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If you don't think the day of the Internet appliance is here, you haven't played with an InfoGear iPhone. This desktop phone has a built-in 7.4" black and white LED touchscreen and small pull-out QWERTY keyboard that allows you to easily access your email accounts (up to four POP3 accounts) and to surf the Web. It also offers such phone features as a speakerphone, a screen-based interface to phone services (caller ID, voice mail), speed dialing icons, and more.
The iPhone "out-of-box experience" couldn't be more satisfying: take it out of the box, plug it into the wall and phone line, chose which Internet option plan you want, enter some basic credit card and user info and you're ready to surf.
The LED screen is very sharp and the icons are bold and easy to understand. The interface is perhaps not as intuitive as it could be, but an online tutorial and a QuickRef Card quickly clear up any questions. My biggest concern was over the quality and flexibility of the browser and I was initially satisfied by what I found. It does a great job of rendering Web pages and almost all of the pages I went to (including Street Tech and Shop Talk) looked good on the small B&W screen. (Our advertiser IBM will not be happy to hear that their rich media ads do not appear at all on the iPhone.)
One cool feature is that phone numbers on Web pages and in email messages are automatically hyperlinked. Click on one, and the phone dials the number and puts you on speakerphone. Nifty. Another great feature is the local portal page that you get after you've entered your zip- and area codes. This page offers weather, links to local newspapers, movie and TV listings, restaurants, etc. The iPhone browser supports common HTML features such as frames, tables, cookies and forms, but does not support Java or plug-ins of any kind. When a call comes through, the iPhone interrupts your Net connection and you have to reestablish it when you hang up. It works the same way for outgoing connections. Unfortunately, the modem is only a 14.4, but given that pokey speed limit, the connect, re-connect and load times don't seem interminable.
There are a number of things not to like about the iPhone, and the more I used it, the more I became aware of its limitations. The keyboard is small (55% of a normal QWERTY) and the keys are small, indented Chiclet-style. I can almost type faster on the RIM Pager than I can on the iPhone! Typing long email messages is a joke. There is a keyboard port that allegedly accepts an external keyboard. The iPhone manual says you have to use a special keyboard sold by the manufacturer. I called InfoGear to see if this was really the case and they said no, that any keyboard would work. Not so. The iPhone keyboard jack has one less pin than a conventional keyboard DIN-type connector. Without such an external keyboard (which would take up space anyway, somewhat defeating the purpose of the device) this appliance is useful only as a secondary email and Web device. There's a special optional printer for the iPhone, but InfoGear doesn't even recommend it (so you can imagine how good it must be!).
You also can't cut and paste within email messages or Web bulletin board postings. I do a lot of cutting and pasting in email messages (sorry, Mom), so this is a real nuisance. The browser, while it does an admirable job of rendering Web pages, has some funky limitations too. You can't actually see the URL of the page you're on. You have to bookmark the page, then go to your bookmarks page to see the full URL. Since the URL is not fully visible or editable, you can't trim URLs back to go to a higher-level directory on a site.
There are a range of service plans available for the iPhone, from $4.95/month if you B.Y.O.P. (Bring Your Own Provider) to full-blown ISP accounts at up to $24.95/month. Some have grumbled over paying InfoGear five bucks a month if you're using your own ISP, but I think it's worth it for the convenience of having this second email and Web conduit. We loved having the iPhone on our dinning room table (which serves more as the household desk, message center, work space, etc.) to be able to quickly check mail, look up TV and movies, read the Washington Post, check the weather, etc. We even tried to order food on it (via CyberMeals), but they're not delivering in our area yet.
Rumor has it that InfoGear is coming out with a version 2.0 of the iPhone sometime in June. Here's the Street Tech wish list for the next version:
- Cut and paste! PAHLEASE!
- Add a spell-checker to the email program
- Make it easier to switch between email accounts
- A regular URL location box, like other browsers
- The ability to email Web pages
- Have the iPhone automatically re-establish the Net connection after you hang up the phone.
- Make the built-in keyboard wider (there's room for this) and re-design the keys to be...ya know...usable!
- Allow use of a standard PC keyboard
- Allow use of common PC printers
- Offer a port for plugging in some sort of storage drive for offloading email, Web content, etc.
- While we're really trying to turn this into a killer app(liance), why not build in a small software developer's kit (SDK) so that others can develop little applications for the iPhone (e.g. an app that would convert a mail message full of tab-delimited names, numbers and email addresses into the address book files on the iPhone).
This first iteration of the iPhone may have its limitations, but mark my keystrokes, in a few years, every phone will have the capabilities of this nifty little gizmo.
- Gareth Branwyn [3/4/99]
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