First Look: The iPhone: What you need to know

The Internet-enabled device

Steve Jobs made it clear that the iPhone belongs in the smart phone category, as a product that does much more than just make and take calls.

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E-mail. One of the most important features of a smart phone is its ability to send and receive e-mail. The iPhone tackles mail head-on with an HTML e-mail client supporting rich HTML and inline images, and resembling OS X’s Mail app. It works with POP3 or IMAP e-mail accounts, lets you choose a split-view approach (with your inbox on top and selected message on the bottom), includes standard e-mail folders, and parses phone numbers in e-mail messages for quick phone dialing. In addition, Apple has partnered with Yahoo to provide free Blackberry-style “push” IMAP e-mail—which automatically notifies you whenever you have new mail, without your having to manually check—to all iPhone customers. Of course, that may mean you’ll need to switch to a Yahoo e-mail address to reap the benefits of that feature.

SMS Messaging. The iPhone also includes a full SMS text-messaging client that looks nearly identical to iChat. Unfortunately, the version of the software that Apple showed didn’t let you connect to the AIM instant-messaging network; it worked only with SMS messages. Many cellular phone plans charge a premium for text messages, although it’s unclear whether that will be true of the AT&T/Cingular calling plans available for iPhone users.

PDA. Another component of any smart phone is its PDA capabilities—storing and displaying your contacts, phone numbers, appointments, notes, and so on. Like many smart phones, the iPhone looks to be quite capable of tackling all this and more. There’s an iCal-like Calendar app for appointments, and a Contacts section within the Phone application where you’ll find contacts’ phone numbers, addresses, and the like. So how do you get all your contacts and appointments onto the iPhone? Fear not—you won’t have to input everything by hand (or, as the case may be, by finger). The iPhone will sync data, using the familiar iPod-syncing interface within iTunes, with a Mac or PC just like an iPod does. Presumably, that means the iPhone can sync with OS X’s Address Book and iCal apps on the Mac, as well as contacts with Outlook Express or calendars and contacts with Outlook on Windows PCs. There’s also a Notes application on the iPhone, but Jobs didn’t say much about it, and it was non-functional on the iPhone we played with.

The iPhone’s main interface—note the buttons for phone, e-mail, Web browsing, and music along the bottom and links to assorted widgets and apps at the top.

Widgets As miniature apps, Apple’s Dashboard widgets seem like a great match for the iPhone. Jobs showed two that he said will be on the iPhone—Stocks and Weather. The Stocks widget can display multiple stock quotes as well as show percentage changes. The Weather widget can have multiple windows for different cities, and you move between them by swiping your finger across the screen. These widgets auto-connect to the Internet to update.

There may be more Widgets once the iPhone launches. Or Apple (or third-party developers, if they’re allowed) may offer additional widgets at some point.

Web Browser Unlike other smart phones, which run browsers that are anything but full-featured, the iPhone includes a version of Safari. Apple calls it ;“the first fully-usable HTML browser on a phone”—it can load standard Web pages (not scaled-down WAP versions) complete with images and formatting. You can navigate around a page by dragging your finger to scroll and “pinching” (drawing two finger together or apart on the screen), or double-tapping will zoom in or out on a section. You can even open multiple Web sites at once, and move between them at will. Rotating the iPhone automatically switches its screen to landscape mode.

Google Maps Apple worked closely with Google on several aspects of the iPhone. The Safari browser includes a Google search bar (like the standard Safari), but the phone also includes a Google Maps application. With it, you can map out destinations, search for local businesses, save and access favorites, and view satellite imagery of mapped locations. (Google Maps isn’t exclusive to the iPhone—the company makes a free app for Palm Treos, for example, that provides similar functionality.)

All this sounds like a lot of data entry. How do I type on a buttonless phone?

Use the onscreen keyboard. Both the e-mail and chat modes use this feature for text input. Although the keyboard doesn’t offer tactile feedback, making error-free input more difficult than a hardware keypad, the iPhone features automatic error detection and text prediction—even if you do make a mistake, the software will often fix it before you notice. In our brief hands-on time with an early iPhone, we found that single-finger typing actually worked quite well. (Although the iPhone doesn't offer tactice feedback for typing, it does offer visual feedback -- when you press a key, it enlarges, as if it's rising up to meet your finger.)

What about the camera on the iPhone? What can I do with that?

The iPhone camera’s 2-megapixel sensor is small by digital-camera standards, but impressive for a mobile phone. The camera uses the screen for (very large) image framing, and the phone’s software includes a photo-management application that lets you browse your photo library or view individual photos in full-screen mode. This app takes advantage of the touchscreen by letting you “swipe” images left or right to cycle through them, or pinch images to zoom in or out (as with the version of Safari on the iPhone). There's no word on whether the iPhone will also be able to capture video.

How about third-party apps?

It’s unclear. Although the iPhone runs a version of OS X, developers won’t necessarily be able to modify their apps for the iPhone and release them into the wild. In an interview with the New York Times after the keynote, Jobs said the Apple will “define everything that is on the phone.” Similar to the iPod’s games, other companies will be able to create software for the iPhone, but Apple will be the gatekeeper (such as with the Google and Yahoo software that will be included on the iPhone).

Our best guess is that third-party developers will be able to write software for the iPhone, but not with the freedom that they currently enjoy when it comes to Mac development. Apple may allow more freedom for the installation of simple widgets, while tightly restricting the release of full-blown applications. We envision a model similar to those you see on gaming platforms, in which third-party developers can create software, but it must be approved and controlled by the hardware manufacturer (in this case, Apple) before it's released to the general public. In the end, we think the iTunes Store will most likely be the only place where you'll be allowed to buy iPhone software.

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