In an editorial today, Engadget’s EIC notes that he can’t effectively work—as in, do things he would normally do to be productive—using the iPhone 3GS. As someone who used to do a lot of work from his Danger Sidekick, a device far less powerful than even the first iPhone, I’ve found myself on the cusp of writing the same editorial many times. Ironically, that urge has always hit me when I’ve been in the middle of having problems using the iPhone to do any work, and since writing an editorial qualifies as work, it’s been just as much of a pain to try and write the editorial on the iPhone as anything else. By the time I’ve returned to my Mac, there have been better things to write about.
Engadget says, pointedly, that “[a]t the end of the day, it’s nice to stick the ‘we love business users’ line into your PR, but it’s quite another thing to make it real.” It’s an interesting point, and one that we’ve been hearing a lot about in anecdotal conversations over the past 6 or 12 months. Everyone heard the stories of how Blackberry Storm users returned the problematic devices within days of purchase, but the story we’ve heard recently is that business professionals—wooed by Apple’s apps-for-everyone pitch—have been returning iPhones, too, blaming the lack of a real keyboard for their inability to actually get anything done on the devices. Then they buy Blackberries. We understand this, and have been struggling ourselves with the same problems for two years now. Our productivity has dropped a lot, and the iPhone’s input scheme is the single biggest reason why.
Some devices were designed as communications tools first, and media players second; that was the story with the Sidekick, which had a relatively awesome little keyboard that could hammer out everything from articles to e-mails with great speed. The iPhone was designed in the opposite direction, as were many of the apps, which started as modestly updated versions of iPod menu items: back when the iPod touch was first released, for instance, Apple was struggling with whether to even let users edit content on the touch as they could on the iPhone. Originally, the concept was “iPods play things, they don’t create things.” Voice Memos changed that a little back in 2003, and the wall came down entirely in early 2008 as the artificial software dividing line between iPhones and iPod touches essentially disappeared.
Yet Apple’s pocket devices have never been as strong as they could be: whether for games or business apps, developers are always forced to shoehorn input functionality into the iPhone OS’s limited controls. Instant messaging apps are cramped by a keyboard and status bar that consume half of the screen. Games are all but forced to make you put fingers on top of their graphics or turn the devices on off-angles for control. The strength of being able to relabel and redefine some buttons on an app-by-app basis is great, but a proper physical keyboard is a necessary second component. Haptic feedback isn’t going to do it. Buttons are what’s necessary for business users. And we’ll gladly pay for them.
Engadget’s other comment is that multitasking is a glaring omission, and yes, there’s no doubt that it is, even in the wake of push notifications going live. But between the current devices’ 480×320 screen real estate, seriously deficient batteries, and other factors, it’s quite possible that the iPhone OS isn’t quite ready yet for true multitasking. For now, a keyboard would go further towards making the device useful, and it’s time to make it happen.