A Luddite Reacts to iPhone 4

| Editorial

I’m the only TMO writer who doesn’t own an iPhone. Believe it or not, I actually don’t own a smartphone at all. But Apple’s iPhone 4 is the first phone that has me rethinking my prior always-get-the-free-phone-with-the-contract policy.

Why did I stay away from the iPhone, and what has me intrigued? In the wake of yeaterday’s keynote, I thought I’d share my thoughts.

I’m already wired all the time.
Some people might actually need a smartphone — traveling salespeople, for example. For everyone else, I’ve always thought that the real killer application for the iPhone was location-based searches for shops, restaurants, people, the night sky…you name it. Those searches can be quite convenient, but they’re rarely necessary. I’ve always said that if I spent more time in unfamiliar places, or in airports, that a smartphone might make more sense.

But I’ve been doing biophysics research in a basement lab for the last five years. We’ve got Wi-Fi everywhere. Phones don’t have the first prayer of getting a cell signal. And besides, I’m supposed to be doing work during the day. What possible use could an iPhone be?

My situation hasn’t changed dramatically — as a post-doc, I spend more time above ground, but not a lot — but the utility of a Wi-Fi-only iPhone has expanded, thanks to the growth of the App Store. And with the multitasking features of iOS 4, VoIP programs like Skype and Line2 would be able to reach me anytime and anywhere, even in the basement. My wife could finally stop playing phone-number roulette when she was trying to get ahold of me at work.

The new iPhone 4

It’s too expensive.
The cell carriers have always taken the edge off the upfront cost of moving to a smartphone by subsidizing the gadget itself. (Unless you were a very early adopter of the iPhone.) But the cost of the data plan was always a sticking point for me. Was watching YouTube on the bus really worth US$30 a month? That’s about what it costs to insure my house! And besides, it’s highway robbery for me to be paying for an unlimited data plan when I’m on the University’s Wi-Fi network all day long.

The situation improved last week, when AT&T lowered their rates for 200 MB data plans. For the many iPhone users, this means a savings of $15 per month. The total cost over and above a normal cell phone — $185 a year on the 200 MB plan — is still real cash, but it substantially reduces the sticker shock of moving to a modern phone. It also brings some sense of fairness to the pricing scheme: the pigs have to pay for how much they use the pipe.

Phone cameras suck.
About three years ago, I boldly predicted to my family (I wasn’t brave enough to do it here on TMO) that smart phones would nearly kill the point-and-shoot digital camera market within five years. I’ll update and clarify that prediction now: by Christmas 2013, the stand-alone point-and-shoot digital camera (and the stand-alone GPS, for that matter) will be decimated product categories, rarely covered by technology press, and with stagnant or declining sales.

The announcement of iPhone 4 is the first clear death-knell for point-and-shoots. Apple made it clear that they were going to fight an image quality race, not a megapixel race. They’re using bigger sensor pixels and trying to capture more light. Where Apple goes, the competition follows, and phone cameras will be no exception.

Mark my words: in 2011, phone makers will start in on an image-quality war, increasing apertures, zooms, and low-light performance. They’ll battle over built-in software, too, including shooting modes, panorama stitching, red-eye reduction, and slide show editing. By the time the dust settles, today’s camera makers will be retreating to the prosumer and professional markets — or they’ll be putting their brand on cell phones.

But what about buying a smartphone today? I want to wait and see what the reviews say about images from the new iPhone camera. History suggests that when Apple claims to set a new bar for a specific feature, they usually deliver. But the real question is how the camera stacks up against sub-$200 point-and-shoots. Oh, and HD video (bye-bye, Flip!) and iMove for iPhone are also welcome steps forward.

The grab bag.
The iPhone’s functionality has been a moving target since day one. In 2007, as I was covering its release, I predicted that we would eventually see several types of iPhone add-ons that Apple didn’t initially allow on the phone, including word processors, stylus pens, and games. With iOS 4, pretty much all of these accessories will be fully available and functional. For crying out loud: it will allow an external bluetooth keyboard!

From note-taking to writing to movie editing to drum sequencing, there’s not a lot you can’t get done on an iPhone. The only unaddressed issue from my 2007 list is external storage, and Apple is addressing that by steadily increasing the iPhone’s built-in memory. (iPhone 4 maxes out at 32 GB.)

Apple’s focus on battery life and performance, best captured by their work on the A4 chip, is important too. The first two iPhone models set the iPhone’s reputation because of its novel touch interface, but they were not snappy machines. Judging from the performance of the iPad, iPhone 4 will set a new standard for phone-as-mobile-computer.

Of course, my gripe list isn’t totally addressed. My biggest remaining complaint is that I can’t travel abroad with it like any other GSM phone, because it’s locked to AT&T’s network. If only — if only — I could swap out the SIM card when traveling!

But at the end of the day, iPhone 4 looks like it will be the first device to truly capture the promise of smart phones that we first glimpsed back in 2007: a completely mobile computer, a location-aware camera, a GPS, and the easiest way to stay in touch with anyone, anywhere in the world.

So, will I finally get one? Nope. Fact is, I still don’t need one. Besides, my wife and I are very conservative about bringing new gadgets into the house, and I need to think about the etiquette of smartphone use. But that’s a topic for another column. In the meantime, I’ll be watching the rollout and the reviews with wide eyes.

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22 Comments Leave Your Own

Modena

The microSIM is removable so if you travel abroad, you can purchase international service and swap out the SIM.

I just checked out the pics on apple.com and you will see a tiny hole on the side of the device. Push a pin in there and “voila”, the microSIM will pop out.

Happy travels!

Photodan

Location-based apps aren’t useful to you because you don’t go to many unfamiliar places but a drawback to the phone is that you can’t pop a new sim card when you travel to unfamiliar places?

-Dan

geoduck

Amen Brother. Testify!

I’m in the same boat. I am on my computers (yes computerS) all day. My home office and remote sites have WiFi. I can’t use the phone when I’m driving anyway. I know where I’m going so don’t need the GPS. I make, oh maybe three to five calls a week. I have a really great Canon camera we got last year. There’s so many reasons to not get an iPhone.

But you know, that camera is sweet. And the prospect of having Skype available so my aged family members could call me anytime at no cost is appealing. And supposedly the data plans have improved in the last year. And being able to check weather on the road would be nice. And…well… I’m tired of being the odd man out.

OK, fine, I’ve said it. There is a degree of feeling like the poor kid with K-Mart shoes on the playground when everyone else is wearing Nike. Everyone, literally EVERYONE I work with has a smart phone as do most of my friends and relatives. Half iPhones and the rest a mix of BlackBerries and Android phones. Heck my 80 YEAR OLD MOTHER has a phone that does more than mine. My phone doesn’t even have a camera, or voicemail, or IM. It’s the bottom end, cheapest, talk only and do nothing else whatsoever phone. It’s getting embarrassing for me, an IT Guru, to have such a crappy phone.

Sure it does what I ask it to. I keep wondering though if I’d use my phone more if it could do more. Heck, for the first time I might even start to LIKE my phone. Well, 6 months till my contract is up. Then I’ll decide.

Ricky Spero

Location-based apps aren?t useful to you because you don?t go to many unfamiliar places but a drawback to the phone is that you can?t pop a new sim card when you travel to unfamiliar places?

We go abroad about once per year. I’d love to be able to swap out a SIM card to turn an iPhone into an emergency phone while traveling. But I’m not constantly on the road, not constantly looking for a restaurant nearby.

—RS
TMO

Jeff Gamet

The microSIM is removable so if you travel abroad, you can purchase international service and swap out the SIM.

It’s true that you can pop out the microSIM card, but the iPhone is still locked to your carrier—unless you live in a country that sells unlocked iPhones, or hack yours to unlock it. You can swap out the SIM card from the original iPhone, iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, too, and you’ll hit the same brick wall. Sadly, I don’t expect to see AT&T make it easy for us to buy unlocked iPhones any time soon.

vasic

The locking policy for the iPhone (no doubt, AT&T’s fault) is the most annoying part, and probably the one single reason I still have a crappy Sony-Ericsson. I travel outside the AT&T’s zone several times a year and I use indigenous SIM cards with my S-E all the time.

AT&T (as well as T-Mobile) will give you instructions to unlock your brand new GSM phone as soon as you request them (as long as you’ve been a paying customer for more than 3 months). Any GSM phone but iPhone. Not even 3-year old EDGE models can be officially unlocked!!! This is simply outrageous, but unfortunately, there are very few people like myself who care about this issue to raise enough stink with AT&T in order to force a change. That’s just too bad…

ApiciusPomorum

@Modena, @Jeff Gamet:

Sadly, even with a device like the 3G iPad that is not carrier-locked, it is not always simple to get a foreign SIM.

I was in the UK last week and hoped to get a UK SIM. I was in London on iPad launch day, so admittedly it was a very new thing for the wireless companies.

Both O2 and Orange seem to offer iPad data plans that would be great for international visitors. You can get a daily rate of ?2, which includes 500MB plus unlimited wifi on O2 and 200MB with no wifi on Orange. Orange also has a weekly plan for ?7.50 for 1GB.

However, I couldn’t get either plan. Orange wouldn’t provide me with a micro SIM even though they were readily available in its shops. In order to get one you have to be a UK resident, provide a UK tax bill to prove your address, and pass a UK credit check. I couldn’t believe the rigamarole for a ?2 PREPAID plan. As much as I pleaded with the shop personnel, they would not set me up with a SIM.

As of last week, O2 didn’t have micro SIMs in shops yet; you could only order them online.

So, while technically possible to use local SIMs overseas, you very well may run into problems with the local wireless carriers.

I’m soon heading to Australia, where Telstra offers a prepaid plan with 1GB for A$20 up to 6GB for A$60. I hope they let me buy it. In the past I have had no problem using a Telstra SIM in my jailbroken first-gen AT&T iPhone (I have kept and jailbroken my first iPhone solely to use on trips overseas).

Jake

For $5 a month and paid only when you are out of the country, you can use your Iphone in 190 countries.

I have used the Iphone in many European countries but you do have to pay a charge by the minute for each call.

vasic

This is standard for AT&T, and it is extremely expensive for all but handful of European countries, where international roaming is somewhat cheaper. In the rest of the world, it is usually over $1 per minute. I rake up several hundreds of minutes in a month overseas, and this roaming bill would add several hundred dollars to my monthly plan. Add to that data roaming, which is significantly more expensive (and always metered), and it can approach a $1k easily. This is why a local SIM is the only practical solution. Another reason is the ability to meaningfully communicate locally with locals. I can’t expect my friends/relatives/business partners to make international call s to US in order to reach me when I’m around the corner from their home/office/bar.

haha

How middle-class.. worrying about the proper “etiquette” of using an electronic device.

Bruce

Very well written and your level-headed sobriety in this Apple devotee environment is remarkable. 

I have had an iPhone for several years and even bought the new ones as they were introduced. Sadly, I have learned the the free phone my young son got as part of our AT&T family plan far outperforms iPhone in making calls. When we are together and I have to make a business call that I want the best chance of completing I use his phone.

The Apple junkies and developers don’t tend to value the call making skills of the iPhone as much as other attributes for reasons that escape me.

shard01

The locked SIM really doesn’t matter. You can get the phone unlocked. The real issue is the phone is not Quad Band.

The US GSM networks use 850/1900 MHZ outside the US most countries use 900/1900 MHZ.

So even if you get another SIM you’re coverage outside the US won’t be nearly as good because you’ll be limited to the 1900 MHZ band.

vasic

The real issue is the phone is not Quad Band.

Not true. Here are the specs, from the US iPhone site:

Cellular and wireless

  * UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz)
  * GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
  * 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi (802.11n 2.4GHz only)
  * Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR wireless technology

It’s a multi-band world phone (which is it can roam perfectly fine throughout the world). So the issue is the unlocking. Yes, you can get it hacked to unlock it, but that is clearly not blessed neither by AT&T nor by Apple, which opens plenty of possibility for problems.

MrMojo

On my last trip to Europe with my iPhone I used Skype instead of paying the exorbitant ATT per minute cost of $.99 or $1.29. I kept the iPhone in Airplane Mode but with WiFi enabled. I couldn’t receive calls because I did not want Skype running all the time and visual voicemail was not an option.

But by checking my voicemail once a day and making my international and local calls via Skype I paid around 3.5 cents a minute. When I returned home my original $10 Skype credit was only down to $5.06. I paid zero cell phone and data fees during my 15 days abroad.

SomeJerseyGuy

my wife and I are very conservative about bringing new gadgets into the house, and I need to think about the ettiquette of smartphone use.

Seriously? grow a pair and dive in like the rest of us. Stop being such a super nerd.

Mr. EMan

Seriously? grow a pair and dive in like the rest of us. Stop being such a super nerd.

Really? Or grow a pair and stop following the herd.

I don’t have a compelling need for a smartphone either, but the new iPhone would certainly be my first choice for a phone. If it wasn’t locked to AT&T.

vg

seriously, I’ve thought that you’d have hacked the iP4 to death many times over; since you’d have been a dr. messenger boy and that your job’d have been taken over by the iP4! is it not what a Luddite meant?!

YodaMac

I owned a crappy cheap cell phone too before I bought an iPhone.  After a week using it, I knew I could never be without such a device again.

It’s not about WHAT YOU KNOW you do or don’t need an iPhone for… its about all the things YOU DONT KNOW until it warms the inside of your pocket with it’s happy Apple glow…

Trust me.  Try it.  smile

mactoid

So, will I finally get one? Nope. Fact is, I still don?t need one. Besides, my wife and I are very conservative about bringing new gadgets into the house, and I need to think about the ettiquette of smartphone use.

GOOD!  Glad to hear it!  One less person in line ahead of me on June 24th!! grin

vasic

Almost anyone who has an iPhone is telling the same story: they can’t imagine living without one! They also keep saying how they are discovering new things and ways to use the device. I am convinced that they are correct, but so far, I haven’t really seen many testimonies with truly creative uses (even with 200k+ apps out there) beyond looking up address, using GPS to find something and generally googling stuff.

Is there a site, a compendium of creative and imaginative uses of the iPhone out there?

Lee Dronick

Is there a site, a compendium of creative and imaginative uses of the iPhone out there?

I don’t know how imaginative it is, but I have a handy use for my iPhone in the grocery store. I use Notes to keep a list of “codes” for items that I frequently purchase that don’t have a barcode on them, bakery items mostly. That way at the self-checkout I don’t have to step through their “Look up item” system.

On my Mac I use Notes in Mail to create shopping lists. Then in the store I reference the synched note on my iPhone.

Garion

Is there a site, a compendium of creative and imaginative uses of the iPhone out there?

Why don’t you go to the main source, the App Store and check it out yourself? There are 225.000 apps covering every creative use of the iPhone you could possible imagine, and quite a few surprising uses I’m sure you couldn’t imagine!

My favorite in that last category must be the watermelon ripeness detector app. It can determine if a watermelon is ripe by analyzing the sound when you knock on the watermelon! Creative enough for ya? *s*

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIpK6PkpxZI

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