How do you use your iPhone?

Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

Recently, I read an interesting report regarding iPhone use. Market research firm iSuppli found that many people use iPhones in ways that differ markedly from other phones, especially in categories that until recently weren’t that important to most users.

We don’t use it as often for phone calls as other cell phone owners.

And while we text message about as often as those who own other phones, we’re much more likely to be checking e-mail, surfing the Web, watching videos or YouTube clips, or viewing photos.

What surprised me the most out of all of iSuppli’s statistics is that iPhone owners spent less than half the time actually making calls—46.5 percent—compared to 71.7 percent of the time people use other phones for calls. At first, I had a fleeting moment of defensiveness; I wondered if they were insinuating that the iPhone isn’t good for voice calls. I hadn’t noticed any problems with either my 8GB phone, or the newer 16GB model I replaced it with earlier this year.

It turns out voice quality isn’t the issue. “This usage pattern shows Apple has succeeded in producing a true convergence product that consumers like to use for multiple purposes,” said Greg Sheppard, chief development officer at iSuppli. “Apple has come as close as anyone to achieving a balanced convergence in mobile handset features and usage.”

My curiosity piqued by the report’s findings, so I set out to document how much I use my iPhone.

How it was B.I. (Before iPhone)

Before the iPhone was released, I lived in what I call the “Dark Time.” As a former Motorola Razr user, the only time I felt anywhere near comfortable using my phone was when I made calls. That was it. To me, the Razr was just a phone. Because of either bad software design or the limitations inherent to static, button-based hardware—or a combination of both—the Razr’s functions were poorly implemented.

For example, accessing the Internet felt less like information gathering and more like I had lost a bet. The experience was flat-out unpleasant. First, the software was terribly slow, even though the Razr browser was rendering mostly text. Second, the mobile Web it offered up looked nothing like the Internet. I’ve seen the Internet and that’s not it. WAP browsing may have been a compromise, but its execution in software is slow, cumbersome and inefficient.

Since I had to navigate my way through a maze of vague commands and menus, I avoided the Internet on my Razr. The contacts and calendar applications were useless, too, given the hoops I had to jump through to keep them synced with my Mac. The same was true of e-mail, directions and the other functions the Razr could theoretically offer. No wonder I used it mostly for phone calls; I couldn’t do anything else very easily.

I’ve started paying attention to my iPhone use, and I’ve found that similar to the findings in the report, I use my iPhone to make calls about half the time. The other half I spend browsing the Web, checking personal and company e-mail, playing games and using most of the available features—and then some. (Yes, my iPhone is unlocked so I can add unofficial apps, and it will remain so until Apple releases a newer version of iPhone software in June.)

What surprised me even more than how accurately the report reflected my usage is the amount of time I spend on the device itself. After a few days of focusing on how often I use my iPhone, I’ve realized that not only am I using it more for calls than I did with the Razr, I’ve found that I also used it much more overall than any other portable device I’ve ever owned, iPod included. Until this report made me step back and take a good look, I never fully realized how iPhone-dependent I have become.

A day in the life

To illustrate, a typical day goes something like this: When the iPhone alarm wakes me up each morning, a swipe of the screen silences the alarm and brings up the Weather widget. With one gesture, I have enough information to plan my wardrobe and departure time, all before I’m even sitting up. Because the iPhone remembers the last-used application before it locks itself, any app can be used in this way.

Next, I click on the Home button to get to E-mail and the Calendar so I can prepare for the day mentally. Once I’m out of the house, the iPhone is linked into my car stereo, so it’s always on as an iPod. And because my iPhone is also how I keep in touch, I never miss an e-mail, a text message or a phone call because of loud music—the music mutes automatically when a call comes in. Since I commute daily from Orlando to Tampa, Google Maps lets me know what kind of traffic I’m facing, which helps me plan my routes.

Once at work, most of my day is spent staring numbly at progress bars, waiting for software to install. For those idle moments, dynamic content by way of the iPhone’s mobile Safari browser and YouTube access is a godsend. The iPhone’s media capabilities and its always-on cloud connectivity break the monotony, and since it’s also my communications device, it keeps me always accessible. That’s a downside, too: I’m always accessible.

Focusing on my iPhone use startled me into realizing that if my iPhone broke, or if Apple suddenly stopped making it and I had to use another brand, I’d be lost. I wouldn’t know which device suited me, despite all of the competition in phones out there, because, in one way or the other, they’re all wrong for me.

I felt that way before the iPhone’s release, but now that I’ve used Apple’s design and have grown accustomed to it, how can I go back? I tried to figure out why that was and realized that Apple made a few key design decisions early on in the iPhone design process that just happened to evolve into exactly what I was looking for.

Compatibility, multitouch nailed it for me

Obviously, based on your own needs and wants, your mileage may vary, but I was always specific about exactly what I wanted in a phone: one that comes with Mac software, easy connectivity and no hassles. So right off the bat, Apple nailed it for me by making the iPhone automatically Mac compatible, seamlessly importing my contact and calendar information. Of course, Apple didn’t stop with Mac users; the iPhone works on various flavors of Windows as well, meaning it offers out-of-the-box cross-platform support. Who else does this?

Advantage two for the iPhone is multitouch. Everyone seems to be doing flat screens now. There were a couple of touch-screen devices on the market before the iPhone, but their interfaces were tacked on to existing mobile operating systems, which seem to be programmed to spite users. Plus, rival touch screens were the opposite of responsive, giving those awful bank ATM touch screens a run for their money. Not surprisingly, the design never caught on except with the most forgiving—or masochistic—early adopters.

It is because of this experience with touch panels that the mainstream media, consumers and cynics watched with curiosity when Apple first presented the ground-up redesign of OS X and its apps for mobile devices. The fact that the entire interaction lived and died by the intelligence and responsiveness of the touch screen was instant debate material, and every competitor was quick to dismiss the technology. Flash forward a year later and everyone who had dogged the idea now has their own touch-screen “iPhone killers.”

But only Apple has multitouch matched to a user interface that’s clever, intuitive and slick enough to take advantage of the technology. The lack of intuitive multifinger interaction alone makes any so-called iPhone killers merely iPhone wannabes, relegated to an audience comprising those that who can’t or won’t buy an Apple product for whatever reason.

With the iPhone, the simplicity introduced in the iPod remains, and the multitouch interface make all functions equally accessible, regardless of what feature they offer access to. From purchasing music to finding the nearest gas station to navigating through songs, iPhone’s multitouch capabilities and Mobile OS X make things easy. The iPhone actually feels more like what must have been the original concept for the iPod in the literal sense: my entire life in my hands, with the ability to instantly sync with my computer, though no longer bound to it.

More missed points

Detractors are quick to play up the limitations of the iPhone, which are set by Apple itself. Some limitations, such as third-party application installs and enterprise support, will be taken care of with the June software release. And the long-rumored 3G iPhone is apparently just around the corner.

But there are other limitations that won’t be as quickly remedied. Although the iPhone and iPod lines support the most popular music store in the world, the fact that that store just happens to belong to Apple and offers support for only a limited amount of available codecs doesn’t sit well with some. But Apple would rather support specific codecs—and support them well—than spread itself thin supporting too many options poorly. It’s the same philosophy Apple applies to its computers and operating system. What you leave out is as important as what you add in when it comes to ease of use.

As new iPhone features and support for enterprise use become available, the iPhone’s reach into dyed-in-the-wool geeks resistant to Apple will expand. For those looking for a multifunction device that is actually useful in everyday life, I can say this: The iPhone remains the most user-friendly device I’ve ever had. Others agree.

Perhaps the most telling of all statistics comes from a March ChangeWave survey in which 79 percent of iPhone users said they’re very satisfied with their devices. The next highest percentage of happy owners came from BlackBerry users (54 percent are very satisfied), and LG and Sanyo owners (40 percent who said they’re are very satisfied). The statistics speak for themselves.

Given the dramatic evolution of the iPod since its introduction in 2001, it’s easy to see how, over time, the iPhone could spearhead the next major computing platform. Just in the next few months, we have the expected arrival of faster—and possibly redesigned—3G iPhones, along with the release of a software development kit that should result in a slew of new apps.

Given that I couldn’t resist moving from the 8GB model to the 16GB model when it came out, I see little chance that I’ll be able to hold off from getting the next model when it finally appears. By then, I expect third-party applications for the iPhone to make it the Star Trek device I always thought it could be.

[Michael DeAgonia is a computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macintoshes and working on them professionally since 1993. A Neal award-winning writer, his tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry and Apple. Currently, he is working as a Macintosh administrator at a large media company.]

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