Editor’s Note: This story is reprinted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.
The iPhone will likely go down as the most successful launch of any technology product in history. It’s a truly revolutionary product and deserves much of the praise it has received—but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.
In the spirit of constructive criticism, we’re offering up 15 big things that Apple can do in the next generation of iPhones to make using an iPhone even better. Apple hasn’t said when the next-gen devices will make their appearance, but some Apple watchers have speculated early 2008.
In fact, we might not even have to wait for iPhone 2.0 to see some of the items on our wish list: It’s conceivable that Apple could update the current crop of iPhones via software updates. Are you listening, Apple?
1. Get on the 3G train
Let’s start with the most obvious shortcoming: The fact that the iPhone is tied to AT&T’s old EDGE wireless data network instead of the technologically superior 3G network. One of the things that makes the iPhone revolutionary is its unprecedented use of the Internet. No other cell phone or handheld on the market offers the full-featured, Web-browsing experience of Safari mobile (to say nothing of YouTube, Maps or other Net applications).
But the EDGE data service is too slow for many Internet tasks, especially downloading large amounts of data, such as a graphically intense Web page or a video from YouTube. The iPhone’s ability to use Wi-Fi instead of EDGE mitigates these limitations, but that is only an option when you’re in range of a Wi-Fi network. And even though AT&T offers 3G coverage in some areas, the iPhone itself doesn’t support 3G.
It isn’t clear at this point how quickly AT&T plans to beef up its 3G service throughout the country. The company’s Web site claims that it is working to expand 3G coverage, and its coverage indicator does show more 3G locations than when the iPhone was announced in January.
What’s more, a recent patent licensing deal struck between Apple and InterDigital strongly implies that 3G support for the iPhone is in the works. (InterDigital specializes in developing embedded wireless technologies and has already developed and licensed 3G technology to other companies, including Nokia, NEC, Sharp and Panasonic.) Even if AT&T’s rollout of 3G isn’t speedy, 3G performance for the iPhone is still critical for its success in other markets, including Europe, which has much more widespread 3G service than the U.S.
2. Add GPS
Speaking of data services, the iPhone desperately needs GPS. Offering a dedicated Google Maps application is great, but its use is limited without GPS. After I got lost on a dark country road recently, one of my friends asked me, “How can you be lost when you’ve got an iPhone?” The answer, of course, is that the iPhone’s Maps application is great, so long as you know where you are. If you don’t, then it isn’t much help.
GPS would also position the iPhone to compete with in-dash navigation devices. Think about the ability for the iPhone to be not only phone, Internet device and iPod, but also navigation system. The added value is so incredible that it really is surprising Apple didn’t include GPS in the iPhone to begin with.
3. Turn auto-correct into auto-complete
There’s been a good deal of criticism of the iPhone’s touch-screen keyboard as compared to the physical thumb-typing keyboard common on BlackBerries and other devices. Like most people, I complained about the iPhone keyboard at first but adapted to it within a couple of weeks, though I still don’t type as fast as I did on the physical keyboard of my old Treo.
Given my slower typing speed, one feature that I miss from my Treo, which ran Windows Mobile 5, is the text-autocomplete feature. True, the iPhone does have an auto-correct function. As you type, it suggests words from both a general dictionary and words that you commonly use. The more you use the feature, the more accurate it becomes; it’s an essential iPhone feature.
But auto-correct on the iPhone doesn’t usually kick in until you almost finish typing a word, and it’s focused on correcting typos and misspelled words rather than actually completing words as you type them. Having a true auto-complete function that begins after the first two or three letters (live updating with each additional letter), as happens in Windows Mobile, would be a massive improvement.
I hope this is something Apple is not only working on for future iPhones, but will also push out to current iPhone owners via a software update.
4. Support a landscape-oriented keyboard systemwide
Safari is currently the only application to provide users with a wider keyboard when the iPhone is tilted on its side for landscape view. Most people find that accurately typing in portrait view requires one-finger typing rather than two-thumb typing because of the narrow width and tight spacing of the virtual keys.
In landscape mode, the keys are both wider and slightly farther apart, which makes one-fingered typing more accurate and allows for faster, two-thumbed typing. Even if it isn’t feasible in every application because of the size of the iPhone screen and the data being displayed, extending the landscape keyboard into most iPhone applications would be a significant improvement.
5. Provide third-party developer support and an iPhone SDK
In June, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that the company would welcome the development of third-party applications for the iPhone, but these apps would have to run over the Internet via Apple’s Safari Web browser, rather than natively on the iPhone platform (a specialized version of the company’s Mac OS X operating system). Because of this, Jobs said Apple would not be providing a software developer’s kit (SDK) for the iPhone. Apple’s expressed rationale for the limitation is that opening the iPhone to development presents security risks to users and to the carrier’s mobile network.
But there is a significant developer community that scoffs at the idea that running Web apps through Safari is the best way to serve iPhone users. These developers are already creating a wide range of native applications for the iPhone. The problem is that installing these apps requires users to hack into their iPhones, and what’s more, such apps might become disabled at any time by an iPhone software update from Apple.
Rather than taking either a hostile or an indifferent approach to these developers (and potentially undoing their efforts with each iPhone or iTunes update), Apple should embrace them and allow iPhone owners to install additional applications without the need to “jailbreak” their devices. Creating an SDK and working with these developers not only serves users better but also serves Apple’s expressed desire to maintain the integrity of the iPhone as a platform and wireless device.
6. Add mobile iChat
It is shocking to think that the iPhone doesn’t come with an instant messaging application. Most other smart phones (and even many entry-level cell phones) either come with built-in instant messaging applications or offer them as add-ons. Given the consumer and Internet focus of the iPhone, a mobile version of iChat is a must.
True, there are Web-based messengers out there for the iPhone (I like Mundu, which offers the ability to simultaneously chat on AIM, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger and Google’s GTalk), as well as some native instant messengers for those comfortable with jailbreaking and installing third-party applications on their iPhone.
This should, however, be something that is built into the iPhone, not something that requires either a Web-based service or hacking the iPhone to install an application that Apple might disable at any time with a software update.
7. Allow iPhones to be used as hard drives
Apple needs to bring one of the most overlooked iPod features to the iPhone: the ability to use it as a storage device. Via an option in iTunes, every iPod, including the iPod Shuffle, is able to double as an external hard drive, which allows it to be used for carrying files between computers, for making quick backups and even as an emergency start-up disk.
Even though the iPhone connects to a computer via USB and syncs with iTunes in a similar manner to the iPod, the disk-use option is not enabled in the iPhone. As a result, there is no supported way for an iPhone to be mounted as a hard drive.
Use as a hard drive is a great feature unto itself, but on an iPhone it could be even more useful. It would allow you to load documents (PDFs, spreadsheets, word processing documents and so on) on the iPhone for easy viewing rather than having to access them by e-mail. Combined with third-party applications for editing documents, this could make the iPhone pocket-size office for users on the go.
The risk, of course, is that this would open the iPhone’s file system to modification and easier installation of third-party applications. As long as Apple maintains the iPhone as a closed platform (officially closed, anyway), there is little hope of Apple fully implementing file access. However, a single well-guarded folder on the iPhone that has no access to any system components should be doable and would allow for use of an iPhone as an external hard drive.
8. Support Bluetooth syncing
The iPhone includes Bluetooth support for hands-free devices only. This is a very limited use for Bluetooth and is surprising given that Mac OS X allows you to sync data with other cell phones and mobile devices using Bluetooth. Bluetooth support for syncing the iPhone seems like a no-brainer.
Bluetooth would make syncing easier and reduce the cables that users need to have on hand (particularly helpful for laptop users). It would probably also encourage users to sync their iPhones on a more regular basis. While it probably is safer to attempt iPhone software updates using a wired connection, that alone isn’t reason enough not to offer syncing via Bluetooth.
Since Bluetooth already exists in the iPhone in a limited capacity, there is hope that Bluetooth data syncing might not only exist in future models but could be turned on via an update in existing iPhones as well.
9. Add video capture
Another somewhat surprising omission from the iPhone is support for recording video using the built-in camera. Many phone manufacturers support video as well as still shots. Video would be a very welcome addition to the camera capabilities of the iPhone, and it’s another feature that should be possible not only in future iPhone models but also in existing iPhones via an update.
Given the iPhone’s existing integration with YouTube (as well as the upload support to YouTube included in the latest versions of Apple’s iLife and iWork suites), it isn’t a stretch to imagine being able to record a small video segment and upload it directly to YouTube. Likewise, the .Mac Web Gallery support already packaged into the iPhone’s camera application could easily be extended to support video.
10. Add a flash
While we’re talking about the iPhone’s camera, how about a flash? The iPhone’s camera does surprisingly well in low-light situations, particularly compared to similar (or even higher-resolution) cameras on other phones. But there is only so much any digital camera can do without adequate lighting.
A flash would significantly improve the indoor and nighttime use of the iPhone’s camera. The trade-off, as anyone who’s owned a camera phone with a flash knows, is that a flash can significantly drain battery power. As much as I’d like to see a flash on the iPhone, I’ll admit that Apple’s commitment to a long battery life makes it a bit unlikely.
11. Provide push e-mail
Most smart phone platforms offer an option for push e-mail (e-mail delivered to the phone automatically as it arrives) that can be configured through a service provider or corporate e-mail system. The iPhone offers push e-mail only when you use a Yahoo Mail account. You can configure access to other e-mail accounts, but you will not receive e-mails as they arrive. Instead you need to actively check for new mail using the iPhone’s Mail application or set up the auto-check option, which allows automatic checking only at 15-, 30-, or 60-minute intervals.
By default, Yahoo Mail doesn’t offer access via a traditional POP/IMAP mail client. If you want to be able to access your e-mail outside Yahoo’s Web mail interface, you need to purchase one of Yahoo’s upgraded e-mail plans. Although not terribly expensive, Yahoo’s upgrades are an extra cost, and they don’t offer access to a corporate e-mail account (or for that matter any other existing e-mail accounts you might have).
The other alternative is to forward an existing e-mail account to your Yahoo Mail address. This isn’t a perfect solution either, because it requires you to remember to enable and disable forwarding. What’s more, any responses you send will come from the Yahoo address unless you then explicitly reply from another account, which means you won’t be able to quote back the original e-mail (since there is no mechanism for choosing an account when replying and no copy/paste function on the iPhone). Finally, company privacy policies may prevent you from forwarding your work e-mail through an outside provider like Yahoo.
Apple should produce an add-on component for existing mail servers to offer push e-mail—or at the very least it should push e-mail through the company’s .Mac service. In contrast to Yahoo Mail, .Mac offers both Web mail and POP/IMAP access as part of its package. In fact, it’s a little surprising that Apple chose to partner with Yahoo for push e-mail rather than add value to the .Mac package.
While it might be a little much to expect Apple to produce an add-on for every mail server platform on the market (though it is worth noting the RIM produces a number of such products for BlackBerry users), it is conceivable that such an option could be added to Mac OS X Server. As with adding push e-mail to .Mac, this could add much value to Mac OS X Server’s mail services, which have traditionally been very basic.
12. Sync to-dos with iCal or Outlook
The iPhone’s calendar is one of the most user friendly I’ve seen on a mobile device, but one commonly used feature is missing: the to-do list. It’s the one feature that I really miss on a daily basis.
Using third-party options is possible, but it’s nowhere near as convenient as it would be to simply sync the iPhone to an existing calendar tool (most likely iCal on Macs and Outlook on Windows) and have to-dos updated along with calendar items, contacts and so on. Once more, this is something that Apple could easily address in both future and current iPhones.
13. Sync notes with your computer
Right up there with to-dos is notes. The iPhone includes a Notes application that has a fun yellow legal-pad look. The mystery and limitation is that there’s no real mechanism for doing anything with notes once you create them. Yes, you can e-mail them, but if that’s all you can do, why not simply write yourself an e-mail in the first place?
Most other mobile devices support the concept of notes as something that is synced with an information management tool (typically, Outlook on Windows and a third-party application on Macs). This makes notes a much more functional tool because you can organize them like contacts or to-do items. With some applications, notes can also be shared among users.
To make its Notes application truly useful, Apple should also take this approach and allow syncing of notes either with a self-contained notepad application running on a user’s computer or with an existing tool such as Outlook in Windows or Mail in OS X.
14. Send text messages to multiple contacts at once
The iPhone’s Text application is one of the coolest-looking features on the device. With an iChat-inspired interface, text messaging feels more like chatting. Everyone who sees it likes the look of it.
There’s only one problem: You can’t send the same message to two or more people at once. While I like the conversational approach, if I’m trying to connect with people while I’m out or planning a get-together, I often want to send the same message to multiple friends.
The iPhone is the only phone I’ve used that doesn’t offer the ability to address a single text message to multiple recipients. For frequent texters, it can be a big hassle to retype the same message five or six times. Even if the only way to work this into the Text application’s interface is to generate multiple conversation threads when a message is sent to more than one person, this should be an option. In this area, Apple has uncharacteristically missed the mark of the old adage “form follows function.”
15. Add an RSS reader
Apple did a great job in translating Safari from a desktop Web browser to a mobile one, thanks mostly to its Multi-touch technology. One feature that didn’t carry over was Safari’s ability to subscribe to RSS feeds. (Honestly, Safari never was the greatest RSS reader, but at least the feature exists in its desktop form.)
RSS readers for mobile devices offer a quick way to aggregate and view content. Since RSS feeds are typically content-only (i.e., they don’t have complex page-design elements), they are particularly well suited for mobile use—especially given the speed limitations when connecting to the Internet using AT&T’s EDGE network.
A built-in RSS reader, either as part of Safari or as a separate application, would be a great addition to the iPhone for users who want a quick way to keep up with news and blogs on the road. Until one is available, however, the mobile version of Google Reader serves as a good alternative.
If Apple makes these changes, the next-generation iPhones will be truly phenomenal devices. Did we miss anything? Do you have any iPhone pet peeves you’d like to see Apple address, or any work-arounds for the problems outlined above? Tell us about it in the comments area below.
[ Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. ]