Well worth the wait

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 26th July 2008 in The Guardian
“Well worth the wait” – The Guardian headline

“Ah, but mine can do this! will soon be heard in every cafe and bar.” Stephen Fry is back with an extended review of the iPhone 3G and its downloadable apps

I’m so happy to be back. My thanks to all those who were kind enough to be in touch to say that you missed me. You were well served by my distnguished stand-ins, however, and thanks go to them, too, for keeping Dork Talk alive. But let’s get straight to business: an extra-long column for openers, for this month sees another Apple launch.

iphone.buyer460.jpg
A happy customer at the Apple store in London (Photograph: Sang Tan/AP)

Whatever one’s view of Apple as a manufacturer of digital equipment, as an author of operating systems and designer of software, as a multinational corporation, as a lifestyle statement or as a quasi-religious cult, it remains a matter of ineluctable fact that the introduction of the iPhone just over a year ago changed the smartphone market for ever. An incredible three-quarters of all mobile web browsing is now done on the iPhone, despite its market share being far smaller than that of either Windows Mobile, BlackBerry/Java or Nokia/Symbian devices. iPhone users report an unprecedented level of customer satisfaction (between 82% and 90%, compared with the second placed BlackBerry at 50%). This is not a surprise to anyone who has lived with an iPhone for even a short while, and even less of a surprise to anyone who has also had to work with a WinMob phone.

Let’s be clear about the iPhone’s shortcomings, however: this unparalleled success has been achieved by an expensive device with only a 2 megapixel camera, EDGE rather than 3G data speeds, no video, no GPS, no contact search, no file or text manipulation, no Enterprise or MS Exchange capabilities, no third-party applications and a locked-in network operator deal. I said at its launch that this revolutionary implement would thrill early adopters but be prohibitively expensive and under-functional for many others: “Wait for iPhone Three,” I wrote, “that’ll be the one that gets it right.”

A year of living with iPhone One has proved to me that the camera lens and its operation is good enough to produce better photos than phones with twice the resolution, that EDGE speeds allow swift email and full browsing in most areas of the country, that the Google Maps implementation and music, video and photo playback are stunningly impressive, and that other deficiencies are made up for by the sob-worthy beauty, elegance and lovability of another Jonathan Ive-designed Apple masterpiece.

Nonetheless, we want it all, and huge numbers of people have been fretfully awaiting iPhone Two: queuing began in New York a week and half before launch date; O2, the sole UK network provider, had its site go down hours after announcing pre-booking; the BBC’s technology site is so afraid of looking as though it “favours” Apple in some way that it has been failing to file legitimate stories for fear of the anti-Apple community, because, believe it or not, there are people out there who think the launch of yet another Nokia or WinMob Apple-a-like should be given equal prominence.

Well, finally, here it is, the iPhone 3G, hardly different at all in look or feel from iPhone One. The back, available in black or white, is now plastic, which offers better reception for the 10 radios hidden inside – four GSM (your standard quad band), three UMTS/HSDPA (your 3G) plus one each for A-GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. A standard earphone socket replaces the unpopular recessed jack and the switches are now metal.

This new phone’s greatness is not revealed in its outer lineaments, however, gorgeous as they are, software is crucial. Simultaneous with its release comes Version 2.0 of the operating system. Exchange and enterprise capability (for BlackBerry-style “push email”) has arrived, meaning that the iPhone is now a serious corporate contender: employee pester-power will see to it that it becomes the tool of choice for medium to large businesses that aren’t so pompous and deluded as to think dullness and bad design are a sign of probity and business acumen.

What else is new? The camera is the same. Contacts are finally searchable, a fuller range of email attachments can now be read and saved, a server-side push system for mail, events and contacts called Mobile Me has been introduced (subscription required) and, most importantly of all, Version 2.0 users (including those with original iPhones) will find an “Installer” icon on their home screen. This will be familiar to rebellious criminals like me who “jailbroke” their original iPhones months ago. It means that the power of the iPhone as a beautiful, smooth and function-rich handheld computer can now be realised. Anyone may now write for the iPhone. Existing applications (games, utilities, ebooks, dictionaries and so forth) already written for other platforms can be ported into Apple’s elegant and intuitive developer’s kit with astonishing ease. All applications have to be downloaded through the iTunes store. Believe me, in a very few weeks you will see things being done on an iPhone that will make you gasp and stretch your eyes. The built-in accelerometer alone will inspire people to amazing new heights of ingenuity. The accelerometer is a sensor that knows which way up the iPhone is: you can expect pedometer software, software that plays you music chosen according to how fast you are walking and where you are walking (thanks to the GPS), spirit levels, pinball games with tilt, games in which the iPhone itself is the steering wheel, apps that show you on a map where friends are – we cannot even guess what is coming.

I should digress here to point out that the latest HTC Touch Diamond (HTC is a wonderful manufacturer permanently hamstrung by its devices all being Windows Mobile) has an accelerometer, too, and comes with a ball-manipulation game that provides tactile feedback – you can actually feel the weight and bounce of the ball as you manoeuvre it. For the rest, it is yet another iPhone wannabe: it is too small, its multi-touch interface is too slow on the uptake and the whole experience is rather fiddly. It does have the best browser on a pocket PC I’ve yet seen, however, and for those determined not to go Apple, it is (thanks to the market-changing influence of the iPhone) a superior model of its kind (RRP £499, htc.com for stockists).

Unlike the iPhone 3G, the Diamond also has a front-facing camera (for video calls and video IM). What else is the iPhone 3G missing? No text manipulation (not even basic cut and paste), no Flash plug-ins for the browser, no video recording, no voice memos. Third parties will probably address these software issues, but it would have been better if Apple had solved them itself.

Perhaps the most significant development of all, however, is price. Apple, in harness with its network providers across the globe, has slashed the cost of both the 8GB and 16GB models. O2 in this country will offer the phone for less than £100, or free, according to tariff and other criteria (from Apple, O2 and Carphone Warehouse stores. The iPhone 3G 8G is free on the £45 and £75 tariffs, £99 on the £30 and £35 tariffs; the iPhone 3G 16GB is free on the £75 tariff, £159 on the £30 and £35 tariff, £59 on the £45 tariff. Go to o2.co.uk/iphone/paymonthly for full details). You are tied to their network, but the all-you-can-eat data package works out as excellent value, given the amount of browsing and downloading you are likely to do. 3G is of little interest to me, as it happens – by the time coverage arrives in rural Norfolk, the rest of the world will be 6G.

In conclusion: some will be disappointed by the phone itself, because they will have expected greater and more fundamental physical changes and improvements. In fact, I still maintain that the third iPhone will be the perfect device. But that is to take nothing away from what July 11 heralded: not evolution but revolution. Now that the Applications store is up and running, you will soon find it a very common sight indeed to see people crowded around each other’s iPhones showing off the latest impossible, breathtaking and groundbreaking application. “Ah, but mine can do this!” will be heard in every cafe and bar. Satirical sketches will be written and performed on Channel 4 mocking the trend. Once again, Apple has changed the rules, and nothing will ever be quite the same again.

Acronyms of the week

UMTS: Universal Mobile Telecommunications System; HSDPA: High Speed Package Data Access Both protocols of the near-broadband mobile speeds generally called 3G, or third generation.

GSM: Global System for Mobile communications The standard cellphone technology used for voice calls.

GPRS: General Packet Radio Service As above, but allowing data communications, such as email and web browsing.

EDGE: Enhanced Data rate for GSM Evolution I know, hopeless acronym. As GPRS, but now fast enough to be called 2.75G… nearly as good as 3G, in other words.

A-GPS, GPS: (Assisted) Global Positioning Satellite For satellite navigation. ‘Assisted’ refers to new versions that allow for better urban signals by utilising cell sites and other clever tricks.

IM: Instant Messaging (Skype, iChat, Jabber, AIM etc).

© Stephen Fry 2008

This blog was posted in Guardian column

29 comments on “Well worth the wait”

  1. Another great article. After listening to your podcasts, I always end up reading these posts and hearing you speak them in your deep, and dare I say, soothing voice.
    I do hope that one day you decide to visit a little island I like to call home, Norfolk Island, named by Captain Cook after the Duchess of Norfolk.

  2. kwambus says:

    Nice to see you back! another enjoyable article, many thanks.

    Just bought the iPhone 3G myself, for its few failings – *cough* battery life *cough*, I would not swap it for the world.

  3. Mike says:

    The lock-in mentality is incredibly frustrating to those who wish to travel and not pay ridiculous roaming charges.

    Some rules haven’t changed, and those are related to Apple’s iron-fisted grip on users of its products. At the iPhone 3G launch Mr Jobs seemed to take enormous pride in the number of phones operating around the world (all necessarily jailbroken) yet obviously takes even more glee at the prospect of turning them all into iBricks. If the 1984 advertisement were being made today – Jobs’ complexion would be the one looking down on the masses.

    The continuing poor selection of supported media formats ( because Apple’s firmware masks the underlying capability of the DSP chip to process not-invented-here formats ). Every budget DVD player in the world can play AVI, yet a device that retails for as much as 20x the cost of such cannot?

  4. bnt says:

    There’s one odd omission from the all the iPhones, 3G included, that will definitely keep me away: lack of support for A2DP stereo audio via BlueTooth. I’ve only been doing this for 18+ months now with my “WinMob” HTC S620. I just had to buy new headphones: my old pair fell apart on me, which took a helluva lot of on-the-hoof podcast and music listening. 8)

  5. Arran says:

    Norfolk Island is rubbish. Come to New Zealand.

    Anyway, I have been awaiting your thoughts on the iPhone 3G as soon as it was announced. Good to hear it hasn’t disappointed.

    Not that I’ll be buying one in a hurry, as Vodafone has, typically, screwed the pooch on pricing. To get it for $NZ199, you have to get a $250 a month plan – and THAT only comes with 1gig of data per month. Ludicrous.

    We’re used to getting screwed on cellphones here (only two providers, and only one – Vodafone – has a GSM network), but people thought maybe the iPhone would change things. They were wrong. Yes, there are more reasonably priced plans, but then the initial price of the phone rises – and the data on those other plans is inadequate.

    The only slight positive is that you can buy them unlocked and make up your own plan, but then you’re looking at $900+.

    It sucks to be a gadget-lover with a limited budget sometimes.

  6. I hope it’s ok if I allow myself to provide a little addition to this enthusiastic dork talk. Don’t get me wrong, I am as fascinated with Apple’s new devices as many others but I think it’s important to keep in mind what Apple is doing that might not be as ‘kosher’ as it seems.
    I haven’t researched this intensly but the example you give, a pedometer that controls the music player, is a good example for what is not possible at the moment due to the fact that Apple is reluctant to open up the device too much to third party developers. Enough of my own ramblings. There are many others out there (mainly developers) who have a much better insight into the matter. Here, if I may, just two links for a start, that show a slightly different side to all this.

    http://www.37signals.com/svn/posts/1148-iphone-20-the-glory-wore-off-in-wash
    http://lifehacker.com/398658/why-youre-better-off-avoiding-the-iphone

  7. dark_maylee says:

    Yay! New post! I apologise for not commenting in the last post, although I read it (and listened to it) but I didn’t have much to say about the BBC since we only can get BBC World News here in Trinidad. But yes, I missed your blessays and even if this is a Guardian Column and not a blessay, I still enjoy reading this.

    The new iPhone really does look nice but I’m still attached to my old cell phone. I remember when I got it in China and when I came back to Trinidad, people thought it was cool. I didn’t think much of it but I guess it was pretty cool. It’s not usual I own something that’s cool. I guess by now it’s old. It’s pretty beat up and went in the washing machine already. I have a feeling I mentioned this before… Anyway, a cell phone that can survive a wash and still work (never mind a few spasms) is always good for me. I went hunting for it on the Samsung website:

    http://cn.samsungmobile.com/cn/phone/view/phone.jsp?productid=SCH-F329

    I’m sorry I had to go to the Chinese site – I couldn’t find it in the UK site. There’s a little uhh… ‘game’ which is basically dice. You shake the phone and the image of dice on the phone shakes about too. It also has this tilting feature like the iPhone. Tilting the phone in public used to make me look stupid.

    Anyway, my friend was thinking about getting the iPhone now although she says it’s still expensive. :( But iPhones really do look nice…. It’s like going to the dark side.

    The customer in the picture looks so happy!

  8. Stephen, another nice article. I must confess to being abit of a geek and the nice thing about your articles is that I can forward them to my Mother, Wife and non tech friends.

    BTW, at the risk of being sycophantic your speech on the future of the BBC was simply superb.

  9. zfiledh says:

    I remember when a co-worker of mine bought the first iPhone. Because of the lock-in network operator deal, he couldn’t upgrade and such. But it was a pretty thing. Another co-worker of mine bought the iPod Touch, and we all considered it better than the iPhone.

    However, the Philippines will have to wait until September to be able to buy the new iPhone. It’s locked to Globe Telecommunications (mine is a different provider), but I’ll take your word for it and wait for one of my co-workers to buy one and get his/her feedback. :)

  10. Squiggle says:

    Great to have you back! =)

    And … as ever … A joy to read an article from someone who actually understands technology. As much as I enjoy reading BBC News articles, I always get the impression that their writers are Copying & Pasting from Apple blurb, which I find quite amusing considering that’s one thing their phone still can’t achieve. =)

  11. swmbo says:

    I was thrilled when they announced the price cuts for the iPhone … until they announced the new rates for mobile service. I don’t know how the British tariffs compare to those for iPhone 1.0, but the American rate plans have about doubled in cost, making the iPhone unaffordable to many of us.

    I would still kill for an iPhone. Maybe by number three they’ll come up with a reasonably priced rate plan.

  12. unclechris says:

    The only thing I don’t like about my iphone is the lack of proper bluetooth facilities. It drives me nuts when I cant bluetooth pictures and files.

  13. Jon T says:

    Concisely put, thank you Mr Fry!

    Thank you for having the courage to say that the 2 megapixel camera does an acceptable job which is the truth. That type of endorsement, of an inferior pixeled camera, is normally ridiculed. If only those pixel-peepers realised that the centre spread photo of Sports Illustrated was once (probably only once mind you) generated by a 2.1 megapixel camera they might think again.

    I also commend your criticism of the BBC. Their pathetic, quivering, cowardly silence about the success of the iPhone has been embarrassingly obvious to anyone who reads their technology news. I can only imagine that they received barrages of mealy mouthed complaints from the AAT (Anti-Apple-Taliban).

    Regards from a fellow Stouts Hilligan…

  14. RobStiles says:

    As existing customers, my wife and a friend of mine both tried to upgrade their phones on release day, but the web site wasn’t working. As a new customer, who didn’t own a Version 1, I sailed through the process. Once my phone arrived a had a battle to get hold of the software. The iTunes download link on Apple’s web site was broken. A friend of mine ended up sending me the 64 bit iTunes and Quicktime installers that I needed.

    It’s a great phone – I wouldn’t want anything else. I think it’s let down by O2 though. I can’t get a 3G signal anywhere, but I knew they had terrible 3G coverage before I bought the phone so it was no surprise. It certainly was a very odd provider to choose.

  15. rienzi says:

    Just found this site, great!

    Don’t get me wrong: I am not a Nokia maniac despite being a Finn and having a long history with Nokia devices, currently having six smartphones with (multiple featured) sims on i.e. in active use.

    I always take issue when iPhone is credited for having *created* a new product category. What it had and has on offer is a greatly appealing big touch screen and the Applesque marketing hype, with some cause too, as iTunes and Safari really are cool. There have been for a years now a host of smartphones (just to name Nokia N95 8 GB or E90) including the other features and a lot more, like bluetooth stereo and bluetooth versatile communications, far more advanced cameras with e.g. video, hardware keys etc.

    But, again, iPhone is great and I have one ordered already.

  16. irblinx says:

    I’ll admit up front to being a long time WinMob user and more than happy with most of the devices I’ve had (my current HTC S710 still hasn’t been beaten for my needs in the 18 months I’ve had it now).

    So trying to ignore my bias for a moment I have to applaud some of the things that Apple have done with the iPhone even if, as per usual with Apple, it is more of a marketing campaign success rather than any real innovation. If nothing else then it has certainly fired a rocket up the industry and there are some brilliant devices available from all sides now.

    Of course I am now going to get to the iPhone bashing point of my comment, yes it looks pretty (if you particularly like big sweaty face enducing touch screens) and the interface has some clever tricks but unfortunately this is the usual Apple fayre. Tarting up basic functionality with fancy menus doesn’t really add much of value to the market. The web browser is great but apart from this I’m afraid that I’m compelled to say meh! Incidentally, the Exchange Sync functionality is not quite as good as Mr Jobs might have us believe and I would certainly not allow it on our Exchange just yet.

    I still believe that your original assessment was correct, v3 will be the first one truly worth owning.

  17. twelveightyone says:

    AVI = Microsoft owned technology. Hmmmmm, wonder why Apple aren’t willing to embrace this format?

  18. LadyLaurenJayne says:

    My apologies to everyone for this comment not having anything whatsoever to do with this particular blog posting. I wanted to say this and haven’t yet found out how to do so in a non-creepy sort of way (calling Mr. Fry’s agent, wandering around Mr. Fry’s neighborhood dressed as a bush hoping he passes by, etc.). Don’t worry– I can’t do that anyway. I live in New York. So:

    Mr. Fry, if you ever read these comments, I can’t tell you what it means to me that someone as successful, brilliant and creative as you are has “come out” as having bipolar disorder. I was just diagnosed three weeks ago, and I’ve been doing all I can to find out about it in the hopes of helping myself manage it. And I gotta say, if I read one more freaking statistic about how people with BPD have a very high suicide rate, die sooner, get worse over time, have no hope of ever maintaining a healthy relationship, have bad teeth and hair and are doomed to misery forever and ever I’m going to go on a murderous rampage and just tell the judge that Jesus made me to do it. I’m screwed. I got it. I have a disease. Uh-huh. OK, but what NOW?

    Your site is the first place I’ve found that gives me hope, instead of convincing me that there isn’t any. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can’t say it enough. You have made the life of at least one person easier for your courage.

    Sincerely,
    Lauren

  19. Macstardes says:

    Come one you silly bastard…
    (What a lovely opening salutation)

    Oh how FAST time is movin
    Yesterday we heard your brilliant speech on the BBC
    … and … ( including today ) 39 days later
    STILL NOTHING ?!?!?!?
    Come on mister MULTITALENT !
    Take yourself the time for speakin this lovely article into
    the funny thing called MIC and to be banned into crazy
    ones and zeros to be saved for the immortal eternity.

    The comunity is waiting and I think I´m speaking for the
    majority when tellin: ONCE A MONTH is minimum acceptable
    dose we claim ! ( smilin )

    You can´t start a new drug and the leave the addicted creatures
    on their own. RESPECT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY !

    Your article ? Brave, nothing in comparison to the BBC text.
    So ? Come on ! Do what you are able to do best – CREATIVE GENIUS !

    May the poetic-force be with you.

    Bernd Hesse ( Berlin / Germany )
    comments welcome to bernd.hesse@mac.com

  20. acrobat says:

    Great review but just a word to the wise for new iPhone users, whatever you do, Never, Never, Never use your phone for email and surfing while you are abroad.

    Its the best, most delicious gadget ever created and its marvelous to have unlimited data while you are in the uk, but be warned, if you use it abroad you’ll be in for a surprise when you get home. I used my phone to check the weather and do email for 20 mins or so in Mexico and then the same for 30 mins or so in Paris. The bill came to just over £920.00!! Data rates are charged at over £7 per Mb, but how are you to know how much date you are using when checking the weather or looking at Google Maps. Its crazy, don’t do it. Before you leave the country remember to go to your settings and turn off Data Roaming.

  21. LynxLuna says:

    Glad you popped up again Mr Fry! Interesting article, a bit distressing for the ones that, like me, can’t afford to pay for the new millenium tecnology, though ^^’.
    In any case, thanks for your words! This mensual dose of true knowledge is very stimulating. I was very curious about iPhone 2, but now I know I can wait for the third without so much pain lol.
    Thanks!

  22. kt says:

    My camera is good, it helped me take this…

    xoxo

  23. ysabella says:

    I read this, and the other day when I was surfing some cooking blogs I saw a mention of an application where you shake the iPhone and the app chooses you a local restaurant…cute! So there’s a use of the accelerometer that I wouldn’t have thought of.

  24. maclondon says:

    I wholly agree it will be third time lucky for apple. 3G iPhone is a flawed product which will have a relatively short shelf life. For most people I see no need to upgrade. The downsides are too great to warrant change. I took mine back after 5 days as i had enough of constantly bad 3G coverage (in central london!) and a battery life lucky to last longer than a F&W piccolo.

    Trouble is there’s nothing out there to compare to it on many levels, and as an overall experience. I just feel the iPhone 3G has been a stumble, partly due to needing a new product to introduce into all the new markets as apple backtrack on contract subsidies.

  25. maclondon says:

    oh hello rob stiles – I thought the same as you re O2 3G coverage, even if it does sound a bit like a reject star wars robot. Until I tested an O2 N95 next to an iPhone. The N95 had full bars on 3G the iPhone had one diminutive blip. Then it fliped back into its edge comfort zone.

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3260/2724015341_b49338395e_m.jpg

    Apparently the software update released last night changes the way they show the 3g signal, erm, ok apple! I wonder if a letter to my bank manager will change the way they show my balance.

  26. Great Post – your initial post on the 2.5G iPhone was instrumental in me buying the first one – not that Steve Jobs will thank you though.

    I was interested in your comment on the BBC coverage. I noticed this too,

    http://jonathanhearsey.com/?p=19

    Keep on blogging, Mr. Fry.

    JH

  27. Kermode says:

    The IPhone is a telephone which can play music, the diamond is a computer which can also phone people. Don’t like the interface? Install another.

  28. trojjer says:

    Not a single mention of Google Android on the upcoming HTC “Dream”? Oh well, guess I’m the first on here…

    I don’t think that £810 for an 18 month contract at £45/month is anywhere near “free”; and lock-in is ugly.

  29. libbysl says:

    my daughter got it and ended up taking it back to the shop because she wanted the samsung tocco instead.

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