iPhone 4, Something new, or more of the same?

by Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor on June 15, 2010 · 2 comments

in Editorial, iOS

With great fanfare, and very little surprise, Apple announced this year’s version of the iPhone last week. And probably the most surprising thing about it is that we’ve seen it before. Thanks to Gizmodo and their somewhat questionable approach to journalistic ethics and property laws.

The new iPhone isn’t quite what I expected from Apple. I had originally dismissed the photos from Gizmodo because they showed a device that seemed distinctly un-Apple-like in design. The iPhone 3G and 3Gs showed Apple going to a smoother, more flowing design, curved to fit the hand comfortably. It was quite a change to see Apple go to a boxy, minimalist industrial look instead. In retrospect, we probably should have expected something like this, given Apple’s past with the sleek, sculpted Wallstreet and Pismo Powerbooks being replaced by the boxy Titanium Powerbooks and the only slightly more rounded Aluminum MacBook Pros. When changing medium, Apple does tend to go back to basics with their design and then evolve.

Jobs compares the new iPhone design to being similar to an old Leica camera, which seems somewhat odd for the CEO of a modern tech company.  Actually, if they’d finished out the iPhone 4 in brass instead of stainless steel, you could make a case of calling it a more steampunk inspired design. Just brass and glass. Of course, if you go for Apple’s “bumper” accessory “case” (how can it be a case if it only covers the sides?) that will help round off the edges. But the flat, squared-off design of the iPhone 4 seems very reminiscent of the first generation iPod nano. I thought Apple had moved past that phase.

Apple continues its odd obsession with making thin devices. While I can see the advantage in making lighter, more portable devices, we are at a stage where there is little to be gained by thinness. While technology has managed to create functioning displays as thin and flexible as an old slide transparency, such products are still a ways from the market. Of course, if someone manages to make a smartphone with a flat plastic display, a battery on one end and a take up reel on the other, I’m pretty sure it will sell. And right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple made it.  But that is next year (at least)… Still, this seems more like an attempt at thinness for the sake of thinness. I don’t see any real utility being added by squeezing more space out of the phone. In fact, I’d say that a lot of people would have been very happy if Apple had kept the previous volume of the iPhone and just filled the space vacated with more battery. The battery is the biggest component in the new phone, and more battery time is hard to perceive as a bad thing.

Perhaps this is an extension of the uni-body trend from the Macbook. The iPhone isn’t a uni-body, but the two stainless steel antennas that form the sides of the phone are the major structural components of the phone. Does this make it a duo-body design? There is a lot of logic behind minimizing the number of structural joins in a product. This simplifies the assembly process, reduces costs, and makes repairs easier. When done correctly, the end result is a product that is more solid and reliable.

Another of Jobs’ featured changes is the new Retina display on the iPhone. How soon will this come to the iPad, I have to wonder. It really ups the ante for the artwork in apps. One has to wonder how IOS 4 apps for the iPhone will look on the iPads currently in the market. This kind of high-density display is great for a small device like a phone, but I expect that soon people will want to see Retina displays on all kinds of devices. I am sure that if this year’s new iPod Touch (expected in September) doesn’t have a Retina display, many consumers will be screaming bloody murder (OK, more like unfair business practices, but still.). And I wouldn’t be surprised seeing these kinds of displays on other iPods. They are ideal for small screens.

But I would not be surprised if pundits start talking about a Retina Display iPad before Christmas rolls around. Or an iMac with a Retina Display. Or 25 to 30 inch Retina Displays for your computer. While these things may come in the next five to ten years, I don’t see them coming in the next 1 – 2 years.  Screens of this density increase exponentially in cost as they get bigger. And if you think your video card is working hard to keep up now, just imagine increasing the number of pixels in the same area by a factor of four!

More good news: 802.11n WiFi is finally coming to the iPhone. For owners of the iPhone 4 this will mean an opportunity to get all of your Apple devices off of b and g networks and into a unified n network structure for faster network throughput. The iPhone has been the last of the currently shipping Apple products that was still tied to the slower b/g WiFi frequencies. Of course, if you’re still nursing along older devices, you’ll still need dual network support, at least until you can afford to upgrade those other devices.

Judging by the demo, the new Gyro sensors will bring a whole new level of sensitivity to iPhone controls.  In the keynote, you can literally see the normal shaking of Job’s hand reflected in the iPhone display during the Gyro portion of the demo. This should be great for games and other programs that require accurate sensing of the position of the phone. I suspect that once the developers get properly up to speed on the new hardware we will see a rash of revisions to games, and a bunch of new augmented reality type apps.

I am unsure of what to make of iMovie for iPhone. It seems an odd choice of Apple to move into facilitating mobile video on the phone. Video editing seems to be a space where space is important. the iPhone’s small screen should be a liability to video processing. This may be somewhat mitigated by the limited functions supported by iMovie for iPhone. We won’t be able to truly evaluate it until both products are released and into consumer hands. I hope Apple has come up with a really fantastic interface and has packed a ton of functionality into the app, but this one just looks like a stumble to me. It might be good for simple clip trimming, but I don’t know that it will be worth the price of the app.

Jobs also announced that Apple will be renaming iPhone OS 4 to iOS 4. This seems somewhat logical seeing as it powers iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads. I expect that we will be seeing some arguments over how to pronounce the new name. Let us hope that there are no holy wars between those who say “eye oh ess” and those who say “eeeos”.

Finally unified mailbox and threading are making it to mail on the iPhone. About time. First we get used to these features on Mail on our Macs, then we have to unlearn them when working with Mail on our iPhones. Haven’t we all moved to using our phones as our primary e-mail reading and managing tool? Once you start looking at your e-mail on your phone, it quickly becomes the dominant e-mail reading platform, simply so you can avoid having to read the same e-mail multiple times. Or we all move off of POP and onto IMAP for all of our mail servers. Threading makes it much easier to manage e-mail conversations, especially if the conversation is spread out over a long period of time. And for any of us with multiple e-mail accounts to manage, a unified mailbox is a godsend.

Facetime. This is a feature that people have been practically clamoring for ever since the iPhone first came out. But I wonder if even Apple realizes that this may just make the iPhone 4 the first cell phone for the deaf? I’m not sure if it really is the first cell phone that can be used by the deaf, but it does look like it is the first that you can sign on. Providing you can sign one-handed. Apple did include someone signing in the film on Facetime, but otherwise didn’t make much about it.  I would have expected them to make a big thing about how it is more accessible for the deaf. Then again, they may have decided that it wasn’t as much of a selling point.

For me the second biggest surprise of the event was the announcement that AT&T is going to make customers eligible to upgrade to the new iPhone 4 at the subsidized price 6 months early. Looks like AT&T really wants a big roll out this year. This seems odd as AT&T doesn’t really make money on people upgrading expensive subsidized phones. Yes, they make money on the 2 year contracts, but unless the customer was otherwise planning on leaving AT&T, they would be making that money anyway. Now upgrades will make lots of money for Apple, so this may be part of AT&T supporting the contract.

Today marks the beginning of iPhone 4 pre-orders, and I have no doubt that Apple’s servers will be very busy. But I’m somewhat surprised that Apple isn’t taking the same kind of criticism for the iPhone 4 that they took for the iPad. Even with iOS 4 coming out on June 21st changing the look of things, the iPhone 4 isn’t that different from its predecessors. It seems more evolutionary than revolutionary.  Yes, there are a lot of updates, but do they amount to a significant improvement? Well, we’ll all be able to judge for ourselves come June 24th. Unless the demand is so high we have a hard time getting our hands on one.

Apple still has not managed to do a the worldwide rollout, but they do seem to be trying to get the iPhone out much faster than the iPad. The initial June roll out will supply iPhones to five countries, with successive roll outs over the next two months. If Apple can manage to pull of this ambitious schedule, and not continue to push releases back, it will be a remarkable comeback from the staggering iPad rollout. The iPhone is a more mature product, and Apple does have a better idea of how it will be received by the market, but that really doesn’t come close to the series of delays that plagued the iPad rollout.

What little we’ve seen of Apple’s new iPhone accessories makes them seem rather dubious. The “bumper” case seems overpriced, but it does appear to fit with Apple’s “naked” iPhone and iPod model. It remains to be seen of Apple has designed this phone to still fit on their own docks while wearing the “bumper” case, or if the phone must be pulled out of the case in order to dock it. And it may be that the one truly revolutionary thing about the new iPhone may be the hardened glass that covers the front and back of the phone. If they have finally come up with a material that doesn’t need a case in order to stand up to daily wear and tear without being covered with cracks and scratches, then that will be something exceptional in the industry.

Until the 24th, we’ll just have to wait.  And speculate.

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