My Initial iPhone 4 Questions (Lots of Them!)

By  |  Monday, June 7, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Apple holds the most carefully-choreographed product launches on the planet–but boy, did the gremlins in charge of messing up tech demos have fun with this one. The fact that much of the reality that Steve Jobs planned to distort was revealed a few weeks ahead of time was only the beginning. The presentation itself was interrupted by the same type of crippling Internet-access glitches I’m accustomed to witnessing at other industry events–such as last month’s Google I|O–but which Apple has seemed immune to until now.  (I always assumed it had a top-secret method for pumping a wired T1 connection directly into an iPhone.)

Given the circumstances, today’s WWDC 2010 keynote was…not bad. Nearly all the major news had slipped out via Gizmodo or other sources, but it was still worthwhile to actually see the dang phone–especially its super-high-resolution display–and hear Apple confirm every apparent fact about it. There were some medium-sizes surprises, such as the built-in version of iMovie and the gyroscope. And until today, all we knew about the app known as FaceTime was that the front-facing camera was a sure tipoff that it existed in some form.

As usual, I came out of the event with as many questions as answers, which I’m taking as a sign that today’s unveiling was more than an unavoidable formality. After the break, some of the items that are on my mind.

How big a deal is the new display over the long run? In the demo area I visited after the keynote, it was a knockout–the text was some of the crispest I’ve ever seen on any device that wasn’t made out of ink and paper.  My hope is that it’s going to make reading books on the iPhone’s screen a lot easier on the eyeballs. And I’m already wondering how long it’ll be until the iPad catches up with the iPhone 4’s dots-per-inch figure.

Is the iPhone 4 going to feel fast? It packs a version of the A4 CPU that helps make the iPad feel so zippy. But Jobs didn’t tout the phone as a faster handset than the 3GS. He did quote impressively better battery life figures, so presumably the A4 is tweaked for efficiency over maximum theoretical performance. For what it’s worth, in the few minutes I played with an iPhone 4 after the keynote, it felt speedy. But it didn’t feel any speedier than the 3GS, whose performance advantage over the 3G was instantly obvious.

The emphasis on longer battery life over raw horsepower makes for a striking comparison with Google’s Android 2.2, an upgrade in which the big news is major speed gains over Android 2.1. I haven’t tried a Nexus One running 2.2 yet, but am already curious whether it feels quicker than the iPhone 4.

Are FaceTime and iMovie for iPhone as good as they look? Hope so–they look like they have the potential to be two of the best iPhone apps that Apple or anybody else has released to date.

How big a limitation is it that FaceTime only works from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4 (for now), and only over Wi-Fi (for now)? To hear Jobs and Apple design honcho Jony Ive tell it, the idea of video calls hopped directly from Jetsonian science fiction to reality in the form of FaceTime. Um, even if FaceTime is the slickest and easiest video chat to date, the idea has been around on phones for years in one form or another. If FaceTime is a breakout hit, it won’t be because it’s video chat–it’ll be because it’s great video chat. And I’m curious: Can a video call app be transcendent if it’s nowhere near as pervasive as something like Skype, and only works when you’re in the vicinity of Wi-Fi?

Will other companies embrace FaceTime as a standard? Submitting FaceTime as an open standard makes sense from a PR standpoint–Apple is clearly tired of the rap the iPhone has gotten for being a proprietary, standards-avoiding walled garden. (Jobs’ presentation felt more defensive than usual, and he also argued that complaints about the iPhone app approval process are overblown.) But making FaceTime open is also a move that’s in keeping with long-standing Apple tradition: From FireWire to Wi-Fi to WebKit, the company has a pretty impressive track record of getting worthwhile standards rolling. It’s in its own best interest to popularize FaceTime–the more people you can video-call from an iPhone 4G, the more likely you are to buy one.

How will people react to the new industrial design? The original iPhone was a good-looking handset. The iPhone 3G was a step backwards, since it lost its metal backside in favor of more reception-friendly plastic. The iPhone 3GS looked exactly like the 3G. And the iPhone 4 is a major departure from all the iPhones before it. It’s a striking-looking beast, with distinctive curves, angles, and surface sheen–you’ve got to see it before registering an informed opinion. I’m pretty sure that Apple wasn’t going for a design that would be universally adored.

How sturdy is the new design? The glass that Apple makes the fronts of iPhones out of is remarkably sturdy stuff; the plastic backs, however, are susceptible to cracks (at least if you knock your phone around as much as I do). I’m hoping that the 4’s all-glass-and-steel construction will make it uncommonly durable. (I have the sneaking suspicion my pals at PCWorld will attempt to find out.)

Will Netflix on the iPhone breed AT&T pricing-change discontent? The app that was demoed looked nifty–nifty enough that I can imagine Netflix devotees watching it a lot over the course of a month. But new iPhone 4 buyers who aren’t grandfathered into flat-rate data won’t be able to gorge on Netflix when they’re away from Wi-Fi: AT&T’s own example of the activities you can complete on its $25 Data Pro plan include 200 minutes of video. That works out to less than seven minutes a day.

(More and more, my take on AT&T’s pricing shift is: “The new plans are almost certainly sufficient for how you use a smartphone today, but in the long run, it’s how you’ll use a smartphone tomorrow that matters.”

What’s next for the iPod Touch? When the iPhone 4 hits the streets, it’ll be so strikingly different and better than the Touch will feel a lot less like “an iPhone without the phone.” I hope/guess that it might catch up at the iPod-centric event which Apple is likely to hold in September or thereabouts.

What’s the deal with Bing? Adding a major search engine to Mobile Safari’s options makes sense simply from the standpoint of making as many people as possible happy. But is Apple trying to tell still-the-default-search-engine Google anything?

Why the Wi-Fi meltdown at Moscone? I kind of assumed it was the plethora of MiFi mobile hotspots in the audience. So, apparently, did Steve Jobs–he said there were more than five hundred hotspots in the room, which would mean that about ten percent of the attendees had a MiFi, a Palm Pre, a Sprint EVO 4G, or another device capable of delivering Internet access over Wi-Fi. But James Kendrick of the excellent mobile blog JK on the Run isn’t so sure.

Was this the last Apple event anyone will liveblog? When Steve Jobs couldn’t get his Safari image-quality comparison to work, he asked attendees to turn off their Wi-Fi connections and put their laptops on the floor–and he specifically included bloggers in his request. Some complied, others didn’t; I kept blogging, since I was using a MiFi connected directly to my notebook via USB, and was therefore positive I wasn’t mucking up Steve’s Wi-Fi. I’m already curious what measures Apple will take to ensure smoother proceedings onstage next time around. (Then again, I may just be paranoid–I attended one Apple event a few years ago and left convinced that the company had somehow blocked cellular signals for the duration of its presentation.)

Why no Mac stuff? We knew this would be an iPhone-centric event, but I expected at least a nod to Apple’s most venerable platform. Nope–you could have attended this event and left unaware that the company makes traditional computing devices, even though Safari 5 was released today for both OS X and Windows. More thoughts about this in another post soon.

What’s the deal with the Verizon iPhone? Actually, scratch that one–I’m sick of writing about the whole topic. But if you have thoughts about it–or anything else relating to things that were or weren’t announced today–I’d love to hear them.


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8 Comments For This Post

  1. Wendy Sheehan Donnell Says:

    Another FaceTime question: Will video chat count against your voice minutes?

  2. ashish Says:

    If it works only on wifi, I am almost sure that it won’t count against your voice minutes.

  3. jb Says:

    James Kendrick might run an “excellent mobile blog”, but he knows absolutely nothing about 2.4 GHz wireless tech. 570 different networks running on only 11 channels, of which only 3 don’t share spectrum with neighboring channels, result in an absolutely astounding amount of interference that a network chip has to process and subsequently discard. The fact that the spec’d acceptable-use range for a MiFi is only 30 feet means jack with regard to its capacity for generating massive amounts of interfering signals, especially since network radios have to try harder to interpret weak signals before they realize that they do not belong to the correct BSSID.

    Unfortunately, Apple could not use the comparatively sparsely-populated and widely-spaced 5 GHz spectrum because the iPhone 4 inexplicably only supports 2.4 GHz 802.11n networks.

  4. Brandon Backlin Says:

    I would expect FaceTime to become an API before it becomes an open standard.

    I really like the new industrial design, especially how it’s Photoshop’d (or Apertured) on the new design page. It really highlights the mentality behind the new design. Quite good. But instead of calling it a “Retina Display”, just say it’s a high-resolution IPS display. That conveys directly what it is, instead of mystifying the new screen with marketing terms. Not to mention, tech terms are becoming more marketing-friendly anyway.

  5. John Baxter Says:

    For what it’s worth, Paul Thurrott noted a “major network outage” at TechEd today. It’s catching.

  6. John Says:

    Te link for “my pals at PCWorld [will attempt to find out]” has the text from another point (“Why no Mac stuff?”). I regretted the same absence myself…

  7. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    > display

    This is the first 21st century display. 300 dpi in a display is like 20-20,000 Hz in audio, which arrived with the CD 30 years ago and is still the consumer standard. The 300 dpi display matches the human eye’s resolution and 20-20,000 Hz audio matches the ear’s frequency range. Going to better qualities than this has severely diminishing returns.

    Plus, they bonded the touchscreen to the display so the display is flush up against your fingers, not slightly recessed as in other devices. It feels better and there is less refraction from the glass.

    > A4

    An iPhone 3GS running iOS v4 is faster than a Nexus One running Android v2.2, in spite of the Nexus One having almost double the clock speed and more RAM. Android v2.2 is fast compared to v2.1, but it’s not fast. iPhone 4 is quite a bit faster than 3GS. iOS will generally perform better because it has compiled C apps, not JIT Java applets, and years more sophistication in the core OS, and is always tuned for the hardware.

    Also, if you install Flash on Android v2.2 you slow it down considerably.

    > FaceTime

    The reason they were talking about FaceTime as if it is bigger than iPhone 4 is because it is bigger than iPhone 4. As usual, it doesn’t matter that another phone had a front-facing camera first, because those vendors failed to actually create a complete solution, and so users failed to use it. As Jobs said, Apple didn’t just put in a front camera, they also did 18 months of software development to make video calls actually work.

    Key differences:

    * zero setup, you simply place a voice call as usual, and if a FaceTime call is possible, you get a video call instead … in other words this is not “video chat” but rather “video calls”

    * Apple is submitting FaceTime for open standardization, and it’s based on technology that mobiles already have like H.264 and AAC, so it has the potential to be widely adopted and create the first vendor-neutral community of video callers … it’s not closed, like Skype or Nokia video chats

    * Apple will ship 10-20 million iPhones with FaceTime before the end of 2010, outselling all other video phones by far, and to a global user base, creating a network effect that makes people want FaceTime in their phones, no matter what manufacturer

    > the company has a pretty impressive track record of getting worthwhile standards rolling

    Also USB, EFI, MPEG-4, H.264, AAC, Bonjour, Podcasts, HTML5, and OpenGL. Even GSM in the US, with AT&T building out GSM 3G to run iPhone 3G and Verizon building out GSM 4G so they can run iPhone 4G.

    Most of the people who complain about Apple being nonstandard are from the PC industry where proprietary monopolies are valued over actual standards. For example, IE over W3C, Flash over HTML5, WebM over MPEG-4, DOS over Unix, CDMA over GSM. They look only at the PC industry and say Apple is nonstandard, but if you back up one step you see Apple is following the standards of consumer electronics or phones or music and movies and so on. People used to complain that iPods played “proprietary” AAC instead of “standard” Windows Media Audio! Bizarro standards.

    > Wi-Fi meltdown

    500 hotspots in one room lead to trouble and there are people who are skeptical of that?

    iPhone 3GS runs “g” and in the demo was on a g-only network, which dealt with the interference by slowing to a crawl. iPhone 4 runs “n” which is shorter range, and in the demo was on an n-only network, which dealt with the interference by not working. They needed all the g networks in the room to just clear the air so their n network could function. It didn’t help that everyone blogged “Steve is having Wi-Fi problems,” all at the same time.

    Yes, it’s the last event with live blogging. I think they will bring back a single live broadcast.

    > Mac

    We’re halfway through Snow Leopard and 75% of the way through the Leopard era. Decelopers are simply supposed to get their apps to 64-bit ASAP. Nothing to see here.

    > Verizon

    The same GSM iPhone 4G (not 4) will run on both AT&T and Verizon and a hundred order carriers worldwide along with iPad 4G.

  8. Alan Says:

    After hearing Apple tell us how strong the iPhone 4's front and back glass displays are I was all set to leave my new phone naked and unprotected. To the iPhone’s credit the scratch isn’t noticeable in day to day use and only seen under direct light but it’s there nonetheless.

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