Mobile Computing Arrives On Your Fingertips

The iPod Touch is a 90% product; like the first generation iPods, it gets most things right, has a few places to grow, and within a revision or two will be a mature and stable platform for ubiquitous mobile computing.

Mobile Browsing

This is easily the best feature of the iPod Touch, but also one of the most frustrating. Unlike any other portable device I've used, surfing the net is a engrossing experience. You quickly become used to "throwing" web pages around and double-tapping to focus on a section. Even with all of the advantages of a full desktop system, browsing the net starts to feel... old.

There are a few areas where browsing the net falls short. The most prevalent issue is the speed of the JavaScript engine. Disabling JavaScript easily cuts page loading times in half, while blocking many ads as a side effect. The lack of Flash is somewhat annoying, though given Adobe's completely abysmal support of OS X (and Linux) in terms of performance, it's no wonder it's not on the device. Websites which have a hard-coded paragraph width work better on Opera Mobile, where it will force reflow for the small screen. Finally, caching seems to be rather poor. At best, two tabs will be immediately available, while other tabs will require a refresh to view. While Mobile Safari is working within the limits of 128 MB of RAM, there should be an option to allow more aggressive caching to disk so a series of pages can be loaded and then viewed without an active connection.

Email and Scheduling

Mobile Mail must have been developed independently of OS X's Mail; that's the only way to describe it's inadequacy for real use cases. I use it via an IMAP connection, though it will behave the same way for MobileMe and Exchange users. Significant issues which severely hamper reading email:

  • Email search is not available without jailbreaking.
  • It is impossible to sort messages or enable a threaded view of messages.
  • Only the Inbox will be checked for new messages. If you use server-side filtering, you have to manually load each folder to check for new messages.
  • No folder subscriptions management. I have over 200 folders, many of them archives of older messages. With any other email client I can "unsubscribe" from a folder to hide it from view, which would be very useful on a small screen.
  • There is no way to tell it to download all unread messages in a folder. Instead, you have to scroll to the bottom, touch "Load more messages..." for every 50 messages. It would be very nice to be able to download messages in advance to catch up on mailing lists while on the road.
  • No selection or marking of text. This makes it very hard to snip messages with long quotations.

What is unforgivable is that all of these features are available in the full desktop client. Many of these features would not only empower users, but help reduce battery life. The Mail client is only really good at reading Inbox messages, any thing else is less than pleasant.

Audio and Music Integration

The iPod Touch is not only a device which can play and browse your music, it is a device where the use of audio is considered by the OS itself. For example, to quickly control the music, you can double-tap the Home button from any application on any screen. When the system plays a beep for an event or a new email message, it quickly fades out and pauses the current track, and then brings it back when the beep is complete. These are little features, which one certainly wouldn't look for on a product checklist, but show the care and attention paid to the UX of the device.

Applications

Applications make an interesting case study. In many ways, it's a throwback to the Windows Shareware world. In many ways, the desktop application landscape looks like the following:

Windows
Many shareware applications, with a range of quality. Perhaps %10 are really professional, quality applications. Many clones with poor support and usability. Open source and free applications are the exception, not the norm.
OS X
Many open source and shareware applications. Both sets of applications tend to be of a high quality with a strong focus on usability. While new OS X users come for the OS itself, often what keeps them there is the unparalleled attention to usability within third party applications.
Linux
Mostly open source applications, with a focus on freedom above usability. As applications are often written by technical users, many don't recive testing from a wider audience. In many ways, such applications tend to be similar to Windows Shareware applications, but with the added benefit of the $0 price tag and vibrant user communities.

You can imagine what a shock it is to this "elitist Mac user" to open the App Store for the first time. The "Free" applications usually demo versions of paid applications. Top listings consist of countless 99¢ throwaway applications and games. Productivity and useful applications are hard to find.

But those that you will find - just like a Mac, it is the applications that make me want to purchase my own iPod Touch. The following applications really stand out:

OmniFocus
This contains virtually every function needed to manage tasks on the go, and will even sync over the Internet with any WebDav server (or with MobileMe or Bonjour). It makes the built in tasks in the Calendar application pale in comparison.
Last.fm
This application lets you stream music, view artist info, and find tour dates. It is very simple and easy to use. Combined with Backgrounder so you can run it while browsing, it's almost better than listening to music stored locally.
Twitteriffic
A very nice front end to Twitter. Does what it should and nothing else.

Notice that the above applications all have desktop equivalents? Perhaps that's something to note for others looking to be successful on the iPhone platform.

Jailbreaking

Surprisingly, there is only one application which really sells Jailbreaking your iPhone. Backgrounder, which is more of a background service, lets you run any application in the background. For applications which play music, it's very useful. Other applications and games might be nice, but all of the "Must have" applications so far I've found in the App Store. It's too bad; philosophically, I support jailbreaking as I believe that the iPhone platform should be no different than desktop computing platforms. Unfortunately, given the current uses of Jailbreaking (and the unprecedented success of the App Store), it's unlikely that Apple will change their policy any time soon. One can only hope that Andriod and Palm's webOS will have significant success in the marketplace.

Final Thoughts

Just as the iPod brought mobile digital music to the masses, I believe that the iPhone platform will be viewed as the same in the future for mobile, ubiquitous computing. Luckily, the market for such devices is huge, and markets in Asia and Africa are considerably different than North America, where the iPhone platform has seen to most penetration. In Europe and Japan, with their considerably more developed mobile infrastructure, the iPhone platform has been seen with less enthusiasm. For Canadians, there really is little choice; Window Mobile is just plain unusable, Blackberries have poor Mac support needed for true consumer penetration, Android phones aren't shipping here yet, and webOS is still unavailable worldwide. Until things change, the iPhone and iPod touch will continue to dominate the "Smartphone" sales charts.

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