First Look: A technical professional takes on the iPhone

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You’ve read what we think of the iPhone from the perspective of Mac users and music and video consumers. But I thought another take on Apple’s new mobile device might be illustrative—the thoughts of a technical professional.

Oh, not me—I’m just a writer and an editor. Instead, to gain perspective from another source, I took the iPhone for a Sunday visit to a friend of mine—a friend who spends most of his time not at the leading edge of technology, but just past it. “Tom” (I’ve changed his name to spare him any possible embarrassment) is my litmus test for most things technical: If Tom buys something and likes it, I know then that it’s something I’ll enjoy using as well. For instance, Tom was the first person I knew with a TiVo, the first person I knew with a high-definition television, the first person I knew with a DVD player. You get the picture. Tom likes technology, and likes to be ahead of the curve.

Tom’s also a very bright programmer type, and works with Macs, Windows, and Linux machines. He thrives on the command line, and watching him work in Terminal is somewhat like watching a professional athlete at work—you know what they’re doing, but if you were to try to replicate it yourself, you’d wind up hurt. Given his background and skill with all things technical, Tom loves to tinker. His Sony PSP is running a third-party-modified version of the operating system to enable additional features. Same thing with his TiVos. Same thing with his network router. You get the picture; Tom is a hands-on type who is seldom satisfied with the status quo of his devices.

Given his background and tinkering nature, I figured that Tom was going to hate the iPhone—after all, this thing is locked down tight against any sort of modification— so far at least. In fact, through the first 72 hours, the iPhone has proven to be so tinker-proof that I’ve yet to even find any sort of tip that’s not already documented in the iPhone’s manual.

I thought that not being able to get “under the hood” would be a deal breaker for Tom. As it turns out, I figured wrong.

As Tom used the iPhone, he commented on the brilliance of the display, the well-thought-out features such as the acceleration curve that applies when you flick-scroll through your contacts or songs, and the easy-to-navigate icon based menu screen. He loved the zoom in/out feature in photos and Web pages, and found the way the display flipped between portrait and landscape very slick.

One of the things that impressed him most—which I was completely not expecting—was the iPhone’s Usage screen, as seen at right. This screen shows the iPhone’s usage and standby time since the last charge, as well as current and lifetime call times, and the amount of data you’ve sent and received over AT&T’s EDGE network.

Tom looked at the usage screen and said, “Nice. I’m not even sure I could find the usage information on my cell phone.” Then I realized he had a good point: My Treo supposedly offers usage information somewhere…I even remember seeing it once or twice. But I cannot remember how to get to it, and I know it didn’t offer all the information shown in the iPhone’s Status screen.

While Tom was checking out the iPhone, I asked him why he would be interested in an essentially non-modifiable device. He provided a few reasons:

The screen: Tom loved the iPhone’s 3.5-inch widescreen 160 dpi display. “Simply incredible,” he said. “The color, the clarity, and the sharpness of everything.” Universally, this has been the reaction of everyone who’s seen my iPhone. “Oh my, just look at that screen!” “That’s incredible!” “Heck, that looks nicer than my TV, much less my cell phone!”

The videos on Apple’s site really don’t convey just how nice the display really is.

Internet functionality: Tom mainly uses e-mail and Web browsing on his current phone, and based on his testing, the iPhone’s approach to both of those features is much better than that of his current phone.

Design elements: Tom called the iPhone’s user interface was “100% more logical” than that of his current phone. He thought the attention to detail evident in both the physical design and the phone’s operating system appealed to his engineering background. He really liked the iPod functionality, especially the high quality video playback and the Cover Flow album browsing.

When I asked him how he could bring himself to own a non-user-modifiable device, he replied that “Sure, that’s the situation today. But I really expect that folks will figure out how to modify it relatively quickly. And if they” don’t, I might have to give it a shot myself.”

I was quite surprised by Tom’s reaction to the iPhone; I really thought he’d hate almost everything about it. Instead, he thinks it’s a well done device with a few “version one” issues that will probably be addressed in the near future. The only thing preventing him from buying one? He’d really rather not become an AT&T customer…though he indicated that his thoughts on that might change, now that he’d used an iPhone in person.

[ Rob Griffiths is a senior editor at Macworld. ]

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