Be sure to check the post-3.0 follow-up to this tirade after you've read this...
Apple fans have often said it’s a company that sweats over the small details to make the user experience so much better, so I felt my petty gripes with the 2.x OS on my iPhone 3G, while seemingly nitpicky, were like flies in an otherwise rich and luxurious ointment. I originally began this write-up after half a year of living with the device. Then neglected it. Revisited it in the light of the 3.0 beta launch in March. Decided it was dead horse flogging. Left it again. Mulled over it once more with the WWDC 2009 keynote imminently approaching and threw all caution to the wind. Without experiencing the beta release for myself, I just don’t know whether all my complaints will be addressed in the update. Yes, I know the glaring omissions like MMS and cut-copy-paste are coming, but what about pedantic GUI moans: the keyboard’s behaviour, the YouTube transport controller, truncated text strings? So here they all are. Let’s see how many are non-issues once I get my hands on 3.0. In no particular order:
Contacts database accessible across apps but inconsistent functionality
A trivial one to get the ball rolling. You’ve probably never noticed that contacts are editable when accessed from Phone app and Contacts app but not from SMS app. It’s not an earth-shattering limitation but it has frustrated me on a few occasions when I want to add data to a contact after an SMS message. I’m hoping that the new Messages app will fix this, especially since it can send and receive attachments like VCFs.
Phone app stays in foreground
This also feels a bit petty but it still irks me. With an incoming call, Phone app leaps into action to handle it. No surprises there. End call, iPhone goes back to sleep. Next time you wake the phone from sleep, Phone app is still open in the foreground on whichever tab you last left it (eg, Favorites, Recents etc). So unless you are about to initiate a call, very often this means a press on the Home button to get out of Phone app. It’d be elegant if the OS could simply retire Phone app to the background and revert to the homescreen after an incoming call, unless of course you sent the phone to sleep with Phone app open.
Phone call log refinement
I think this one may be coming in 3.0 (there was mention of call logs somewhere) but the Recents tab of Phone app only offers All or Missed for sorting the call log. It shouldn’t be too hard to be able to sort by Incoming and Outgoing too. Call Length would be an extra (and overly anal) bit of data that I sometimes wish I had, but I’m sure that’s just me.
Alert dialogs that need to be dismissed in order to terminate a call!
If you’re on a call when a low battery life or incoming SMS alert pops up, you have to first dismiss the alert before you can hit the End Call button. I can understand the need for global alerts - the kind that dim the rest of the screen and require your attention - but if it gets in the way of basic functions like controlling a phone call I think something’s awry. The demo of ngmoco’s Touch Pets during the 3.0 beta launch showed the Push Notification alerts continue this trend of seemingly monopolising your attention until dismissed. Gina Trapani at Lifehacker mentioned this, preferring the notifications of Google’s Android OS which seems like a better model than global alerts in most cases. What does method does the Palm Pre use?
Losing data input due to incoming call
This one has caught me a couple of times in Calendar app. I’m entering the details for a new event over the several screens of Add Event (title, location, start/end, alerts and so on) when a call comes in. Of course Calendar quits and yields the floor to Phone app. But after the call, returning to Calendar, the unsaved event is gone for good, even if you were basically ready to press Done on the Add Event page when the call came in. Given the methodology is essentially the same, I can imagine this might also happen while adding a new contact though I haven’t experienced this personally. Now, even as a non-programmer, I think I know what’s going on here - the Done button is equivalent to Save and until then the data entered is volatile - but I also seem to recall Apple proudly saying to the effect that apps which quit when a call comes in do so “gracefully” implying you can resume where you left off. It’s certainly seems to work that way with some other apps (eg, an uncompleted SMS or tweet is still there in the text field) and maybe that’s why my data-entry loss in Calendar feels so frustrating, perhaps moreso given that it’s a default system app not some poorly-designed App Store impulse purchase.
That magnifier tool for cursor placement is both genius and madness at the same time. It’s a witty and inventive solution to a touchscreen problem but in my experience is beset with irritating inexactitude. Countless times I have cursed the cursor having placed it after a lowercase ‘i’ or ‘l’, only to find it has jumped in front of the letter as I take my finger from the screen. Such characters are of course not much bigger than the cursor itself, but it happens with fat characters too as the motion of lifting the finger from the glass sometimes alters the placement. And it doesn't help that text viewed through the magnifier has a slightly unfocussed effect to it. The new cut-copy-paste functions announced in 3.0 builds on this paradigm further so it’ll be interesting to see how I get on with that. I have started to write longer and longer blocks of text on the iPhone as I have learned to let the predictive/corrective keyboard work its voodoo, but going back to edit stuff always feels hard work by comparison. Cut-copy-paste will make iPhone text editing bearable for me. Who knows, with potential dock accessories and bluetooth enhancements hinted at in 3.0, maybe someone somewhere is building a micro qwerty keyboard for those occasions when only proper typing will cut it.
Universal dismissable keyboard
Talking of text input, while everyone’s wetting their pants about the upcoming widescreen keyboard, it’d be nice if the keyboard could also be user-dismissable system-wide. In Notes app the keyboard only appears when you place the cursor in the text area. But importantly, there is the ability to tap Done and the keyboard is dismissed from view, leaving the screen clear for reading. In SMS app, once you’ve tapped in the text entry field, that keyboard’s there for good, leaving a reading area only about a third of the total screen height - not great if you want to read back over a conversation to refer to a previous message, for example. And the keyboard state is even dynamic per message thread, so if you’ve started to reply even switching to another thread of messages won’t dismiss the keyboard in that original conversation. To my mind the to-be-desired methodology is straightforward and it’s how the keyboard appears to work in some other apps: only call up the keyboard when text entry is required, but at the same time providing a means of rolling back the keyboard at will, as per Notes. With landscape mode coming to all apps in 3.0 this is even more pertinent, given that on a horizontal aspect the keyboard takes up most of the screen real estate leaving you looking through a letterbox-like slit at your actual text.
iPod app doesn’t champion the iPhone app experience
I remain unconvinced that the iPod app on an iPhone lives up to the promise of the device itself. Perhaps forgiveable on a phone-oriented device, but the iPod Touch makes this criticism especially pertinent. Recall that when Apple released Remote app at the launch of the App Store, someone pointed out that it actually surpassed the iPod app in various aspects of its user interface.
Thankfully the big ears at Apple got wind of this and the next update saw some marked improvements in the iPod app to bring some sort of parity with Remote (which, to point out the obvious, remotely controls a full-featured iTunes app on a computer connected over wi-fi). But even now Remote shows up the deficiencies in the current iPod app, and the 3.0 beta announcement made only scant mention of new iTunes/iPod features to come so it’s not clear what changes lie ahead.
The biggest failing of the iPod app in my opinion is its playlist functionality. These features still seem to be constrained by the paradigm of the old classic iPods. You cannot edit playlists which you constructed with iTunes on your computer, and furthermore once away from your syncing Mac/PC you can only have one On-The-Go playlist at a time until you sync again with iTunes. This seems daft given the superlative interactivity of the iPhone OS. You ought to be able to create and save playlists at any time - fully editable playlists with all that swipe-to-delete, grab-to-rearrange iPhone editing experience that other apps take advantage of. The recent Genius feature offers a save function for playlists it concocts, but they are essentially locked lists, incapable of tweaks (for example, if you liked the selection that Genius suggests but want to swap the position of tracks 5 and 6, you can’t). Whereas On-The-Go offers track rearrange and delete but no way to save that list so you can create another. Remote is better in this regard, showing how it could be done, by creating and editing playlists from your touch device (but which reside on the computer). For people who like to be in control of their music (and video) away from their computer, iPod app is frustrating and seems oddly restrictive given the potential of the OS.
On the subject of editable content, did you know some iPod content can be deleted? Video and podcast media on the iPhone seem to allow ad hoc deletion, unlike anything in the music library. A simple right-swipe on any video or podcast brings up a Delete button. I can see this would be handy if you are away from your syncing computer, perhaps on a trip, and having loaded up your iPhone with movies for the journey wish to delete such large files to make space for, say, all the travel photos you intend to take. But be warned: items deleted this way pop back from the grave like a zombie messiah if you power down and restart the iPhone - which you might well do on a long spell away from your computer. In other words, the intended deletion is only made permanent when you sync with iTunes, which goes some way to making the away-from-sync convenience of the feature debatable. (In fact, iTunes shows any “deleted” content like this as still being on the device until you sync, even if iPod app itself regards it as trashed.)
My other ongoing beef with the iPod functions on the iPhone is to do with controls from the lockscreen. Like most sensible people I have the Passcode Lock enabled so that anybody helping themselves to my phone with nefarious intent would be unable to access my data. (The “Erase Data after 10 failed passcode attempts” option is also a fantastic reassurance, and I’m thankful that the number is so high based on some failed attempts to unlock my own phone after a few too many drinks.) I also have the Home Button double-click prefs set to enable iPod controls if music is playing. Thus, from a lockscreen, a double-click on the Home Button calls up basic playback controls. My nitpicky quibble with this is the controls on offer: back, play/pause, forward and a volume slider. What I frequently crave is a track playhead scrubber, inexact as it is when in the narrow screen of portrait orientation. If I want to manually scrub track playback, I have to unlock the screen whereupon the aforementioned playback controls are now positioned at the bottom of the screen with a playhead/shuffle/repeat/genius bar at the top. Firstly, from a user-interface perspective, I find it odd that the basic controls don’t occupy a consistent place on the screen. Secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever used the onscreen volume controller. I eschew the touchscreen control in favour of the hardware route essentially because, when holding the phone, my thumb or finger is resting on or near the volume button already. And personally I can’t fathom the thought process of powering up a sleeping screen and then double-clicking Home to adjust playback volume when there’s a simple shiny silver button on the side. Of course I’m disregarding all those people with docks who no doubt need an onscreen volume slider and I can anticipate the response that a slider for playhead and one for volume could be confusing (in normal playback the playhead slider is only disclosed after a further tap in the cover art area), but all it really needs is for the lockscreen controls to more resemble the layout of the regular version. Perhaps if the user has chosen to show playhead controls (it seems to be a persistent toggle on or off) they are presented on the lockscreen too.
Truncated overlong text
Familiar to OS X users on the desktop, I call this the “curse of the ellipsis” for truncating long titles. At least with Mac OS X, the Finder chops out the middle of filenames in the Finder, so “My Very Long Filename Is Bigger Than Yours.mp3” would appear as something like “My Very Long F...Yours.mp3”. In most instances iPhone OS is content to simply lop off the ends of long text strings. This would be a fine time for the iPhone to learn from the non-touch iPods where for some time now long song titles have happily scrolled across the small iPod screens so that you can read them in their entirety. It’s particularly frustrating in the iTunes Store app where you might be exploring new music with unfamiliar titles, or as in the illustration here of an album with five remixes of the same track, the precise distinct identity of which you will never know. In a case like this, perhaps title scrolling ought to begin when you hit the item preview and the 30 second snippet plays, although that does preclude being able to read long titles without initiating playback. Of course, it’s not just the iTunes Store app where this problem turns up; long feed names and post titles in RSS apps, video and podcast listings in iPod app. Mail app offers a font size preference in its settings pane. Is this the simplest solution? Perhaps this problem will be less obvious with the upcoming landscape screen layout across all Apple apps (and no doubt other developers will keep pace). But if even widescreen is too narrow for exceptionally long text strings, what then?
Partial application of MobileMe capability
When .Mac was rebadged MobileMe, living in the cloud was held out as a viable option. Unfortunately, Apple overreached and the service was beset by problems for weeks. With push notifications via Apple’s servers now becoming available in 3.0 for third party developers, it’s tempting to think everything is rosy again. But there’s still a handful of functions I’d hope to see working with MobileMe. Firstly, Mail on the iPhone doesn’t support MobileMe aliases. The browser-based Mail UI and the OS X app can happily send from a MobileMe alias, but I can’t reply from that alias address on my iPhone. This is a silly limitation and frustrates me every time I boot up MobileMail.
Secondly, the data storage aspect of MobileMe could act as an extension of the iPhone’s limited capacity. For example, rather than emailing myself a PDF simply to read it away from my desk, wouldn’t it make sense for Apple to offer a built-in MobileMe app to pull the document down from ‘the cloud’. If the app could also edit text files, RTFs, Word docs, XLS spreadsheets and so forth, you’d have a powerful and truly useful MobileMe office suite. I have a free third party app called MobileFiles by Quickoffice Inc which works well enough as a remote file viewer, but I see it is no longer available. Quickoffice Inc’s full-featured paid app, Mobile Office Suite, offers most of the above wishlist but if Apple offered similar functionality built-in to the iPhone, surely it would make it a smarter smartphone and a more attractive prospect for business. Plus it could drive more paying customers to MobileMe.
Hit top bar to go home is the only shortcut
I imagine most iPhone users have learned that they can instantly ‘page up’ (or rather go ‘home’) by hitting the top bar. But darn it, there is no equivalent for paging down apart from the cute but tiresome screen swiping gesture. On long web pages such as comment threads on blogs - and given the narrow screen width, pages increase in vertical depth quite naturally - this drives me insane in next to no time.
Location field in Calendar entries should be tappable to launch Maps
I think that subheading says it all.
Oh ho, 3.0
Having read all these finicky complaints you might think I spend my time in vexation, continually dashing my iPhone to the ground. Not a bit. It is the most enjoyable mobile phone I have ever had the fortune of owning. Previous phones have often touted similar features (media playback, email, web and the like) but consistently failed to deliver anything like a pleasant user experience. That I can derive such stupid childlike joy from this gadget is embarassing but true. So whether or not 3.0 addresses any of my above gripes, I think the publicly confirmed features are good and will help the iPhone inch ahead of newcomers like the Palm Pre.
But while I’m on the subject, let me offer a few kneejerk observations to some of the new features recently demonstrated.
Hurrah for system wide searching akin to Spotlight on Mac OS X! How clever to access it from the Homescreen by a swipe to the left! But rather than simply calling up a text field and a waiting keyboard, why not offer the possibility of Saved Searches? They could each have an icon, not unlike the way favourite websites can be added to homescreens. If there are search terms you use regularly, this could be massively convenient. Of course a Spotlight Homescreen with Saved Search shortcut icons also relates to my earlier comments about a keyboard invoked and dismissed by the user rather than OS 3.0 Spotlight’s default waiting-for-text input mode. Search initiated by text must be driven by a keyboard, but adding icons (or even a list of bookmarked searches or search history, to borrow from a browser paradigm) would require a default GUI mode which to my mind suits the touch-driven OS better.
New YouTube features
I’m not a heavy YouTube user, either on the iPhone or my Mac, but I notice that the YouTube app History only seems to keep a record of videos watched through the app itself. Thus, embedded videos in RSS feeds or Twitter URLs for example do not seem to get added to History which can be mildly frustrating when you want to revisit a movie you watched earlier but don't have the original link to hand. It seems YouTube playback functionality is a system wide filetype handler, independent of the YouTube app itself, in much the same way that an invisible Quicktime app handles direct links to media content like MP3s etc. You can visually tell the difference in the transport interface. The app version has bookmark and mail icons at each end of the controller, which are lacking in the non-app version. When I find myself watching a video in the non-app version, I’ve come to learn that I won’t be able to conveniently bookmark it or share it via email. But it’d be nice if you could. OS 3.0 promises YouTube user account log-in with access to channels and subscriptions. Perhaps YouTube might eventually offer the ability to access your account-based viewing history from any device. But for now, at the very least, it’d be a step forward to maintain bookmarked Favorites on the iPhone regardless where you clicked the YouTube URL.
There remain two fundamentals to the iPhone OS that are still unavailable to the user and, although their absence is frustrating, I can understand why they aren’t yet apparent. I’m referring of course to a global sync mechanism and a common file system. Currently individual apps are forced to roll their own solutions to both of these. I fully appreciate why sandboxing app data/documents is a security priority for Apple in order to prevent possible malicious apps getting their grubby hands on your personal data. But the fact that several of my third-party iPhone apps each need their own sync conduit app on the desktop feels like reinventing (and reinstalling) the wheel. It means that if I want to get a simple text file on my iPhone - to choose a very rudimentary example - I usually need to jump through several hoops. I currently use wifi connection app Air Sharing to punt such documents to my iPhone. In essence it is a read-only file browser. If I want to edit that text file on-the-go… well, forget it. With OS 3.0, I’ll be able to cut and paste its contents into an email or note but then it ceases to be the original file.
At least wifi file access is more evolved than the dependence on iTunes for syncing. One day we’ll all be living in ‘the cloud’ when bandwidth and storage will be effectively limitless. Then we’ll look back at technology like iPhone OS 3.0 like we do at grainy black and white film of people using early telephones, cranking a handle and saying ‘Operator?’
Might even have decent editable media playlists by then too.