First Look: iPhone fixes we want to see

The iPhone has been on the street and in our hands for a little more than a month now—time sure flies when you can browse the Internet and get e-mail anywhere . While we’ve evaluated the iPhone, Apple’s mobile device is the sort of product that needs to be revisited every so often. After all, a month from its June 29 release, we’re still discovering new tips on what it can and can’t do.

So with a month of heavy iPhone use now under belts, we have a better perspective than we did in the waning hours of June 29 on what works with the iPhone—and what doesn’t. The Macworld editors have all weighed in with a list of things they’d like to see the iPhone do or, in some cases, do better. While the complete list got rather lengthy—everyone has their own pet causes and peculiar requests, after all—more than a few items kept reappearing on our wish lists. It’s these consensus items that appear below—and that will make a great mobile device even better. (We’ll tackle our lengthier wish list in depth over at iPhone Central all this week.)

Hardware

A few of our iPhone desires are admittedly out of reach for the current model, as they would require changes to the iPhone’s actual hardware.

 The iPhone’s Maps feature is great—but how much better would it be, if it could tell you where you were?
The iPhone’s Maps feature is great—but how much better would it be, if it could tell you where you were?

Add GPS support: We can’t say enough good things about the Maps application that helps you easily find locations and driving directions with a few simple taps. Actually, there’s one other good thing we hope to say about Maps in a future version of the iPhone—it would be the ultimate mapping application if it knew where you actually were at all times. With wireless access to Google’s regularly-updated maps (or the ability to pre-load maps for a region on your iPhone), a GPS-enabled iPhone would be a reasonable alternative to a full-featured GPS receiver for many people.

Go 3G: Many people hoped the first iPhone would feature support for 3G, a wireless technology that offers better network performance than the EDGE network that the iPhone actually uses (though 3G is still slower than Wi-Fi). Apple has said the reason 3G support wasn’t included in the first iPhone was that available 3G hardware would have hampered battery life, and that AT&T’s current 3G network isn’t widely available. AT&T says its 3G coverage is currently limited to 160 metro areas, although the company is expanding that coverage. In contrast, the iPhone’s EDGE network is available in most AT&T coverage areas. Still, you can expect to see 3G support in a future iPhone model—and that will improve the phone’s wireless capabilities.—DAN FRAKES

The Interface

The iPhone’s interface is its bread-and-butter, and it’s tasty toast at that. But sometimes you run into a piece that just feels half-baked. As cool and “ooh”-inducing as the iPhone’s multi-touch interface is, there are things about it that don’t quite feel finished.

Let us select text: Although the iPhone tries to anticipate your text manipulation needs, and provides you with a few ways of shunting information from one app to another, there are times when it’s like driving in downtown Boston: You just can’t get there from here. Say you want to send an address to a friend from the Maps app, or perform a Google search for a term on a Web page. Maybe you just want to delete a large amount of text quickly. There’s no way to do that now—instead of grabbing a block of text, swiping your finger brings up the magnifying loupe. Adding text selection capabilities—along with copy, cut, and paste commands—would fix this problem in a blink.

Add a search tool: Other than the option to use Google or Yahoo in the iPhone’s version of Safari, search is simply missing from the iPhone. If you can’t quite remember which e-mail message had your friend’s phone number in it or which week in October you have a dentist’s appointment or the name of the rep for a company you work with, you’ll have to spend some time flicking away. The same holds true for Notes. And forget about doing an iPhone-wide search. Either each application need its own search interface or Apple should add a dedicated Spotlight-esque application to the home screen.

Enable multiple selection: Most Mac and Windows users are so accustomed to the ability to select multiple items that it’s become second nature. Unfortunately, no such capability exists on the iPhone. While this might be a minor annoyance when it comes to Notes or SMS conversations, it becomes of critical importance in apps like Mail, when you need to deal with the occasional onslaught of spam messages. At best, you can swipe and delete each e-mail, two gestures per deletion. Some capability for batch-deleting or -editing—not just in Mail, but in other apps, as well—would save time and sanity.

Bring landscape mode to more applications Typing on the iPhone’s keyboard is among the device’s surprising pleasures. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential improvements to be made. In Safari, you can turn the iPhone sideways to access a wider keyboard for easier typing. So why not make this orientation available in other text-heavy applications, such as Notes and Mail? Why not go the full nine yards and make it available whenever you summon the keyboard? Hardcore iPhone typists everywhere will thank you, Apple.

The horizontal keyboard, available only in Safari, should become a staple of other iPhone apps.

Establish some interface consistency: The iPhone manages to maintain some degree of consistency in its interface, but there are times when it can throw you for a loop. Why, for example, can you not swipe Notes, Contacts, or Voicemail messages to delete them? And why does the Edit button appear in the bottom left corner of Safari’s bookmarks, but the top right corner the rest of the time? Learning different muscle memories for different applications is to be expected, but consistency is the watchword of good design: You never want to have think about where a control is twice .—DAN MOREN

Mail

Overall, we love Mail—in many ways, it’s the best mobile e-mail client any of us has used. But there’s the rub: Because it’s so good in so many ways, the places it goes wrong are glaringly, frustratingly, head-slappingly obvious. In fact, of all the built-in applications, Mail is the one that generated the most feature/improvement requests in our informal, internal poll.

Create a unified inbox A unified inbox—like the one found in Mac OS X’s Mail program—would ease the tap-heavy task of checking new messages across multiple e-mail accounts. It takes three taps to go into an account, grab a mailbox on that account, and open the first message, and three taps to get back out. Multiply that across four or five e-mail accounts, and you’ve got a lot of tapping ahead of you that would be entirely eliminated if Apple added a single unified inbox.

Make it easier to delete messages en masse: On the iPhone, there’s no easy way to delete more than one e-mail message at a time. Combine that fact with the iPhone’s lack of any sort of junk-mail filtering, and deleting all those e-mail offers for low-priced medicine and penny stocks becomes a repetitive—literally—drag.

Let users mark all messages as read: Just as the ability to delete messages in one fell swoop is missing from the iPhone, so is a way to mark all messages as read. It shouldn’t be.

Force messages to display as plain text: Many people dislike HTML-formatted email. Spammers use it way too often, image-heavy messages take a long time to download, and, quite frankly, many pre-made HTML message templates are just plain ugly. On your Mac, you can use a hidden Mail preference to force all messages to display in plain text mode. That preference is missing from the iPhone—you’re stuck with a veritable barrage of image-laden and slow-to-load HTML messages.

Add more flexible options for selecting text to be quoted in replies: We’ve already noted that you can’t select text on the iPhone; that goes for replying to messages, too. You have no control over how much of the original e-mail gets quoted. There’s also no setting for enabling or disabling quoting in general; Mail on the iPhone automatically quotes the entire message when you start your reply. Adding these capabilities would be a big step toward making the iPhone’s Mail even more like its OS X counterpart.

Make picture-sending easier: If you have a series of photos to send off to someone—pictures of the kids, say, that you want to share with their grandparents—you’re going to have to send a series of e-mails. You can only select one photo at a time; a multiple selection tool would make things much easier.

Allow images from e-mails to be saved to the Photos app: Photos received in Mail are stuck there

You can send photos via e-mail one click at a time; we’d like a way to select multiple images.
You can send photos via e-mail one click at a time; we’d like a way to select multiple images.

; you can’t add e-mailed images to the iPhone’s Photos application—at least not easily. You could move the photos into iPhoto on your computer, and then add them to the iPhone the next time you sync, but this is a capability you should be able to do entirely from your phone.—ROB GRIFFITHS

The phone

Enable custom ringtones: Most modern phones let you add custom ringtones—simple melodies or even actual music files. Some phone providers require you to purchase these ringtones through a service, whereas others let you simply upload the ringtones directly to your phone. The iPhone does neither; in fact, other than assigning different built-in ringtones to particular contacts, the iPhone offers little in the way of ringtone customization.

This may seem like a frivolous feature, but it has practical purposes. For example, you can assign a meaningful custom ringtone to a specific person in your contact list so you know when that person calls without even looking at your phone. Plus, custom ringtones are just plain fun.

Yes, there are several unsupported solutions for adding customized ringtones, but they don’t let you use iTunes Store purchases and they’re… well… unsupported. It would be nice to have an Apple-sanctioned, fully-featured method to do what many comparable phones already allow.

Add custom alert tones When you have alerts going off for calendar events, alarms, e-mail, voicemail, and more, being able to customize each allows you to immediately know what’s going on just by the sound. For example, if you’re working and get an e-mail alert, you can decide to ignore it; on the other hand, a calendar alert may notify you of an imminent appointment. Right now you have to check every time an alert chimes on the iPhone; greater customization would increase the phone’s usefulness.

Let the iPhone become a modem As good as the iPhone’s Web browser is, many people would rather surf the Web on their laptop. More important, there are plenty of Internet-required tasks you can’t complete on your iPhone because they require an application on your computer. Many mobile phones provide the capability to use the phone as a modem for your computer; that would be a nice option to have with the iPhone. (Although not for the faint of heart, there are instructions available for sharing your iPhone’s EDGE connection with your computer.)—JIM DALRYMPLE

PDA features

The iPhone’s existing features and applications make it a capable PDA, its lack of true third-party applications notwithstanding. But there are a number of things we’d like to see it do, or do differently.

Create to-do lists: iCal, which the iPhone already syncs with, offers To-Do lists. So why doesn’t the iPhone? While we can turn to Ta-da List, which stores multiple to-do lists online and is accessible via the iPhone’s Safari, we suspect that iCal’s To Do lists will eventually make their way onto the iPhone.

Let users sync Notes: Notes on the iPhone is handy for jotting things down, but none of the notes you write can sync with your Mac. You can e-mail them from your iPhone to your Mac, but it’s a one-way process. The main obstacle to syncing Notes is the lack of a corresponding application on your Mac to sync with . But given that a notes features will be included with Leopard, we expect it won’t be long before Notes syncing will makes its way into an iPhone software update.

Access your Contacts list from the Home screen: The Contacts button in the iPhone’s Phone screen is convenient; we want it to stay right where it is. But we’d also like to be able to access the Contacts list directly from the Home screen for those (many) times when we need to access contact info from within another application.

Assign a calendar event to a specific calendar: You can sync multiple Mac-hosted calendars to your iPhone’s Calendar application; however, they get combined into a single calendar on the phone. That’s a minor inconvenience, but one we can live with. It’s going the other way that’s the problem: when you create new calendar events on the iPhone, you can’t decide which of your Mac’s calendars each should sync to. Instead, all iPhone-created events get synced with the single calendar you designate in iTunes. We want to be able to assign new work events to our work calendar and new personal events to our personal calendar.

Give us storage capabilities: You can use any iPod as a removable drive to store and transfer files by enabling Disk Mode via iTunes. However, despite being a member of the extended iPod family—it syncs via iTunes, after all—the iPhone doesn’t offer this option. We hope Apple eventually offers this feature via a software update; until then, you can approximate it using iPhoneDrive.)

Let us edit documents Mail on the iPhone lets you view Word, Excel, and text documents, but this tantalizing preview mode omits the corresponding ability to make changes to those documents—a feature available on nearly every competing smartphone. Given that the iPhone runs a version of Mac OS X, and that Apple already has technology for editing Word documents—and perhaps Excel soon —it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope that the iPhone will eventually gain the ability to edit such documents.—DF

Internet

Apple famously contends that the iPhone’s browser delivers the true Internet. For the most part it does—but here are a pair of fixes that would help it deliver even more.

Add Flash support in Safari: For the most part, the Safari browser on iPhone delivers Web pages exactly like you’d expect from a computer-based browser. One of the more glaring exceptions, however, involves its inability to show Flash. So many Web sites rely on this Adobe plug-in that it’s hard to consider the iPhone’s Web experience truly “real.” Want to watch a live baseball game on MLB Gameday? Sorry, that’s a Flash app. How about an embedded video on a blog? Sorry, that’s almost invariably a Flash movie. If Safari on the iPhone gains support for Flash, on the other hand, you’ll be hard pressed not to call it what it is: the real real Internet.

I know iChat, SMS, and you are no iChat.

Add a true iChat/AIM client: We’re staggeringly reliant on instant messaging here at Macworld to do our jobs; we also use it to stay in touch with friends on-the-go. And yet the iPhone, an otherwise peerless communications device, falls down hard when it comes to supporting instant messaging: it just doesn’t. There’s an SMS client that looks like iChat and lets you send text messages to other mobile phones. But how does that help me look at my buddy list and start a conversation with a friend? There are several Web-based workarounds, such as TinyBuddy IM, but nothing will match an actual instant-messaging program running on the iPhone, alerting me to incoming chats and letting me natively browse my buddy lists. C’mon, Apple—the SMS app is halfway there. The iPhone should be the best instant-messaging device in the world. Make it happen.—JASON SNELL

The rest

To paraphrase a Steve Jobs keynote, two more things…

Add video capture: Nowadays, most phones with a built-in camera can also capture video using that camera. Although the iPhone’s camera isn’t the best on the market, it’s respectable, so it should be able to handle basic video. (And given that the iPhone had a built-in YouTube client, wouldn’t it be cool if you could capture video and upload it directly to YouTube?)

Allow third-party applications: You didn’t think we’d leave this one out, did you? We understand wanting to keep the iPhone “locked down” for security and stability reasons. And we could even go along—partially—with the theory that Apple wanted people to get used to the “true” iPhone experience before letting third-party developers spoil it. But the truth is the iPhone could be doing so much more right now with a little help from third-party developers. But we think the company will indeed open the iPhone to such development, even if third-party apps have to be “certified” by Apple.—DF

[ Dan Frakes, Dan Moren, Rob Griffiths, Jim Dalrymple, and Jason Snell all contribute regularly to Macworld’s iPhone Central blog. ]

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