Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

iPhone 3G, Apps, MobileMe, and iPhone specific sites

So, you've probably heard of the iPhone (unless you've been living under a rock in Redmond) - Apple's debut outing into the mobile phone arena, and what a debut it has been! The interface is easy to use, the build quality is good, and it has a number of interesting features (e.g. visual voicemail) which make up for it's huge lacking of the most basic features (e.g. MMS). I've been using one for the past 3 months but have just recently upgraded to the iPhone 3G after queueing for a couple of hours outside the Fleet Street branch of O2 on launch day. But what are the new features and have they really improved the "jesus phone"?

Well the most talked about features that have been added are 3G support (which allows for faster data transfer) and GPS (pin-point location service). The difference in speed between 3G and Edge is not that noticeable on most websites I've found, but when using applications like maps or mail it is an absolute godsend. Having said that, although pages take about the same amount of time to load, they seem to render a lot quicker (e.g. the screen stays white for a long period of time before suddenly filling up with content incredibly quickly). GPS was the main thing I was looking forward to and it seems to be a bit hit and miss. Sometimes I can enable it and it will have my exact location within about 4 seconds whereas other times it just never gets a lock. What makes this so annoying is that it doesn't seem to use cell tower triangulation or wireless networks to get a rough approximation of my location as the old iPhone did. It just keeps hoping it will see a GPS satellite. I had been hoping that there would be an app that would automatically send my current location to a service such as Fire Eagle at regular intervals so that I could make some cool location mashups but with the current support it seems unlikely that it would work. Oh, and these 2 features drain the battery like you would not believe! Fortunately I don't move too far outdoors so I'm always near a healthy electric supply!

The other differences between the iPhone and the iPhone 3G are very small but have actually meant more to me so far than 3G or GPS. The first is that the back is no longer metal but plastic. At first I thought this would be absolutely terrible but it actually makes the phone feel a lot more comfortable. Also, all of the buttons (such as the silent switch and power button) are all brushed metal so they feel a lot more reliable and well built. The other big improvement is that the sound quality is much improved on both the internal and external speaker. I can actually use the loudspeaker now whereas before it just sounded like a normal phone with the volume turned up a bit (very muffled).

The main enhancement has definitely been the introduction of iPhone 2.0, the much anticipated software upgrade available to both the old iPhone and the iPod Touch. With the software you can now have Exchange mail, contact searching, and run 3rd party applications on the device. It is this that seems to have become the main reason people want an iPhone 3G although to be honest I probably could have kept the old iPhone that I paid a ridiculous sum of money for only 3-4 months ago! I have several apps installed now including services for Twitter, Flickr, Last.fm, and Facebook, a VNC client, a lightsabre, a Guitar Hero style tapping game, Super Monkey Ball, and a mobile version of Things (which doesn't sync yet but they promised a free upgrade that will). I'll be posting some updates over the coming days about various exciting apps that have arrived or are hopefully coming soon. At the moment there is a real gap for an MSN Messenger client as I haven't found one yet but they seem to be adding 10-20 apps per day so there should be one in the near future.

Another interesting development which Apple have introduced is MobileMe which is supposedly "Exchange for the rest of us". It also has some of the best functioning "Web 2.0" apps that I have ever seen at me.com. The idea is that all of your email, contacts, and calendar entries are stored online in a "cloud" and are then automatically pushed to your phone and computers. Now this seemed great for me as I'm always updating things on the phone and then either having to plug it into my mac or update it on there manually. I have both a MacBook and an iMac so it becomes a hassle trying to sync them all so it seemed like a very good idea. Unfortunately the launch has been marred by huge problems over the launch weekend (e.g. it didn't work), some pissed off customers who didn't agree with Apple's marketing of the push system (e.g. showing a MacBook making a change that replicates instantly on the "cloud" but in reality it's a 15 minute automated sync rather than the push capability used by the phone), and also with a small error in which they took £121 off your credit card instead of $1 to authorise the payments. However, all of this aside, MobileMe is absolutely great! I add items to my calendar on my mac and they then show up on my iPhone. I take a picture of someone on my iPhone and add it to their section in my address book and sure enough the photo is displayed on my MacBook the next time they email me. It all works incredibly well but then it should do for £59 per year!

My final thoughts on the whole iPhone thing revolve around iPhone specific sites. That is to say taking a normal website (e.g. facebook) and then having it detect if you are using an iPhone or not and then displaying specific content or styling for that device. Now normally I would be against such practices (remember IE4?) but in this case I have to say "why not"? The iPhone has completely redefined mobile internet (in my opinion and doubtless many others) and has a unique interface and styling that are begging to be exploited. The Facebook site is probably the best example for the way in which it seamlessly detects the iPhone and then displays a site that has been completely optimised for it (and styled to make it look like a native app). Now that there is the opportunity to run apps natively on the iPhone I'm sure a number of these sites will disappear but for those of us that can't write objective-C (and I can't say I have a great desire to start learning it) then it is the closest way we can get to writing apps for the iPhone. I am going to be making some sites specifically for the iPhone as well as some of my own personal systems which I'll be able to now access remotely and do some cool stuff with. This debate is currently waging on the Web Standards Group Mailing List so I'd urge anyone with an opinion to sign up and discuss it there. Alternatively you can put your thoughts on this issue here by using the comment box below.

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