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iPhone: Why It’s Not Perfect

05.20.08 | Permalink | Comment?

Emotional Design by Don Norman Between the time the iPhone was announced and when I finally got one last December, I happened to read Don Norman’s Emotional Design. Don Norman explains how the perfect product must excel at three levels: visceral, behavioral, and reflective.

OMG, It’s Gorgeous!

A visceral reaction is one that you cannot help. It happens at the most basic human level, e.g. the fear that you feel in some situations or the attraction towards that beautiful two legged human walking down the street. In my case, you can add the weakness in my knees when the waitress brings the dessert tray, but I digress.

The iPhone simply excels at the visceral level. There is no doubt about it. Its user interface and nearly all its apps are simply beautiful to look at. UI “beauty” is a soft concept that many engineers just don’t get. Lucky Apple.

What Else?

Whereas other manufacturers generally tried to adapt and squeeze the computer’s user interface into a phone, Apple was able to think outside the box and bring some true innovation. The pinch-zoom UI is such a natural even for my six year old daughter. We went into an Apple store once. While her twin brother wasted no time playing Stars Wars Legos, my daughter went to the iPhones on display trying the pinch and zoom gestures. She found it fun!

There are several other innovations in the iPhone’s UI. Edward Tufte provides a good overview. In the rest of this article, I’ll cover the shortcomings that I haven’t seen addressed much elsewhere.

Ma, What’s That Restore Button?

At first, I wondered why I’d ever want to restore anything on my iPhone. It felt perfect and acted perfect. Alas, that day came shortly after I updated it with version 1.1.2 of the software. Push email stopped working. When it did, the phone would not alert me — no sound. Hence my first experience with the Restore button.

iTunes Restore Button

My iPhone would start alerting me again when new mail arrived, but only for a day or two. I finally gave up on restoring and decided to wait for the next software revision which arrived shortly after Macworld 2008. It did indeed fix the problem.

Did I Tap In The Wrong Place?

No you didn’t. Yes, iPhone apps do crash. Most of the major ones, including most of the major ones. But Apple chose not to display an error message when this happens. I can’t blame them. Can you imagine the buzz on the Internet that this would cause? Or the print media anxious to find a chink in the iPhone’s armor with photos of “Your application has unexpectedly quit” messages?

An iPhone crash is a silent affair. The application just quits and takes you back to the home screen. You think at first that you tapped in the wrong place. But let me assure you: it’s a crash. I’ve had the following apps crash on me:

  • Mail
  • Maps
  • iCal, just after launching it and tapping on “+” to enter a new event.
  • Safari (while accessing the Apple store!)
  • Camera, although this happened while trying to email a photo. So it could be the Mail app that failed to launch.
  • iPod

Crashes are not the only problem. After the last time we updated our watches due to Daylight Savings, all my events in iCal have been showing up an hour early. No amount of restoring or restarting the iPhone has fixed this problem.

When Even The Restore Button Isn’t a Sure Thing

But the biggest issue that I ran into was iTunes’ refusal to sync with the iPhone: iTunes Refusing to Sync Two things happened prior to this problem. I happened to visit Toronto where there is no AT&T service. But more likely, the cause of the problem is buying a new MacBook Pro and having all my apps and data transferred from my previous Mac.

Even the alert is misleading. It says that it cannot sync contacts whereas in fact it is not syncing iCal events, songs, or anything else. This problem took multiple attempts at restoring from iTunes and restarting the iPhone itself. I was close to giving up and heading to an Apple store for help before I was able to finally sync again

When Reception Is Not Loud And Clear

I ran into another strange bug when I took the kids to a park where the reception was weak and inconsistent. My wife called me, and unable to get through, left a voice mail. The iPhone beeped at one point to indicate that I had a voice mail, but this is how the home screen looked:

iPhone Voicemail Bug Notice how the red circle on the Phone icon does not show the number of voicemails. It’s empty! After tapping on the icon to access my voicemail, the same empty red circle appears with a message indicating that Visual Voicemail is not available — even after I moved to an area where the reception is excellent. It took a restart of the iPhone to clear this problem.

This bug should be hard to reproduce but I ran into it twice.

Will The Bugs Be Fixed?

It seems silly to ask this question and just exclaim “yes, of course!”. But I am not so sure, at least not for the owners of the current iPhone model.

My best guess is that a number of these bugs are due to limited RAM. After Apple unveiled the iPhone SDK, we now know that only one app can run at a time in the available 128MB of RAM. 128MB seems like a lot but it really isn’t when you consider that this space is shared by the memory hungry Mac OS and several processes that are always kept in memory to maintain phone, SMS, and email communication.

It is not in Apple’s DNA to worry about available RAM. This goes as far back as 1984 when John Warnock was worrying about how Adobe was going to make its new PostScript printer language work with 512KB of RAM. Steve Jobs’ advice at the time was to design PostScript for 1MB of RAM because, by the time Adobe is done working on PostScript, 1MB of RAM would become cheaper. He was right. And he continued to be right for the next 20 years until the iPhone came along. Suddenly, a major operating system designed without a RAM worry in the world had to fit in 128MB.

As of this writing, rumors are flying about a new iPhone about to be introduced with support for 3G data networks, perhaps even GPS, recording video, and what have you. To me, what I’ll be looking for is how much RAM the new model will have.

So back to the question: will the bugs be fixed? If my hunch is correct about RAM being the cause of many of them, the answer is yes: Apple will fix them either by streamlining the code or by throwing more RAM at the problem. In the latter case, owners of the current first generation iPhone will just have to live with the bugs.

Still Loving It

Don’t get me wrong. This article documents the bugs that I’ve ran into with my iPhone but the overall user experience is still excellent. The iPhone simply has no equivalent on the market at present. My prior phone was a Motorola RAZR. Its software drove me so mad that I walked into a Verizon Wireless store ready to shell out money for a different phone. To my horror, it turned out that the RAZR’s software was written by Verizon, not Motorola. Any other phone would run the same crappy Verizon software.

If you can afford an iPhone, run and get one. Despite its bugs, you will at least enjoy using it. I do.

Filed under Design, User Experience

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