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June 27, 2007

In The Beginning There Was The Word, And The Word Was iPhone

The iPhone, it turns out, is awesome. Its web browser is revolutionary, its screen astonishing, its touch-interface transformative, its aesthetics breathtaking. The only problem, it turns out, is that you can't make calls on it.

In a Consumer Reports study, AT&T’s signal ranked either last or second to last in 19 out of 20 major cities. My tests in five states bear this out. If Verizon’s slogan is, “Can you hear me now?” AT&T’s should be, “I’m losing you.”

Then there’s the Internet problem. When you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot, going online is fast and satisfying.

But otherwise, you have to use AT&T’s ancient EDGE cellular network, which is excruciatingly slow. The New York Times’s home page takes 55 seconds to appear; Amazon.com, 100 seconds; Yahoo. two minutes. You almost ache for a dial-up modem.

It's almost as if Apple shouldn't have gone with the worst cell phone network in the country. But still, the iPhone looks so pretty, and this is mainly sour grapes from a Verizon user who will cackle happily, but in truth, sadly, every time someone with an iPhone loses a call. "Maybe you should touch your screen again," I'll archly suggest, hiding my intense longing behind a wall of cynicism and cruelty.

June 27, 2007 | Permalink


Completely unrelated but:

You should read this and then tell us if you still think the Sopranos finale was "impressively bad." Obviously it's all a guy's analysis, but it rings true, and suggests that Chase is a fucking genius (not that we needed to be told).


Posted by: brian | Jun 27, 2007 9:41:23 AM

Oh my, but I badly want one of those eye-poppingly pretty iPhones. When the ad came on last night, I said to Mr. litbrit, "I so, so, SO want one..."

And he said, Yeah, I know what you mean, but AT&T? Gimme a break. Wait for the Second Generation. By then, they'll have got the message and switched services, just like the rest of us.

Posted by: litbrit | Jun 27, 2007 10:00:51 AM

The people who are calling iPhone's browser "revolutionary" seem never to have encountered Opera Mobile, or even the latest generation of Nokia's built in browsers.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jun 27, 2007 10:07:23 AM

Even if it were just an iPod that could send and receive text messages, it would still be a major step forward, right? and SMS uses the same data network as voice calls. Heck, most cell phones on most networks suck. So the only surprise is that Apple made something that doesn't dominate the competition at every major feature, but in that they may simply have proved that current cell phone infrastructure has doomed cell phones to permanent suckage.

PS: $600 AND a 2-yr contract AND a minimum $60 monthly plan? You gotta be frickin kidding me. Mr. litbrit is right: see you in a year and a half.

Posted by: diddy | Jun 27, 2007 10:31:46 AM

Mossberg and Boehret at the WSJ like it too, but really pan it for the cellphone connectivity (but like the wifi):

But the iPhone has a major drawback: the cellphone network it uses. It only works with AT&T (formerly Cingular), won't come in models that use Verizon or Sprint and can't use the digital cards (called SIM cards) that would allow it to run on T-Mobile's network. So, the phone can be a poor choice unless you are in areas where AT&T's coverage is good. It does work overseas, but only via an AT&T roaming plan.

In addition, even when you have great AT&T coverage, the iPhone can't run on AT&T's fastest cellular data network. Instead, it uses a pokey network called EDGE, which is far slower than the fastest networks from Verizon or Sprint that power many other smart phones. And the initial iPhone model cannot be upgraded to use the faster networks.
Missing features: The iPhone is missing some features common on some competitors. There's no instant messaging, only standard text messaging. While its two-megapixel camera took excellent pictures in our tests, it can't record video. Its otherwise excellent Web browser can't fully utilize some Web sites, because it doesn't yet support Adobe's Flash technology. [no YouTube!] Although the phone contains a complete iPod, you can't use your songs as ringtones. There aren't any games, nor is there any way to directly access Apple's iTunes Music Store.

Apple says it plans to add features to the phone over time, via free downloads, and hints that some of these holes may be filled.

And the comma and period on a separate keyboard? Surely you jest, Mr. Jobs.

At the iPhone price, it sounds like a rational person would wait for iPhone II.

Why, exactly, did Apple join in matrimony with AT&T?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 27, 2007 10:37:50 AM

Oh, and no SD memory cards, either.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 27, 2007 10:39:47 AM

I have a treo on the older sprint data network -- about as fast as edge. It's certainly not dsl, it's about twice that of dial-up. Sucky, but not the worst thing in the world.

The trick for the treo given the okay screen (320x320 as opposed to 320x480 for the iphone) but poor browser is to use RSS feed readers like bloglines whenever possible. As to surf other sites through google mobile or sqweezer.

I am hopeful the iphone will get people to rethink their pages and make them much more lightweight.

It's pretty craptastic how many blogs for instance insist on squeezing out a 2Megabyte page consisting of posts for the last month. It would be pretty easy to detect the browser is blazer (treos) or safari/iphone or ie-mobile or whatever and only put on the last week of posts.

Regarding costs: wired I think did a survey and the monthly cost is competitive with the other smart phones and the initial cost is too, except that many of the other smart phones are rebated down from the $600 price tag (but not all.)

I think the iphone is a mixed bag and I sure hope that it is successful. I won't be buying one, but I want it to spur innovation at Palm and Moto and get web designers and blog designers to rethink what they are doing.

Google maps is great, especially showing in almost real-time traffic on the freeways. To me what google maps does is show how much better it would be for cities to wire up their streets to provide traffic information than it is for them to put in place stupid traffic camera programs. It also provides a pretty darn good simulacrum of the poor man's GPS -- though that is only true for as long as you remain within range of a cell.

The killer app? Not google maps (which is amazingly great, but supported by many phones now (including the treo)) but streaming youtube.

Posted by: jerry | Jun 27, 2007 10:49:44 AM

iPhone is quad band GSM:
Quad-band (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
900 is popular in South America
1800 is Europe.

Perhaps someone can shed more light than I have but T-Mobile is the nth renaming of a GSM service that started in the USA as Aerial. T-Mobile uses GSM band 1900.

The ATT/Cingular/ATT GSM band was originally 850. Today they may also have 1900 towers but I don't know.

Anyway - This phone uses both the Cingular/ATT band(s) and T-Mobile. The 2 carriers permit transparent roaming between towers (no charges).

The question for which I have no answer is:
If you have a Cingular/ATT plan and are near both an ATT 850 tower and a T-Mobile 1900 tower will your phone be allowed to choose the strongest signal?

Why does this matter? The same Consumer Reports survey that knocks the Cingular/ATT signal praises T-Mobile.

Posted by: JRip | Jun 27, 2007 10:52:08 AM

According to a friend of mine in the industry, Cingular probably spent two years upgrading their network to accommodate the iPhone's features (specifically visual voicemail). Several things fall out of that fact:

Sprint and Verizon turned Apple's offer down flat: They aren't modifying their network, you're modifying your phone. That's what everyone else does for Sprint and Verizon, and the approach has its advantages in terms of stability and reliability. Unfortunately, running on a standard cell network would disable at least one of the iPhone's marquee features.

Cingular isn't upgrading their network for free. They did two years of work in exchange for a two-year exclusive on the phone. Fair enough.

iPhone uses the old "2.5G" because AT&T's 3G coverage is spotty, and 3G is a relative power hog. But if EDGE is a deal breaker (and I certainly understand why it would be) it's only a matter of time before iPhone supports something newer and faster.

Posted by: James Robinson | Jun 27, 2007 10:53:34 AM

The treo 600 could not record video -- until the software was upgraded. My guess is video and flash and even java (why the hell would anyone want that?) will all be upgraded.

What is good is that it supports javascript. Way too many websites not require javascript for access to menus.

We're an ADD nation that needs shiny things.

Here is where Apple could shine in a way that Palm truly sucks. The Palm is very upgradeable, but typically Palm upgrades the firmware for each phone once to fix initial bugs and after that never again. It's part of how they get you to buy the newer phones.

That's a strategy that says, "let's piss off older customers and expect them to buy again because everyone hates Windows!"

Apple could actually support older phones by releasing the newer software to them.

That would be a strategy that says, "these people just paid $600 for a phone, let's actually respect them and show them how great we are and they will buy again AND GET 10 FRIENDS TO BUY US TOO!"

Posted by: jerry | Jun 27, 2007 10:55:48 AM

Want to learn more about GSM coverage? Go to gsmworld site and review the coverage maps you find under: GSM Roaming.

Cingular/ATT is listed under Cingular. You can see coverage maps for each frequency band.
Compare with T-Mobile GSM.

Posted by: JRip | Jun 27, 2007 11:03:23 AM

"The killer app? Not google maps (which is amazingly great, but supported by many phones now (including the treo)) but streaming youtube."

That's hardly a killer app in the sense that it makes you buy that phone because you can't get it anywhere else. My (free) phone can not only stream YouTube but it can stream pretty much any media from my computer and with a £100 Slingbox it can stream digital TV as well.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jun 27, 2007 11:05:14 AM

Weird. I've been with AT&T/Cingular/AT&T for years now, and I only have dropped calls in one particular spot in my house. I can't get my wi-fi signal there, either, or my 2.4ghz cordless phone either. It's like a vortex or something. Back in the day, AT&T was the only carrier that always got a signal in the Bay Area no matter where you were, especially East Bay.

And I still remember being on the Sprint world headquarters with a Sprint phone and not getting any signal at all.

Whatever reasons Apple had for going with Edge instead of 3G, it sounds like a decision Apple made, not AT&T.

Anyway, I'll still just use my small, sleek fliphone that I get free for signing up with AT&T and let everyone else subsidize my choices by buying shiny crap that will have to be upgraded in a few months anyway.

Posted by: Stephen | Jun 27, 2007 11:06:20 AM

On a non tech note, one consolation is that AT&T/Cingular does not interfere when its workers form a union, and as a result it's the only wireless company where significant groups of employees have formed a union.

Verizon and the other carriers are more typical of American corporations: viciously antiunion.


Posted by: Brendan Sexton | Jun 27, 2007 11:11:38 AM

Okay, let me just say then that I would kill if I could stream youtube on my Treo.

Posted by: jerry | Jun 27, 2007 11:49:32 AM

Even if it were just an iPod that could send and receive text messages, it would still be a major step forward, right?

Yes, yes it would, since I like listening to music and actually kind of despise talking on the phone. Of course, it would be cheaper to keep my phone and just buy an iPod.

Posted by: SDM | Jun 27, 2007 12:01:11 PM

Why did Jobs go with AT&T? They were the only ones to guarantee him the control he wanted.

Posted by: Phoenix Woman | Jun 27, 2007 12:02:50 PM

jerry--me too.

I don't use the 'net anywhere near as much as I would if my Treo were faster and more able to load content. I barely use the function at all, come to think of it--it's a fancy cell phone with photo and video capabilities that come in handy when I forget my cameras, which isn't often.

It's just that I have a thing for modernism and good design, and if all else is relatively equal, I'll always choose the cleaner, sleeker object over the fussier, weighed-down one.

Why'd they have to make the iPhone so fricking stylish?! Harrumph.

Posted by: litbrit | Jun 27, 2007 12:04:01 PM

A $600 phone which includes a camera, a portable music player and Internet access (even though it's limited)... and people are complaining that it doesn't record video and you can't buy new songs through it directly? Rationally, I realize that those are all valid complaints by comparison to its competitors and/or related products by the same manufacturer, but still, I've never felt like more of a Luddite than I do right now.

I guess this means I need to get back on my rogue and level my engineering skill.

Posted by: Cyrus | Jun 27, 2007 12:05:41 PM

"A $600 phone which includes a camera, a portable music player and Internet access (even though it's limited)... and people are complaining that it doesn't record video and you can't buy new songs through it directly? "

Like I say, I can do all of these things on my free phone. That's what people are complaining about.

"Even if it were just an iPod that could send and receive text messages, it would still be a major step forward, right?"

That's the thing. If Apple put out a genuine iPod which also had phone and text functionality and nothing else, I'd almost certainly buy it. I'd like to carry one device instead of two. But they've done exactly what every other phone manufacturer has done, ie bolt half arsed music player functionality on to a more or less fully featured phone, and given it a swishy interface and a $600
price tag. What's the point of a "convergent" device with only 8GB of storage? My iPod is full with 10 times as much space. If I bought an iPhone I'd still have to carry around my iPod, so I might as well use a dedicated, cheaper and more functional phone instead.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jun 27, 2007 12:45:50 PM

jerry, don't count on Apple to allow you to upgrade. They make Palm looks like nice guys when it comes to whether you upgrade or buy the new line of product. Some of my worst computer investments have been in Apple products that cost a premium but then weren't supported in the next product line. I am glad that at least Apple went with USB which often allowed me to buy cheaper universal hardware rather than Mac-only stuff.

Posted by: Ricky | Jun 27, 2007 12:57:29 PM

I won't lie: I want one. Bad. They look amazing.

I'm pretty sure I am going to wait until you can use the iPhone on something other than EDGE, but I reserve the right to change my mind.

Posted by: fiat lux | Jun 27, 2007 1:20:24 PM

I've never owned a Mac, but often envied Macs, so I have to accept your experience Ricky. I had thought though that software updates were usually made available (maybe for a price) to all of the current Mac models. But we'll see, and you maybe right.

I actually use the Treo quite a bit for surfing blogs. I read 99% of the blogs on bloglines and that is primarily so that I can get a sync between treo and my laptop.

When I am away from a wifi hotspot and near a cell, I use the Treo as a modem. It actually works great as a modem -- far better as a modem than as a web browser because the phone can't push the data much faster when it's not trying to render it too.

One reason along time ago I switched to Sprint from AT&T was that at the time I got the Treo 600 Sprint wanted $15 per month for unlimited data while AT&T wanted $70 for a limited amount of data. I am very glad to see that Apple has gotten that knocked down.

The other aspect of AT&T that left a very bad taste was that as they were bringing up their newer network, they stopped fixing their older network. So my existing AT&T phone actually got worse and worse service instead of remaining with okay service until they shut the older network down.

But I am sure they would never do that again.

Posted by: jerry | Jun 27, 2007 2:00:33 PM

jerry, they seem to be better on the software side, though not too long ago they made you pay for OS updates. I have become cynical about Apple over the years especially because I pretty much a captured audience. If there were another reasonable platform for doing graphic design I would switch...the latest version of Quark is causing me to lose my sanity.

To me it looks like a pattern when you look at the iPod's history. I'll admit I have slow on the uptake for the latest technology, but I was on the cusp of finally joining the digital music player revolution but then the whole iPod battery thing started and I wondered if it was another one of the 'designed to become obsolete' things that Apple has pulled one too many time for my taste. I heard too many people unsatisfied with how Apple dealt with the problem and just gave up. Since then I just haven't felt the need to buy another gadget though it seems the iPod battery issues are fixed.

That said, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the iPhone has a short shelf life or if everything you do with it will cost you additional money.

Posted by: Ricky | Jun 27, 2007 2:59:26 PM

If Apple plans on going outside North America with the iPhone, it really has to use the GSM platform and expand outwards. It's hard enough for dedicated phone manufacturers to deal with the mishmash of incompatible protocols in the US market.

(Whether it does launch the iPhone outside the US is a good question. The mobile phone market is so different in Europe that it'd be hard to sell it at that price and data-plan rates.)

Anyway, using GSM means that CingulAT&T is the only national option. T-Mob doesn't operate in a bunch of states, because other regional providers like SunCom have their own little fiefdoms.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 27, 2007 5:58:01 PM

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