuals and small organizations a way to effectively monetize their work. If necessity is the mother of all invention, but then (monetary) incentive is probably the father.

Apple iPhone Applications

It is my firm belief that the App Store is a purveyor of innovation, not in the platform itself, but the applications that are enabled by the model. No longer does a developer question whether they can make some money from a great idea. Don’t read this wrong. The App Store model doesn’t guarantee earnings from just any idea.

Many other software platforms are either in the process of, or have already imitated the App Store model. It’s unreasonable to assume the developer of any platform is going to be able to implement or even determine all the potential use cases for their software system. The centralized application store provides a community that creates its own demand and provides its own supply. It’s a circular effect, and creates new scenarios in which that software system is useful to the masses. The system that emerges is significantly more agile, not relying on a single entity to provide functionality, and even more so than an open platform, with no proper distribution method. Furthermore, many of the applications that come about arise from grass-roots movements, evolving with community input. These new use cases help sell the devices, as Apple has shown.

Whether that application store needs to be the only source of applications is debatable. I contend that it is the small minority of developers that would actually take advantage of 3rd-party distribution, but the possible issues of code quality, security, and dilution of one key characteristics of the application store, singular, centralized repo, outweigh that advantage, for less general-computing platforms such as the iPhone and iPad.

Apple Application Store

Long story short, the Apple App Store has empowered individuals and small organizations to create software solutions to their problems. These applications were previously undiscoverable, and thus lacked the monetary incentive necessary to foster this sort of interest in development by non-traditional developers. Whether the closed-platform model is the right one is contentious, but it’s hard to argue against the innovation that exists in 140,000 applications in the Apple App Store today.

The next step is to bring the development learning curve and overhead down even further. There are about a billion computer users who have a better way to do something with their computing devices, but can’t turn those ideas to reality.