Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Why do you hate the iPhone so much?"

People always ask me why I hate the iPhone.
The truth is, I don't.
The iPhone has many positive qualities, such as being an aesthetically pleasing piece of hardware and a beautifully polished OS that Apple fans have come to expect from their products.

I've played with them, and found them fun. I even recommend them to some people. However, what I don't like about them is what they represent and what they are continuing to do to the Smartphone industry.

Allow me to explain... I'm a hardcore power user who likes to push everything the limits of what is physically possible. I very often know exactly what I want, and if my computer or phone or car stereo or game system doesn't do something the way I think it should, I have no choice but to modify it and/or install software to make it work properly.

Heck, I hacked and installed a DVD player on my Wii because the Wii is capable of reading DVD discs, even though Nintendo didn't intend it to. Do I use it to play DVDs? Maybe once or twice... the point is, people shouldn't NEED to have another seperate DVD player if they already own a Wii. I sleep better at night knowing it works.

But I didn't come up with that on my own. There's a community of Wii users who felt the same way and developed and wrote a DVD player application. If the Wii weren't a popular device that had a large following already, the folks who put their heads together to do this probably never would have.

What's this got to do with phones? I'll get to that...

Another point: I didn't like it that my wife's netbook would go into hibernate when you closed the lid. Sometimes we wanted to just close it for a second and move to the other room without losing our connection, and when the computer goes into standby/hibernate, your internet does too, effectively ending your Skype, IM, etc, conversation. Very frustrating.
However, if I set it to stay on indefinitely when you close the lid, we may accidentally forget about it and run the battery dead.
So, I decided the best solution for us is to close and stay on, but if after 2 minutes it is STILL closed, then hibernate or shut off. The hardware is perfectly capable of this, its just a matter of software controllling it.
Well, quite frankly, there's no option like that in settings. Thankfully, there is a large user base for the EEE pc (since it was one of the first netbooks), and someone out there had located how the lid closing behavior works, and posted on a forum the script that dictates what then happens when it is closed.
Since the EEE also runs Linux, it was fairly easy to edit and write in BASH script to do the following:
When the lid is closed, Wait 120 seconds
Is the lid still closed? If yes, shut down. If no, stay on and exit script.

Worked perfectly. I didn't expect this kind of behavior out of the box since most people don't use the laptop the same way we do. Every user has different needs. However, the ability to modify it and tweak it and make it MINE, and work the way I want it to, is something very empowering and how all technology should work. After all, that's what technology is for.

What's all this got to do with phones?

Simple. Smartphones are like computers in your pocket. They are extremely versatile devices that should really be capable of just about anything. The only limitations usually are the software that is allowed to run on them.

The problem is, as was the case with the laptop above, manufacturers need to cater to the largest common denominator. Most people probably don't want the laptop lid to have a complicated if/else routine that waits 2 minutes before closing down. So, out of the box, it doesn't do that. But if I want to, I'm very much able to change it.
Now, the question is, how does one make change it if the manufacturer didn't think to give you that option?
Well, this is were I'd normally have to start figuring out how things work and hack it. But I didn't have to, because there was a large community of users who had figured out how the lid closing behavior works, and even helped me write my little script.
In fact, I think after I posted about this and got help on the EEE-user forum, someone else realized that this might be a common request, so they wrote an application for people to easily change how the lid works. Now anyone can do it.

My phone 2 generations of hardware ago had a major bluetooth bug that would cause quality problems and disconnect. A group of users, including myself, found that it was caused by a buffering problem in the BT driver stack. So, I went ahead and pulled drivers from a device that didn't have this problem, mixed and matched certain things while throwing ideas back and forth with each other, and eventually we solved the problem. About 3 weeks after releasing our solution to the message boards and Windows Mobile community, Sprint released an official update that fixed Bluetooth, and their solution looked very similar to ours.
Coincidence? Perhaps. The point was that even if Sprint hadn't updated anything, we had the power to fix and tweak and create our own solutions.

This is why the iPhone will never be a good choice for me. Apple is famous for their walled gardens with this device, not allowing users to control and tweak things without their permission.
Their phones are created for the largest common denominator, and quite frankly, that doesn't work for people like me. There are things I do on a normal basis that are not possible on the iPhone.

Apple fans will tell you that it is because they don't want the UI to become too complicated. Keep it simple, don't let people do anything that could mess it up, and you create a large happy user base.
The problem is, choices are the spice of life... what the best choice is for me, is not necessarily the best choice for someone else.
Look at desktop browsers- Windows users hated how buggy the old Internet Explorer 6 was, so some folks got together and created Firefox. And there's more than just that... nowadays, any type of computer can be running Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari, etc...
What works for you might not work so well for someone else. I love Chrome, my wife still prefers Firefox. But we all agree that the default Internet Explorer is not for us. But Apple is not catering to that crowd. The iPhone is only allowed to run Safari. They will not allow any other browser to pass the app store. If I wanted to just write my own browser, for my own personal use, Apple won't let me. It has to go through their store. I can't even release a beta test for other iPhone users to try before submitting to the store. They want their equipment to "just work", and apparently the way to do that is to limit innovation and customizability.
Sure, you can hack your iPhone and jailbreak it, but they keep taking new counter-measures to prevent and discourage that, often breaking functionality for those who tread those murky waters.
This is interesting coming from a company who dares us to "Think Different" in their ad campaign. It would appear now that Apple is asking us not to think at all, but rather just take what they give us and like it no matter what.

If that is the mentality that the iPhone represents, well there is something for me to hate about that.

"But what has it done to the smartphone community that has you so angry?"
Well, if you notice in my little examples above, in most cases I wasn't alone in my endeavors. I relied on the help of other people, often much smarter than I, to work together and find solutions. If I had bought some cheesy off-brand Chinese netbook for $100, I would not have found a user group that already discovered where the lid closing script was.
If the wii weren't as popular as it is, I wouldn't have found people working together to figure out how to make it play DVDs.
If Sprint and Windows Mobile didn't have a cult following, I probably wouldn't have been able to find people to work together with in solving the bluetooth bug.

The iPhone is wildly popular, and has created a whole new breed of Smartphone users... users who were never interested in the complexity of a Smartphone before. As my dear friend Justin Oberman (creator of says, the iPhone works for his mom. There is no other phone that would work like that for her.

And I will agree with him for that part. The iPhone is simple and straight forward like that. So were simple phones like the Motorola RAZR, however. If the iPhone only attracted people who were never into Smartphones before, I would be fine with it. They deserve to have a nice feature set like that.
The problem, however, is that it has become a social status. Everyone wants to be on the winning team, and people who might otherwise be using and innovating and developing for other more capable Smartphones are confining themselves to the walled gardens of Apple.
Why is this a problem?

That means that devices and platforms with far more potential than Apple are in danger of losing their community. And if that happens, I fear that users as a whole will lose their drive to innovate and join the hordes of mindlessly being spoon-fed from Apple's silver platter.
If everyone joins Apple, the few of us who want more than they offer, and are on the quest for a perfect phone will never get it. I can assure you, that perfect phone if it ever exists will not come from the closed minded model that Apple has shown.
Also, remember that Apple innovates to be competitive. Despite how iCulture views things, Apple is not in this to make the world a better place. They're in to make money, just like everyone else is. If the competition becomes a joke, they will cease to innovate. Its just how business works.

THAT is what I hate about the iPhone. Apple- give us back our communities, allow people to do more on your phones, and I will have no fight with you. There is no reason for any one device to dominate the market.
Yes, this is a personal battle.
As I said before, I still recommend the iPhone to people who would be too confused by the choices and options on a more open Smartphone. I just don't like what the iPhone represents, and how people treat it like it is the best thing that's ever happened.
More like the best that's ever happened for non-tech savvy folks who want to feel like they are down with technology.
Perhaps that's going too far...