There's no nice way to say this, argues John Welch, but Apple is just better at intuitive user interface than Microsoft.
Id like to talk a little more about the iPhone. Yes, I know, I did so in my last column, but I hadn't watched the keynote when I wrote that. So now that I've "seen" the iPhone, and talked to some people who have really seen and touched it, I thought I'd take some more time to talk about the iPhone.
Now, first, I want you all to understand something. I own a Windows Mobile 2003SE phone that I paid for, and I have a Windows Mobile 5 phone that I was issued by my "real" job. I've been using the WM 2003 phone for two years now, the WM 5 one for a few months. I support both WM phones and Treos. I have more than a passing acquaintance with them, and, I'm actually pretty happy with them. However, I am now far more impressed with what Apple is doing with the iPhone than I was before, and it's not just the infamous "reality distortion field" kicking in. I'm still not planning to jump to Cingular just for this phone. But it's a lot more tempting than it was.
First, the user interface. Steve made a really good point about most smartphones: When you have controls carved in stone, your applications are limited. Most of my smartphone's UI is based on hardware buttons. There's some touchscreen action, but it's kind of annoying, even with a stylus, and in some cases, far too clumsy to use without the stylus. The iPhone UI may not be perfect, but it is better in some noticeable ways.
First, it's far more intuitive. The unlock action on the screen is obvious and explicit...you get text instructions and an animation to tell you what to do. On both of my WM phones, it's somewhat obvious what to do; tap the screen after you wake the phone up. But Apple took that extra step. Actually, it kind of reminds me of the turn signals on an early-model Mercury Cougars. The point is, no guessing. No assumptions. You know what to do because the UI clearly tells you what to do. In a lot of ways, the iPhone UI is much better than either Mac OS X or any version of Windows at this.
This clarity holds for all of the iPhone, or at least the parts in the keynote. When you scroll down, it's by tracing your finger down the screen, up to go up. When you make a call, it's not just little symbols, they're big and they have text. The UI for switching between too calls? Nice, big and clear. No doubt that you have two calls, and which one you're in. Creating a conference call? The UI is a little shakey there, but I think that "merge" is better than "conference" for a verb, and I can't really think of one that's noticeably better than merge.
The button and other scaling functionality is much smoother than on either of my WM phones. The demo of how it handles showing you an incoming call is so much better than my WM phones. On the iPhone, it's a pretty monstrous button. Really easy to hit. On my WM phone? Little tiny button. Sucks to hit, and really hard. I have to use the physical button on the phone most times, because I can't hit the target area with my finger fast enough. That's on the WM 2003 one. The WM 5 phone is even worse.
BMW vs. Edsel
The way you deal with everything in this UI is just...well, it's better than either of my WM phones, and not just "kinda" better. It's better like a BMW is better than an Edsel. I think there's a few reasons for this.
First, Apple is just better at intuitive UI for non-techies than Microsoft. There's no nice way to say this. Secondly, unlike Microsoft, which has a Windows-like UI on a completely different OS for their WM phones (two actually, the "Smartphone" version and the "PocketPC" version), and some rather significant differences between them, the iPhone is running, as Steve said, OS X with the iPhone UI.
Which indicates something important. The version of Mac OS X running on the iPhone is based on Mac OS X 10.5, a.k.a. Leopard. Why do I say this? Well, Steve specifically mentions Core Animation in the Keynote, it's on the slide, and if you look at the sneak peak for Leopard on Apple's site, you see that Core Animation is a new feature in Leopard. While it's not definitely based on Leopard, the probability that the iPhone is using Leopard as its base is rather high at this point.
So thanks to avoiding "hard" buttons as much as possible, you get a more flexible UI, and by basing it on Mac OS X, you get things like Core Animation, etc. The iPhone has a small number of "hard" buttons, and that will end up being a good thing. My VX-6700 has something like 14 "hard" buttons, not including the keyboard, most of which I rarely use, because they're inconvenient, and I'd have to start turning the silly thing over in my hands like a gorilla with a new shiny rock to even see them.
The iPod Dock
I will say that there are two things about the "hard" controls on the iPhone I find pleasing. First, the headphone jack is 3.5mm, a "standard" size, not that 2.5mm silliness. So you can conceivably use the headphones that come with your iPhone on, well, your iPod, or whatever. Second, the iPhone is using the standard iPod dock. That Dock connector is important to the iPod, so the fact that Apple kept it for the iPhone is A Good Thing. You don't have to assume too hard to think that by keeping the same Dock Connector, the early adopters of the iPhone should be able to take advantage of the rich set of iPod accessories, and the OEMs of said accessories should, in a lot of cases, get iPhone support for free. That's pretty sweet for both sides.
Using iTunes as the computer application for synching makes sense. People are used to it, they already use it to sync non-music things to their iPods, and it means the next major release of iTunes should be pretty interesting. If Apple can keep that sync process as painless for the iPhone as it is for the iPod, especially if you can do it not just via USB and Bluetooth, but via Wi-Fi as well, they'll be cleaning ActiveSync's, (or whatever it's called in Vista) clock. No one was happy with Microsoft yanking Wi-Fi support in ActiveSync and blaming it on "security." Sorry, but you can't tell me that BlueTooth is a Gibralterian Rock of security and Wi-Fi is Charminesque in comparison.
I can't compare the iPhone's version of Safari to anything but the Treo browser and IE in WM (I've never used Opera on either of my phones), but I can tell you, it looks tons better. Not that being better than either of those two is particularly hard. In general, reading web pages with IE on my phone is...painful, especially when IE gets done rendering a page, then pops a dialog to tell me it couldn't find/load the page. "So then what's that page you just loaded?" Yeesh.
iPhone and AJAX
At the keynote, looking at the Google and Yahoo people on stage (the less said about Cingular CEO Stan Sigmans speech the better it was a flashback to watching the second string high school debate team), and thinking about the kvetching about "Apple not allowing third party applications on the iPhone," I realized what Apple is doing, even if it's unintentional.
The iPhone is going to be huge for people doing work with AJAX. Think about it. Safari (more so in the WebKit builds than in the Mac OS X 10.4 version), is going to enable the iPhone to run AJAX web applications far better than IE on WM can now. (I can't type "Treo Browser running AJAX" without giggling.) And if you look at companies like Zimbra, and others who are really pushing the limits of AJAX, the iPhone is tailor-made for them. I really think the iPhone is going to be a major player for AJAX applications, because it will be the fastest, easiest way to get your stuff on an iPhone without having to go through some major approval process with Apple.
One final point on the cost. First, we don't know what the true cost will be, because we don't know about the most important factor in the cost of a phone: Rebates.
For example, if I go to Sprint's phone site, and look at the base cost of the various phones in the "PDA phones section" I see that the base cost ranges from $649.99 for the Treo 700p and the Treo 700wx, down to $399.99 for the Blackberry 7130e. The reasons you don't pay much are because with various layers and rebates, the potential price ranges from $399.99 for the PPC-6700, (no mail in rebate on that sucker) to $149.99 for the 7130e.
So at the high end, a PPC-6700 is only a hundred bucks cheaper than a 4GB iPhone, and I'll tell you right now, while the 6700's a nice phone, it's not even close to what an iPhone can do other than direct Exchange connectivity. It sure doesn't have 4GB of space unless you buy the SD card, and a 4GB SD card will drive that 6700's cost to just a bit above the cost of the 4GB iPhone. (Let me also say that I have yet to get Pocket Outlook to let me send mail via authenticated SMTP with IMAP accounts. I am so not impressed with Pocket Outlook, any version. I'm sure there's some way to do it, but if so, it's far too counterintuitive for me to mess with.) Looking at Verizon and Cingular, the story's about the same there. So much for Ballmer laughing about how much the iPhone might cost.
Again, I'm still not planning to switch. I like Sprint. I like them a lot. I like them enough to put up with really bad phone UI, because their service, both RF-wise and person-wise, has been pretty good. Not that I wouldn't switch for a phone, but I'd have to see all the details, which I don't have right now.
But after seeing the iPhone, I'll tell you, I kind of wish my work provider around June would be Cingular.