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Jon’s tortuous path to the iPhone

Posted: 02.11.10

I proudly consider myself a geek and an early adopter. When the slick N95 from Nokia first came out I knew I had to have one. The unit wasn't yet available in the United States, but that wasn't going to be a problem for me. My colleague and longtime friend's daughter in England works for Vodafone and Vodafone was the carrier that was offering the N95.
The Verizon LG Flip Phone -- before it hit the wall (Source Verizon)I had long used two mobile phones, one for the US and one for rest of the world because the US had been so late to adopt the higher-speed digital systems like GSM and 3G. The N95 in addition to its other great features was a tri-band unit, and therefore with the appropriate SIM could work in the US, Europe, and several parts of Asia, although not Korea.
I was attracted to the N95 because of the OMAP2 processor in it with the Imagination Technologies 3D graphics engine and also because of the phone’s of advanced glass lens 5.1 megapixel camera with built in flash, a TV and FM radio, and a GPS radio. With the accessible SIM card I was able to now have just one phone for my travels. The N95 also had a mini SD slot, which I quickly filled with a 2 GB card. There were some built in games, and you could download the Nokia suite to synchronize your contacts list, calendar, and downloading of any photographs taken. The phone was just about perfect -- until I tried to use it.

The many faces of the Nokia N95 (Source: Nokia)

When I got the N95, it was not available in the United States. However, AT&T had indicated that they would one day. Therefore, I set up an AT&T account for my US operations. My next challenge was to crack the phone so that I could get it to recognize the AT&T SIM. This wasn't too difficult, there was lots of help to be found on the web, and I now had a genuine world phone with a state-of-the-art camera, the ability to watch videos, play MP3 audio, and the ability to play 3D games.


The problems started early. My contacts list was too big for the puny built-in memory in the phone and I was unsuccessful in figuring out how to make the contact list reside on the plug-in 2 GB of memory. The net result was, every time I tried to find a contact. I was given a message, “Memory full shutdown some applications." Of course it never told me what applications were running to shut down and so contact searching was always a frustration, and I could only overcome the error message by quickly typing a single key to get to the desired first letter of the name I was looking for. The other difficulty was, even though I had set it up to answer the phone by pressing any key, pressing the phone button caused it to go in to Hold, and it was very exasperating to try and get out of that condition when someone was calling me. And although the camera took amazingly good pictures it was very slow in response. This was no sports camera.


I suffered with these operational conditions for two years punctuating every activity on the phone with the expression, "this god damn phone." Finally, my colleagues, and in particular Kathleen Maher had had enough of this and said, "You've got to get a new phone. I'm sick of listening to you." (At least I didn’t throw this one against the wall as I did my Verizon LG Flip phone which is why I had to get the N95.)

Trials and Errors

So on January third on a cold and blustery day in Washington DC, I ventured out of the Marriott and walked a few blocks to the nearest AT&T store. There I looked at several phones with the intention of buying the HTC Pure. I realized my first criteria for a phone, other than simply making phone calls, was to take pictures. I've gotten quite used to only carrying a phone The many faces of the Sony Ericsson C905and not having to carry a phone and a camera -- even though the N95 camera wasn't very fast.

The HTC Pure was a bit of a compromise because of its camera (5Mpix but no flash), but it would be good enough and the HTC Pure had a large screen in what appeared to be a useful UI. However, at the AT&T store. I was introduced to the Sony Ericsson C905 by the clever sales guy who seemed to understand my needs better than I. Mind you, the sales guy was not overselling me, but rather trying to match my requirements up with an appropriate phone. Not only did the Sony Ericsson C905 have a nice sized screen. It also had a super 8-megapixle camera with a flash, and its camera operation was noticeably faster than the N95.

I proudly took my new acquisition back to the Marriott and began to set up. It took about six hours of frustration and failure to realize I was not going to be able to get the calendar and contact list to easily synchronize with this phone. Email? Forgetaboutit!

The next day, and with an airplane to catch, aided by my mobile phone tech support expert, Kathleen Maher, we went back to the AT&T store braving the 1° windy Washington weather, and complained. The sales guy explained that although I thought I had purchased it, the phone would not be capable of handling, "data," unless I signed up for the, "data," plan with AT&T. I explained to him that my existing phone, the faithful, if frustrating N95, could handle, "data," without me having to sign up for the AT&T, "data," plan. He said, that was because I had cracked the phone and AT&T would offer no support to me for that phone. He didn't need to tell me; I had already learned that the hard way.

We took the new phone and headed to the airport assuming that a couple of smart people like us could easily figure out how to get this phone to handle my, "data," just as we had done with the N95 - almost.


Back home after several attempts by several people here at JPR, we threw up our hands and admitted defeat. All through the exercise, Robert who does not own an iPhone, and Kathleen who is on her second iPhone, kept advising me -- get an iPhone. I resisted this advice and dismissed the iPhone as a girly phone, lacking in anything passable for camera, having no (legal) access to the SIM, no expansion of memory, and no ability to replace the battery, should it run down and I wasn't in a place to recharge. The iPhone simply wasn't acceptable to an uber-geek like me.


However, with the stylish Sony-Ericson C905 I also was confronted with the miserable Symbian UI that I had been suffering with on the N95. If the US is behind the times with regard to radios and just barely creeping into the 3G era, the Symbian operating system was even further behind with its awkward, non-GUI aware operations. Finding things, having them react in a reasonable time, and then having them react in an expected and desirable way, proved to be just as frustrating as the N95, and it quickly became apparent that this was not a phone that would offer me any improvement in productivity, and certainly no convenience -- -- although it did take damn nice pictures.

I finally bit the bullet and took the Sony Ericsson C905 to the local AT&T store to trade it in for something more useful and, accepted Kathleen Maher's advice to buy a damn data plan. I was now looking at my monthly phone expense increasing for no apparent added a utility other than being able to get e-mail working immediately, and possibly have immediate access to my contact list; given the years of frustration that seemed a small price to pay.

After explaining to the AT&T salesman that the reason I didn't have the box that the Sony Ericsson phone came in was because I just traveled across the United States and didn't need anything extra to carry and staring down the store manage I got them to exchange it and paid the $35 restocking fee.

I now had the pleasure of looking at all the phones in the AT&T store to see what I could get to replace the Sony Ericsson. We truly did due diligence and looked at the Blackberry, various Nokias, various HTC's, Samsung, and a few other brands I don't remember and settled on the HTC Tilt 2 because of its large touch screen, and slide out full QWERTY a keyboard, and OK camera.


I now had a phone that had the same general form factor as an iPhone, albeit a bit thicker and heavier. It had a touch screen and a Microsoft operating system with reasonable looking icons and an expectation of a Windows like experience.

HTC Tilt2 (Source AT&T)After a week of trying to use the phone I realized I was not getting up to speed as quickly as I would like to. I also had to go on a trip to England and Germany and decided that my N95 would be my non-US phone and that the HTC would be my US phone. I would of course experiment with the HTC phone in Europe to see if it had useful functionality in that environment.


I was able to read a little bit of e-mail with the HTC while in Europe, and even do some texting. But for more efficient operations, such as texting quickly and trivial little things like making a phone call, the N95 proved to be the workhorse. The HTC turned out to be a very large clock that I carried around. And I would refer to its big clock display whatever I was curious about the time.


The Microsoft operating system was so unbelievably slow and unresponsive for the first few days, I assumed I was doing something wrong. Nothing could be this miserable. The touch screen functionality with or without the stylus was a totally exasperating. I had to tap several times, or swipe several times to get anything to react. And when it reacted it did it so slowly it was unbelievable, despite the fact that there was a 2GHz Snapdragon processor in the slick looking little machine. All the hardware was unforgivably compromised by the terrible operating system.


The iPhone.
Back in the US the verbalization of my frustration proved to be too much for my colleagues, and they insisted that I get a new phone. And that if I had any brains left it would be an iPhone. I capitulated and asked Robert to go to the AT&T store exchange, the HTC for an iPhone, give them whatever amounts of money they wanted, and I promised to never bitch again.
Two sides of the iPhone (Source: Apple)OMG -- why had I beat my head against the wall all these years? The iPhone was a delight from the moment. I took it out of the box. With no training, other than the limited familiarity I had gained from using other people's iPhone's I was quickly able to access my contact list, synchronize my calendar, make phone calls, and even take pictures
with its miserable little three megapixel camera. I conceded that I would go back to carrying a phone and a camera because of the sheer joy of the user experience with the iPhone.


Although the iPhone has all of the shortcomings previously mentioned, its user interface is so intuitive and so responsive that you quickly forget about those techie issues and simply use the phone, reading Email is not only possible but pleasurable, and a genuine productivity aid. The phone is also lightweight and responsive.


The only other phone that I have seen that looked like it might be useful, and I seriously considered getting, was the Motorola Droid. I played with friend’s Droid and found it to be responsive, have a nice screen, a so-so camera, and be lightweight. And if I'd had more time and wasn't so utterly frustrated with my phone experience I probably would have invested little bit more time to go to the store to play with, and probably purchase a Motorola droid. However, one of the obstacles was my investment in AT&T phones, and AT&T's policy with regard to trade in. If I want a Motorola Droid phone it will be my third phone, and there's no way that AT&T would ever consider taking back the iPhone. If the N95 ever dies then the Motorola Droid would be my choice for a backup phone.


What have I learned from all this?


It’s the UI stupid! Regardless of the technical specifications, the user interface and speed of operation is clearly the most important criteria. I was willing to sacrifice several technical features, a difficult decision for a geek like me, for the convenience of having a phone that was easy to use. I don't care about brand, style, or even weight. If the phone had what I considered advanced technical features that should be an investment protection then that would be the logical choice, or so it would seem. The reality of the situation is, none of that matters, and the only thing that's important is how easy it is to use the phone. It's been a hard, expensive, time-consuming learning experience, and having gone through it, I wonder how many millions of other people have suffered equally.