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During a Q&A with Apple's vice president of iPod products Greg Joswiak, I finally got to play briefly with one of the highly-anticipated iPhones.
Announced yesterday at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, there are only two iPhones on public display at the convention, both of which are currently rotating on podiums in the main hall, sealed in plastic bubbles and displaying automated demonstrations of its capabilities to crowds of onlookers.
Unfortunately photography was not permitted in the hands-on demo, but I'll try to share my experience during the hasty test period.
An iPhone displaying Google Maps on show at Macworld
The iPhone is one of the most elegant and ravishing phones I've seen so far, due largely to its simple, sleek design and impeccable, intuitive user interface. While fashion phone fans used to teensy handsets might disagree, the iPhone doesn't feel too unwieldy and at just under 12mm thick, it is certainly pocketable. Gliding your finger from left to right on the lower half of the screen unlocks the iPhone and presents you with the Home screen widgets (mini-applications): Text, Calendar, Camera, Photos, Camera, Calculator, Stocks, Maps, Weather, Notes, Clock and Settings. At the bottom of the screen are the iPhone's four final functions (for now): Phone, Mail, Web and iPod.
Although the iPhone runs a version of Mac OS X "optimised for the handheld experience", Joswiak explains it's not an open platform and any updates to applications or software will come through Apple. This closed model, although secure, means you can't install additional custom or third-party apps -- does this mean it isn't defined as a smartphone? It's a model that Joswiak says will continue in the foreseeable future.
While the 8.9 cm screen takes up the vast majority of the front of the device, housed beneath it is the inward curving Home button, which for some reason I thought would be touch sensitive; however, it's clickable. While the room we were in was dimly lit and conducive to making displays look vibrant, the screen didn't fail to impress. It is bright, colourful and seems like a very high resolution for its size.
To get an idea of how to type messages on a buttonless phone, I ducked into SMS. The text message list is grouped by sender. Going into a thread shows a conversation history (both sent and received messages) in cute coloured speech bubbles. Using two thumbs to type a quick couple of words, the touch-sensitive QWERTY worked well -- my accuracy might have been better if I had longer than 3 minutes with the phone. However, I think the virtual keys and the lack of a tactile click feeling won't be everyone's preferred way of text entry.
Next up I wanted to test the pinch and stretch zooming using two fingers, so I went into the Web function where a US newspaper's Web site (New York Times, perhaps) loaded on the screen. In portrait orientation the headlines were barely legible, but with a quick stretch gesture the screen zoomed in and re-rendered the screen in around a second, making its pictures and headlines crisp.
With other journalists in the room still waiting to have their turn with the iPhone, I quickly went back to the Home screen -- the Home button gets you back here from anywhere almost instantly -- and into Maps. Google provides the mapping service widget. A map of the local San Francisco area swiftly appeared and a red push-pin marker dropped from the top of the screen to mark the location, although we're not sure if that was a bookmark or if the iPhone was approximating our location with triangulation from mobile phone towers -- something to check on the show floor later.
Orientation changes as expected when the iPhone is tipped on its side, allowing you to see Web sites, videos, maps and photos in landscape mode. Multi-touch is a fantastic feature for zooming in and out and panning. Apple isn't mentioning how much system memory is onboard, but we didn't notice much of a lag between menus or applications -- mind you we didn't push the iPhone's multi-tasking abilities to the extreme.
We were unable to demo the synching process with iTunes, and are disappointed that Wi-Fi can't be used for synching or for direct communication with other iPhones, the latter being one of the major selling points for Microsoft's Zune. Joswiak claimed an advantage of the wired connection is that it's faster and that it charges the device at the same time.
Will the iPhone be a success? Undoubtedly it will be in the US if comments by Macworld attendees are any measurement, but a lot could happen between now and the time it takes for the iPhone to launch in Australia, which representatives from Apple Australia could not narrow down from Steve Jobs' "2008 in Asia".
Addressing the iPhone's lack of 3G connectivity at a time when HSDPA services are flourishing internationally and the impact of future WiMAX technology, Joswiak said that Apple "made some choices that make sense today". Reports of poor battery life could potentially have hurt Apple if it chose to go with 3G from the get-go. Certainly the iPhone is an amazing device and credit must go to Apple for its seamless integration of hardware and software. But what impact will the iPhone's Wi-Fi limitations, closed system, wide and long design, and lack of next-generation mobile technology have on sales?
I'd like to hear your thoughts on the iPhone and Apple's entry into mobile phone market. Please leave your comments below.