The iPhone's 'Wow Factor' Is For Real

By Stuart J. Johnston

July 06, 2007

First look impressions: Despite some shortcomings, the iPhone looks like a winner.

I remember a night in 1984 when my next door neighbor, a game developer, got one of the very first Macs from his publisher. The wow factor overwhelmed us both. We stayed up all night checking it out.

It was one of those epiphanies when you suddenly saw where computing was going. It was powerful, graphical, almost ridiculously intuitive, and elegant. And something else. Besides being useful and beautiful, it was fun.

I had the same gut response July 3rd when I had dinner with a friend who had braved the lines the previous Friday and gotten an iPhone. Given all the hoopla, I was curious to see one up close. And after two hours of seeing it demoed and trying it myself, I have to say that the iPhone is, in my opinion, a category changer. It's definitely got the same 'wow factor.'

From the first look, it seemed somehow magical like Disneyland always seemed when I was a kid in the 50s -- cool like Jet Jackson. It has the same kind of elegant simplicity that the Mac and the iPod do – a word I'd use is "humanistic."

The original Macintosh "1984" ad with a woman smashing the angry face of Big Brother spoke volumes to baby boomers who were trying to take a human-oriented approach to work and life in general – a definition of freedom where the machine responds to us instead of vice versa. Much later, the iPod's design as well as its marketing plan, including those dancing shadows TV ads showing what the person is feeling inside as he or she calmly listens, exhibited the same sort of humanistic perspective.

That's what I also saw in the iPhone.

The 'Multi-touch' Display

The iPhone presents itself as a simple and non-threatening, reminiscent of the early Mac ads that had the friendly "Hi" on the screen. Just a couple of buttons and that broad expanse of black glass screen.

The display is what's called "multi-touch," meaning that it senses not just a single spot where you're touching it, but multiple spots. In that way, the user interface has the same kind of elegance and visual manipulation capabilities that Microsoft's Surface computer will provide when it arrives late this year.

In fact, not surprisingly, many of the same "gestures" work on both interfaces. For instance, you want to enlarge a picture? Take your first finger and your thumb and grab the corners of the photo and spread them apart. To make a selection, touch it with your finger and drag it where you want to put it. To scroll, just flick your finger up or down. To zoom in on a map, double tap the screen.

There are issues with the touch screen for dialing or composing text. But many people have their most called numbers pre-programmed, so the screen becomes less of an issue. Also, due to the size of the average person's thumbs, it's not easy to "thumb" like a Blackberry, but it's not bad using one finger for short messages on the QWERTY virtual keyboard – and the numbers and letters do enlarge as you touch them to give you feedback that you're touching the right character.

On the other hand, when it's not displaying a virtual keyboard, all of that screen real estate suddenly becomes usable display surface, making the device a lot more suited to use as a visual media device than most smart phone form factors – you can actually watch some videos without going blind. Paying Attention To You

The sensors that discern which way the iPhone is oriented work way cool. (I had first seen the feature on a prototype Compaq iPaq five or six years ago and was impressed with the flexibility it provided.)

The iPhone senses the difference between when you're holding it horizontally instead of vertically and changes the screen's orientation automatically changes accordingly. Apple's designers also thought of things like sensing when you're holding the iPhone to your face to talk or listen and automatically turning off the screen to save power.

Likewise, the street map capabilities, message editor, calendar, contacts, e-mail reader, browser and other features like camera phone, photo and video galleries, and digital media player, are also nicely integrated. If I want to go to my friend's house I can choose the mapping icon, and have it provide a map and driving directions to an address that I point to in my contacts list.

Shortcomings

Yes, the Web browsing via EDGE networking is a little like water torture. It took what seemed like a couple of minutes for MSNBC's regular (not mobile) news page to load. But more than anything, the slowness reflects the current lack of 3G network support in the U.S.. As we saw with the proliferation of broadband, it will catch up in time. The iPhone also supports Wi-Fi, so speed is more reasonable where those connections are available.

There are other shortcomings with the current iPhone. The battery is not user swappable, the iPhone is expensive, the 2.5G EDGE support for mail and browsing is slow, the earphone jack is non-standard, and some people won't like the touch screen for dialing or messaging.

As a reporter for the past 19 years, I'm a professional skeptic. But even as jaded I am, once I saw and tried the iPhone, I just kept thinking: "Wow, what an incredibly cool device." I'm not going to rush out and buy one as soon as they're back in stock because they're not inexpensive, and I still have questions about battery life and lack of 3G network capabilities.

But, that said, I'm definitely thinking positively about putting an "iPhone II" on my future shopping list.

Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing editor to internetnews.com.



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