A little under a year ago in this very newspaper I reviewed the Apple iPhone 3G and its new firmware release: ‘Now that the Applications store is up and running,” I wrote, “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 ground-breaking application. ‘Ah, but mine can do this!’ will be heard in every café 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 be ever be quite the same again.”
It is very rare for any prophetic utterance of mine to bear fruit, but in this case it seems I was bang on the money. On July 11th 2008 the Apple iTunes App Store Apple iTunes App Store opened its virtual doors and the world changed. The diversity, originality and imagination that has since gone into the authoring of apps has created, from the standingest of starts, a whole new business model, and one that benefits cottage industry amateurs quite as much as established software houses. With over 50,000 apps and more than a billion downloads, it is hardly surprising that Blackberry, Nokia, Microsoft and Google have all now jumped on the app emporium bandwagon. Apple has shown that a mobile phone can be a pedometer, a restaurant guide (one which can make the reservation, direct you there and let you know which kinds of sustainable seafood you can order with a clear conscience), an ensemble of musical instruments that can be blown down, tapped and strummed, a library of literature, a periodic table, a performer of magic tricks, a language translator, a Skype phone, a Twitter client, a radio, a games platform and a device that can set your home satellite TV to record any programme you like wherever you are in the world. Not to mention a fart machine and perpetrator of other mad, pointless and preposterous one-time-use pranks, japes and wheezes. Now that the others are all playing catch-up, it is easy to forget what a risk Apple took in creating a market out of nowhere. In recent weeks the once great Palm have brought out an immensely exciting iPhone inspired touchscreen phone, the Pre (US-style CDMA only and not available in Europe for ages), Nokia have finally released their long awaited N97, which I will come to later, and the prolific HTC have introduced their Google Android phones, the Magic and Hero.
There were shortcomings with 2008’s iPhone 3G and its software. “No text manipulation (not even basic cut and paste),” I moaned last July, “no Flash plug-ins for the browser, no video recording, no voice memos.” This week the This week the 3.0 firmware was released. It runs on the new 3GS iPhone, last year’s 3G, the original 2G and the iPod Touch and has addressed many user demands, although not the provision of Flash, which Apple has its own reasons for disbarring from the iPhone: Flash provides a back door through which developers could smuggle in unauthorised apps and Apple (for good reasons and bad) is allergic to the word ‘unauthorised’. An excellently intuitive cut and paste functionality is at last present (with a cute and unheralded ‘shake to undo’ feature), there are noticeably increased browser rendering speeds, global search, voice notes, better autocorrect glossary learning (non-editable however), tethering (allowing you to use your 3G or 3GS as a modem) and MMS. That’s right, MMS – Apple had never seemed very interested in Multimedia Messaging, dismissing it as a vestigial or ‘legacy’ service. “Why pay to send pictures and video,” Steve Jobs asked, “when you can send them for free by email?” Apple has relented and sweetly smooth MMS implementation is now available, though not yet in the USA, it being a carrier dependent service.
Whether current iPhone users choose to upgrade their phones or not, they should certainly upgrade their firmware – 3.0 makes a real difference in speed, function and performance. All of the above features and additions and more are possible on your original iPhone, but what about the new model – the 3GS? Well, the ‘S’ stands for speed and plenty of extra zip is delivered courtesy of the ARM Cortex A8 processor and PowerVR SGX GPU (rated seven times faster than the MBX-Lite graphics processor found in previous models) as well as 256MB of DDR. Apps open much faster, everything is smoother and sprightlier than ever before. Using a 3G and 3GS side by side the difference is very noticeable indeed. As with turning left on entering an aeroplane, the experience is spoilingly good.
Aside from the very welcome sight of ‘32GB’ printed in silver on the back, the 3GS is identical in appearance, whether in black or white, to its progenitor. A relief that we won’t be having to fork out on a whole new raft of sleeves, covers and other accessories. A 3.0 megapixel camera with well integrated focus and exposure features allows for really excellent stills and good quality video recording. An intuitive trim tool will help with the uploading of video footage directly over the air to YouTube, MobileMe, Email or MMS. The 3GS also contains a digital compass or magnetometer. Used in conjunction with GPS, wi-fi and cellular positioning your iPhone now knows exactly where it is and which way it is facing. This allows the fascinating possibility of tour guide uses (‘you are now looking at the west door of St Paul’s cathedral’) and other applications (fully featured turn-by-turn SatNav, for example) that will doubtless astonish us in the months to come.
Voice Control is as simple as can be imagined: ‘Play songs by The Incredible String Band’ you say and sure enough it does. ‘Play more like this’ you add, and an on-the-fly Genius list is assembled. ‘Call Steve Jobs, office’ you demand, and it’s done. ‘What song is this?’ you wonder and are told (in a slightly prunes and prism English accent) that it is ‘Rhinocratic Oaths by the Bonzo Dog Band’ or whatever it might be. All this can be done straight into the device or by way of the new earphones that come with it.
Look out too for future peripheral devices that can control or be controlled by the iPhone, thanks to the now addressable dock connector API. Another less trumpeted but typically thoughtful innovation is the addition of an oleophobic coating to the touchscreen that repels greasy smeary fingermarks. Nice touch, Apple. Literally.
In short, the iPhone 3GS is triumphantly the product of a company at the absolute top of their game. If it were a BMW it would badged as the ‘M’ version – the same but with added poke and better spec. Power and performance can be considered a luxury until you try them and realise how much more functionality, ease of use and productivity they can deliver. Cost is a whole other issue: if you already have an iPhone3G you may find an upgrade expensive. Could be worth waiting to see what deals emerge over the next month or so. The more people who do wait, the more pressure there will be on O2 to lower prices.
I know I must sometimes sound like some Apple PR spokesman or unquestioning fanboy, but please believe me when I say that I really do not want Apple to have it all their own way. When it comes to smartphones I am an out and out capitalist: competition and market biodiversity is what I crave. No one looks more keenly forward to the arrival of alternatives. I am panting to try out the Palm Pre and the HTC Magic and have been looking forward to Nokia’s new entry for months and months. It distresses me more than I can say therefore to announce that the N97 is a crushing disappointment. The candybar design is handsome enough (not dissimilar to the iPhone and also available in white or piano black) and offers the best slidey-outy keyboard I’ve yet come across. Nokia’s Ovi Marketplace (their equivalent of the iPhone App Store) allows the simple OTA downloading of apps (including live-streaming Facebook and news widgets) which is all good. But the Symbian S60 operating system that drives the device is achingly old-fashioned, sluggish and unfriendly. Setting up ‘access points’ is fiddly and horribly yesterday. I am aware that Nokia want to position this as a kind of ‘My First Smartphone’ for users who might be put off by the radical nature of the iPhone or the businesslike qualities of the BlackBerry, but a resistive touchscreen (another way of saying a touchscreen you have to keep tapping until it decides to obey you – damn it, they even include a stylus) that displays blocky icons that remind you of the ugly horror of their E63 unit is no way to inspire confidence in the Finnish giant’s commitment to modern smartphones. It really pains me that I can’t rave about this device. I love what Nokia has given to the market – I was devoted to the Communicator for years – but no one who has used an iPhone would do anything other than laugh, weep or bray with contempt at the N97. It just isn’t good enough and that is a terrible pity. It is nothing like as godawful as the BlackBerry Storm, but then nothing is. For the time being the iPhone 3GS and the superb BlackBerry Bold reign. I ache for Apple-busting newcomers.
© Stephen Fry 2009
CDMA – Code Division Multiple Access (a kind of non-GSM wireless phone system used in America – properly called cdmaOne or IS-95)
GPU: Graphics Processing Unit
DDR: Double Date Rate RAM (a clever class of Random Access Memory)
API – Application Programming Interface (the guts of a device or service that can be addressed, inspected, written to and from and otherwise utilised)
OTA: Over the Air