Home > Uncategorized > iPhone 5 and iOS6 Thoughts

iPhone 5 and iOS6 Thoughts

I’m moving all my technical reviews and thoughts to my work blog, because (1) I use these things for work, and (2) my comments are often related to UI/human factors/HCI kinds of things.

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to write a review of the iPhone 5 for a while, and I keep just not getting to it. Then something happened a couple days ago that re-ignited my desire to do so. I was chatting with colleagues and something came up in the conversation that required me to check my calendar, so I took out my phone. One of the people in the conversation kind of gawked at it “is that a 5?” was asked with something approaching reverence. Since I’ve had it for four weeks now, the novelty has worn off and I was surprised by this reaction. I looked at her and said “It’s still just a phone.” I’ve been asked a couple times in the last week or so how I like my 5, and my usual response is along these lines: “It’s fantastic, but it’s still just a phone.”

This, I think, sums up why Apple can’t seem to make them fast enough—the iPhone 5 is indeed fantastic—but also for the more or less “meh” response the iPhone 5 has gotten from the tech press: it is still just a phone.

My first smartphone was the iPhone 3G, and that was indeed a monstrous leap forward and felt utterly and totally different than any phone I had before. Of course, the leap there was going from an object that was primarily a phone (I think it was a Motorola Razr) to a mobile computer that also happens to be a phone; that’s what an iPhone always was to me.

I didn’t upgrade until the iPhone 4, and that also seemed like a very different device. That was, at the time, the best display I had ever seen on anything, period, and that made a real difference. My 3G was also starting to feel sluggish as newer software had been coming out that made it feel long in the tooth and that upgrade still feels big in retrospect.

I did not get a 4S—yes, there’s a pattern here, I’m on the “every other iPhone” trajectory—and so upgraded from a 4 to a 5. The 5 is indeed better on every criterion I can think of: the display is even better (and bigger, too), the phone is markedly thinner and lighter, the camera is better, it has LTE so data is much faster, the CPU is faster, the build quality is pretty much amazing (you have to hold one to really get this), it has Siri (which my 4 did not) and so on. It is an upgrade in pretty much every way. The iPhone 5 is a terrific phone and I have no trouble understanding why Apple is selling them as fast as they can make them. I have die-hard Android friends who have switched just because of the iPhone 5 hardware—it really is that good.

However, having said all that, I understand the overall yawn from the tech press. The iPhone 5 is a fine device, to be sure. It is not, however, revolutionary. I am very happy to have all the things it has that are better than my 4, but it simply does not feel like the major qualitative leap forward that my two previous iPhones were. It is still a phone, and while it does all the mobile computing things better than my previous phone, it does not fundamentally change how I do anything. I mean, yes, there are a few small changes here and there—I had to reorganize my springboard because the iPhone 5 display is bigger—but nothing that feels revolutionary.

It is, of course, ridiculous to deride a computing product that is an overall excellent product for the simple failure to be radical. I think that’s what’s happened here and it’s a mistake by the tech press, but it’s an understandable mistake. When I got my first iPhone, it was amazing. When I got my 4, every time I looked at the screen, my thought was how amazing it was. My iPhone 5 is terrific, but I never have the same “that’s amazing” reaction to it. (The closest to that is the thinness, which is quite impressive but still doesn’t quite generate the same “wow” response.) I didn’t get an iPad right away because I didn’t see how I’d really use it, and within two weeks of getting it, I couldn’t imagine not having one. I didn’t get an iPad 2 (there’s that “every other” thing going again) but I got a third-generation one because the display is more than just a “wow” feature, it’s one that actually changed my work habits. (I don’t read manuscripts or journal articles on paper anymore, ever—it’s all iPad now, which it was not until the Retina iPad.) The total iPhone 5 package is excellent, but there is no single thing you can point to that evokes the “wow” response, and I think people have begun to expect that from Apple, even if that is an unreasonable expectation.

I think the other thing that’s a factor here is iOS6. I upgraded my 4 to iOS6 before my 5 had arrived, but I think in the heads of the tech press and many consumers, the two things are likely to be heavily conflated. I have to say that I had some reservations about iOS6 based on my last MacOS upgrade, which was from Snow Leopard to Lion. I’m still not sure what the point of Lion really was; it offered little in the way of new and useful functionality and it broke a hell of a lot of software. (I haven’t upgraded to Mountain Lion yet—I’m hoping that’s less painful.) I’m sure Apple’s sales numbers said that Lion was a success, but as far as I’m concerned Lion was the first OS X “upgrade” that wasn’t really an upgrade at all. So I was perhaps a bit reserved about going to iOS6.

iOS6, furthermore, will probably always be marred in people’s minds because of Apple’s Maps app. Maps is interesting in that I think the UI in Apple’s Maps is an improvement over the old Maps in a number of ways, but Apple has been bitten pretty hard by the poor quality of the data. Unfortunately, the experience of many users is tainted by that, and their experience is negative, regardless of whether the actual UI is better or not. There have certainly been commentaries out there suggesting that the map data isn’t that bad for many users in many places, especially those in big cities. I live near a big city (Houston), but not in it, and the suburb where I live has been experiencing monstrous growth over the last decade. As a result of that, we have many roads, schools, and parks that are only a few years old. Google maps was on top of this, and everything in the old Maps app was up to date for anything more than about a year old. Apple’s Maps, on the other hand, seems completely ignorant of everything in the community less than about three years old and surprisingly still ignorant about many things that are now more than a decade old. It’s kind of amusing to flip back and forth between the map view and the satellite view and see roads vanish and re-appear. (Note: This is a community of over 100,000 that generates so much wireless traffic that the local AT&T store just gives away micro-cells free to their wireless customers because the local towers cannot always handle the load. It is not a tiny little town.) Hopefully now that it’s out in the field the data problems will get sorted out as users bring in more data, but for now there are places where Apple’s Maps are so inaccurate they’re nearly useless.

The problem there goes beyond the fact that it gets things wrong, but it generates a trust issue. I don’t actually need the maps in my local area to be highly accurate since I know the area anyway. However, what about when I travel? Can I trust the data for where I am when it’s not somewhere familiar? I know Google Maps wasn’t always right, either, but the omissions in Apple’s Maps are pretty glaring around where I am—in places where Google has it right—and that makes me wary. “Wary” is not how you want to feel about your maps.

Other than Maps, though, iOS6 seems like a general improvement, though some of the touted features are completely pointless as far as I’m concerned. I do use Facebook, but there is no way that I want Facebook to have access to the stuff on my phone (particularly my address book) so system-level integration with Facebook is a non-starter for me, as are changes to FaceTime and things like shared photo streams. Some of the new phone features seem useful, and some of the improvements to Siri, Safari, and Mail are pleasant (though minor), but again, this is a refinement more than a big jump forward. Maps is the most visible change and that hasn’t exactly been a big win.

So, yes, the iPhone 5 is terrific, and I like it a lot. I’m glad I bought it. It is, however, still just a phone. A great phone, but still just a phone.

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