Saturday, July 12, 2008

The 2.0

So I've got it.

I braved the much reported iTunes store punt when eighteen billion Apple fans tried to simultaneously upgrade their iPhones and iPod Touch's. I was punted for forty five minutes of "Connecting to the iTunes Store" but then with an almost explosive suddenness, everything worked again and I got activated and happy.

So how is the iPhone version 2.0? Well, it is worth pointing out that this review takes place on a battered first-generation iPhone (no 3G, just EDGE and WiFi). When I say battered I mean it -- my "off" button got thwacked just last Tuesday in some odd way when I dropped my phone and is now slightly recessed into the case so that if I use it, it sometimes gets stuck in the "in" position forcing my phone into a perpetual reboot loop. But I've found that I can use my ever-handy clasp knife to pick it back out and restore functionality. That was probably a sight to see -- me standing at the bus stop, carrying two laptop bags, holding an iphone and using a 4 1/2 Gerber knife to pick away at it like it was a dirty fingernail...

But this isn't about the travails of my phone and my stubborn refusal to use a case until someone makes one that exactly fits a deranged vision that I've got stuck in my craw. It is supposed to be some notes on my interaction with iPhone 2.0 software and (even more importantly) some of the new downloadable applications.

For starters, I find the new software nice. Nothing earthshaking there, a few of the "gee, I've been waiting for it" kind of things. In a certain sense, there is a "finally the device is done" feel. I may not have explored all of the new features (and haven't got Exchange support working with my employers mail system, so I can't comment on that), so hold on there.

Application, though, that's why I was excited for 2.0. The ability to add functionality, even if it is via Apple's controlled portal, is what I've been after. I'm entirely OK with the approval process for new apps. My old Palm was so gummed up with bad code by the end of its lifetime that it barely ran for half a day without blowing up. So knowing that in this constrained (and critical) environment someone has got my back (at least somewhat) is a considerable source of comfort.

The reviews:

remote_icon20080711.pngRemote: this is magic. It has the sort of tight, sexily elegant integration that I expect out of Apple, and it addresses a real significant need. We run our music at home from a central NAS drive through either of our laptops back out to an AirPort Express that is plugged into a home stereo with speakers indoors and outdoors. The whole setup is fantastic but occasionally awkward. We're outside, having a party, decide to put on a different song, have to run inside, sit down at the computer...

Now, with Remote, we have the godlike superpower of controlling our music from anywhere in our network. Wow. I stood in my living room with my arms raised up over my head (think Tim Robbins at the end of Shawshank Redemption) while making songs skip forward...

twitterrific_icon.pngTwitteriffic: Definitely nicer than the Twitter web interface. Slick and elegant and a lot faster than using the web app. I think that as I get deeper into the friend side of the Twitter community (as opposed to just using it to micro-blog) then I will find it even better. Any way you look at it, elegant and nicely done. I like the options for photos and locations, too.

Picture 1.jpgEpocrates Rx: Damn. I'm not a nurse and take essentially Advil and Claratin and not much else, but as a demonstration of the utility of a handheld mini-computer, this application does about the best job of anything I've seen. The setup process (requiring registration from my regular computer) was kinda' cumbersome, but now that I'm done I can identify and learn about any common drug I run into. And that happens to me all the time, you know. I find a pill lying there on the street and just have to ask myself, what IS a round, blue pill with a double score? (That's amphetamine, by the way. Don't pick it up and take it!).

Picture 3.jpgStarmap: For some reason the iPhone seems like the perfect too for backyard astronomy. I love looking at the stars and thinking about the stars and space and all that sort of stuff. But for some reason my brain just refuses to learn the names and locations of more than a dozen stars. And that is not nearly enough to be sexy and romantic under the night sky! So I have always loved the idea of some sort of instant-star-identifier to help me out. Starmaps are obviously the analogue approach to this, but they remain a little inconvenient because of the need to "translate" the directions in your head.

The iPhone, with its accelerometer and position-finding tools, has a potential to self-locate on the sky, at least in terms of elevation. And the small size could create a "virtual telescope" that could sweep around the sky, the screen exactly mirroring the scale of the sky at arms length, to guide me to an interesting object or to help me name an unidentified one. I shopped a little and settled on Starmap, a French Canadian package with the best looking feature set of any of the first-to-market iPhone planetariums (there are at least four!).

Its good -- and has a great feature set -- but suffers from a really slow update rate and some awkward user interface issues. It is well set up to guide me to some object ("Where is M81?") but is rather poorly set up for the function I actually find more interesting -- identifying something that I see ("What is that fuzzy patch over there?"). There are lots of indexing and lookup options, some quite interesting and well done, but no way to get a name or other data on an astronomical object other than the ones the software decides to point out. It works -- and with luck I'll impress my date (Erica) with astronomical knowledge despite the UI issues.

Picture 4.jpgFileMagnet: This provides the functionality that I found most dramatically lacking on the original iPhone -- any sort of file storage/management system. So I can look at Word doc's or PDF's or something like that. Everyone I know who had an iPhone kluged it together by emailing themselves the files. So the one big hope that I had for 2.0 was some sort of elegant file storage solution. Even a way to download web content and save it when I bookmarked a file to the desktop (you listenen', Apple? Yeah, I'm talking to you, Mr. Turtleneck Jobs!).

Unfortunately, that sort of functionality didn't appear to make it onto this release. It seems simple enough, so I'm not sure if there is a good technological (or business) reason to prevent it.

File Magnet provides a pseudo-storage capability by using a not-too-clumsy drag-and-drop interface between my laptop and my iPhone. Note that the two computers have to be on the same network (iPhone via WiFi, obviously) for this to work. You can move files and view them, and it works ok, so I'm generally happy. But it still has a kissing-your-sister sort of vibe as compared to what I would like to see built in to the OS. Note that any sister-kissing knowledge that I possess is purely theoretical -- I am an only child and that's creepy anyway.

So there you have it. I plant to check out some of the games soon -- I'm particularly intrigued by the new genre of game that the iPhone seems to have sparked -- the accelerometer game. I also my break down and spend another ten bucks on astronomy software to see if one of the other packages out there does a little more of what I'd like out of my iTelescope.

On the whole, I'm happy. I still love my device and rank it far ahead of anything else out there, EDGE data rate be damned. I'm hoping that some of the software vendors have a little time and get a little feedback to make some revisions and improvements. And I'm hoping for a decent file manager...

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