iPhone vs PPC-6700 January 10, 2007Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Communication, Computers, iPhone, Music, PPC-6700, smartphone, Technology.
Yes, I know the iPhone is six months away from shipping. Even so, Steve Jobs’ keynote address at Macworld yesterday has already shaken up the phone industry (the three largest manufacturers of “smart phones” all saw stock drops of 2-8% yesterday, while Apple went up 8%).
Until June, few outside of Apple, Cingular, and the FCC will have any “real world” experience with the iPhone, but in watching the presentation yesterday, I noted several ways that this product addresses serious shortcomings in the PPC-6700, my current phone. Since much of the “so what… big deal” talk that’s coming out in response to the iPhone surrounds some of the touch-screen features, and since many of the “oohhhh… ahhhh” features of the iPhone were prime selling points for the PPC-6700, it seems reasonable to compare these two devices directly, far more than any other “smart phone” that I’ve seen on the market.
Lastly, since the price-points are very close ($499-599), the iPhone is clearly aiming at the same market. Instead of posting in the usual way, where I’ll work on an article for several days (a few minutes at a time, I’m writing and editing this as I go. I’ll break this apart using the feature sets that Jobs used yesterday during the keynote, and then close out with what I feel truly sets the iPhone apart.
Before the Fun Begins…
Consider this quote that I just found from Palm CEO Ed Colligan:
Responding to questions from New York Times correspondent John Markoff at a Churchill Club breakfast gathering Thursday morning, Colligan laughed off the idea that any company — including the wildly popular Apple Computer — could easily win customers in the finicky smart-phone sector.
“We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone,” he said. “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.”
Interestingly, Palm’s stock closed yesterday at $13.92 U.S., down 84Â¢. [9:16am]
A Media Player
It’s not hard to imagine using the PPC-6700 as a music player, given that it ships with Windows Media Player [WMP] for Windows Mobile. As you would expect, it’s fully capable of playing videos and music files compatible with the WMP formats. Unfortunately, it’s not clear where Microsoft is going with music, given that the Zune has abandoned the “Plays for Sure” format. At this point, it doesn’t look like the PPC-6700 will be compatible with Zune tunes, specifically because of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technicalities..
Now if you decided to use the 6700 as an media player anyway, the amazing lack of built-in memory (43.5 MB of storage memory… max) forces you to consider upgrading with a mini-SD card. Considering that those are running $60-80 for 2GB card, upgrading the $400 phone doesn’t make nearly as much sense as buying one of the smaller MP3 players (particularly since you can get something like the iPod Shuffle, which is tiny and clips onto your clothes, for $79). It’s true that devices in that price range aren’t going to play movies, but a 2GB card isn’t going to provide enough storage for the 6700 do store anything substantial either.
In sharp contrast, the iPhone appears to be quite capable as a MP3 player, with the 4GB and 8GB versions more suited to music than video (unless you’re talking about loading up a movie or two for a plane flight). And while I’m on the fence about using a touch-screen for iPod-like interaction (I rarely look at my 30GB iPod to adjust volume, skip tracks, or pause the music, since I can feel the ridge of the touchwheel), it is simply not possible for the user interface of WMP to be any less appropriate for a mobile device. Regardless of tactile issues, the touchscreen UI of the iPhone appears superior to the 6700 for music, even if it is unclear if this is a step backward compared to the UI of the current generation iPods.
As a media device, the iPhone is (at least) on par with any other MP3/video player (even the screen is now at a size & resolution that compares well), including the Zune, and is far superior to most. Compared to the 6700… well, at least the 6700 is a phone… right? [10:00am]
A Cell Phone
As a cell phone, the PPC-6700 is… average, based on the following “phone tasks”: Initiating a call (to new, previously dialed, or saved numbers), answering a call, using the speakerphone, and using a headset (wired or Bluetooth). Instead of running through each of these scenarios, and then considering the iPhone alternatives, I’m going to intersperse the two.
First, let’s look at how you initiate a call. Out of the box, I turned on the 6700, pressed the “phone button” (lower left of the joystick), and started punching the touchscreen keys. I mis-dialed the first number. Watching the keynote yesterday, I saw Jobs looking at the screen the whole time, just as I’m forced to do when I dial numbers with the keypad. This is very annoying on my phone, so the “multi-touch” technology of the iPhone would have to do something to make this more usable than a traditional keypad.
Speed-dialing (touching one number and holding it) is even worse. Now, to be fair, there is a work-around for this problem with the 6700: you slide open the keyboard and press/hold the key that corresponds to that particular number. Unfortunately, the keys for the numbers are in a straight line (top row) and there is no tactile feedback there either. As a result, you have to practice a lot to figure out which key corresponds to which number. I have almost given up using speed-dialing on this phone as a result, and would expect the iPhone to have the same issue, though without the keyboard work-around.
Voice dialing is what I need to do instead of speed-dialing. It works very well on the 6700, and even works through my H700 BT headset. I strongly suspect that the iPhone would have similar functionality, but that wasn’t demonstrated. What I would really like to see is context-sensitive speech recognition for dialing numbers. While speech recognition in general has a poor track record, many Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems have proven that if you restrict the possible values to single-digit numbers, the error rate for recognition goes way down. Sadly, the 6700 doesn’t provide this (the processor is not nearly powerful enough), and I saw no demonstration of that in the iPhone.
Looking up a number from an existing contact, or from a recent call is where I see the iPhone and the 6700 separating dramatically. With the 6700, a contact list is assumed, as are multiple numbers, but I find the contact list to be cumbersome in real-world settings, possibly because of the number of clicks necessary to get to a number. Watching Jobs scrolling through the contact list with his thumb, selecting the name with a finger or thumb, and then choosing a number to call… that made me want the iPhone, right there.
Answering a call is pretty straightforward on the 6700, and seems similar to what the iPhone does. The big difference (that I can see) is the “in call” menu for the 6700 is somewhat clunky to manage, and presumes that you’re going to use the navigation buttons at the bottom of the device, instead of using the touchscreen (which would be more intuitive). In sharp contrast, the iPhone puts the context-appropriate options right in the middle of the screen.
The speakerphone on the 6700 is not good. I wish I could put it differently, but I can’t. It’s not loud enough to use in anything other than a very quiet room. For the size of this device, I find that very frustrating (following the logic of “a bigger thing ought to get louder”). During the keynote yesterday, Jobs put the iPhone on speaker, and it was loud enough to be heard, even over the echo of the sound system, and the sounds from the audience.
Finally, the headset that comes with the 6700 seems to suggest that they expect you to use this as a media device, because it’s basically a pair of earbuds with an attached microphone (very similar to what Apple showed yesterday for the iPhone). One benefit to this is that phone calls seem to go on “inside your head” instead of in just one ear. This also compensates (somewhat) for the lack of volume in the headset. Using my Bluetooth headset, volume has never been a problem. The integration between the 6700 and the headset is very good, and I haven’t found any issues there (yet). I would expect the integration between the iPhone and Bluetooth devices to be similar, since current Mac products have handled Bluetooth reliably for years.
As a phone, the iPhone seems equal or better than the 6700. When you consider simpler navigation, and thoughtful touches like the display/touchscreen turning off when you put the phone to your ear, it’s hard for me to come to any other conclusion. [1:04pm]
An Internet Communicator
As an Internet communications device, the connectivity specs of the 6700 are very good: 802.11b WiFi, Bluetooth 1.2, IrDA Infrared, and 1X/EV-DO options. Likewise, it boasts a built-in browser (Internet Explorer), Pocket MSN (for chatting), Pocket Outlook (stripped down version of MS Office Outlook, not Outlook Express), SMS messaging, and SMTP/POP3/IMAP4/Exchange support. At first glance, it has it all.
What it doesn’t have (at least in the Sprint configuration) is integration with Sprint Picture Mail and Email/SMS messaging flexibility. With every other Sprint phone I’ve owned, I could send text messages to e-mail addresses, and Sprint’s SMS/Email gateway would automatically forward them. The 6700 doesn’t even give me that option. Likewise, there is no way to send Sprint Picture Mail. Why do I have a “Sprint Vision” account, when the primary purpose (sending/receiving camera-phone images) doesn’t work?
The only way for me to send pictures from my phone is to first connect to the Internet (using either the WiFi or EV-DO), and then connect to an SMTP server (Sprint’s works fine for this). Unfortunately, responses to one of those accounts don’t automatically notify you, so you have to periodically check those accounts, or embed a note in your message that says:
P.S. I’m sorry, but my lame geek phone won’t notify me that you’re responding to this message. Accordingly, if you respond, please CC my phone at email@example.com
Likewise, while it’s technically possible to synchronize Pocket Outlook with Microsoft Exchange Server, making that happen when you’re using a security certificate at the Exchange Server (for web access security) is an unbelievable pain. Similarly, much ballyhoo is made of Microsoft ActiveSync, which manages all of the file and data synchronization for Windows Mobile devices. What they haven’t told you is that the error codes you see (and you will see them) are cryptic, and frequently inaccurate.
There is no way to know, without hands-on use, whether the iPhone will be better or worse (in terms of execution) when it comes to connectivity. What we do know is that many of the same features were demonstrated, though the implementation was through Cingular, and therefore different front Sprint. [Updated 10:00 pm]
However, it’s clear that the iPhone intends to support SMTP/POP/IMAP4 mail systems, and given the collaborations with Yahoo (email) and Google (mapping), Apple has two partners that have both been pushing the edge of web service technology. Without question, Yahoo and Google are looking for ways to standardize things like calendars, exchangeable document formats, and so on.
In comparing the connectivity specifications, some obvious pros and cons appear. While the iPhone supports Bluetooth 2.0 (instead of 1.2), it’s cellular data connection is Cingular’s EDGE technology, which is much slower than the CDMA EV-DO networks, and does not have the extensive that Sprint has (for example). While both phones support 802.11b, the iPhone also supports 802.11g, and the correspondingly higher data rate, which becomes significant for the transfer of large files. As far as specs go, it’s a bit of a wash. While the iPhone gets high marks for GSM and SIM card functionality (great for international users)
One of my biggest annoyances with the 6700 is one of the key features that the iPhone attempts to address: the stylus-based user interface. First and foremost, I expected a stylus with a smart phone. My old Palm Pilot used one, and I fully expected it. However, in watching the demo, and the videos that Apple has posted, I can see where I might actually use the contact list somewhere other than at my desk.
Several things force me to use a stylus with the 6700. The first is the size of the icons, menus, and interface elements. For example, the contact list is just what you would expect: a simple scrolling list. Unfortunately, scrolling requires you to use the joystick button at the bottom of the phone (rather like an IBM Trackpoint button) or a stylus manipulating a traditional scrollbar. When you look at it, it’s obvious that it was designed by someone quite accustomed to scrolling list boxes on a Windows or Mac UI.
Contrast this with the “touch and flick” method shown in the iPhone demos. Apparently, they’re doing some kind of gesture recognition to distinguish between a flick and a press. I’ve watched and rewatched Jobs do this in the demos, and it’s very slick. Part of my frustration with anyone comparing the iPhone to an existing touchscreen is that there is clearly technology behind this kind of real-time input analysis that we’ve never seen used on a phone, and is most likely similar to what the Apple trackpad (and Synaptics touchpad), but taken a step further. You can see some of this in a brief patent description.
In total, when Jobs described someone as saying “you had me at scrolling,” he really did hit what I think sets the iPhone apart from my PPC-6700, and every other phone, smart or not. Will the magic of “multi-point” make touchscreens usable for keypad data entry? I don’t know, but I can imagine the possibilities. When I first saw the iPod’s clickwheel, it was tough to understand why people were so hyped about it. Then I tried it, and understood. That said, until we can put a couple of fingers on this, we won’t know for certain.
Last but not least, let me state that there is no reason to think that the iPhone’s touchscreen would be any less usable with a protective film over it, just like the one I’ve put on my 6700. All functions work as designed (if not as expected), and when the current film gets too scratched up, I’ve got a dozen more in the package.
Some Will Get It, Some Won’t
From reading various blogs, it’s easy to see that some people would not consider the iPhone, regardless of price or features. The simple fact that so many people like it forces some people toward a contrarian stance. For this group, the battery life will be too short (in spite of the fact that resynching quite naturally suggests docking the device, as I do now with my 6700… which also charges it), the form factor will be wrong (“it’s got to be a flip phone” or “anything other than a slide-out is lame”), or the touchscreen will be a deal breaker (regardless of whether they’ve ever touched it for themselves).
On the other hand, some will flock to the iPhone simply because it’s within Jobs “reality distortion field,” and they refuse to think for themselves. This position is just as bogus as the first, and will be wearing an iPhone on their hip for all the world to see, just as they make sure that their Bluetooth headset is flashing when it’s on (and they refuse to take it off, making everyone else in line at Starbucks wonder who they’re talking to), and just as they choose which car to buy based on iPod connectivity.
Finally, the remainder will look at the features, price, and functionality, and will decide for themselves. This is where I fall. Though I have no way of knowing the worldwide shipping numbers for the 6700, I think it’s safe to say that my current phone has lost a significant amount of its value, even though it seemed a great value at the beginning of December.
Whether or not the iPhone itself is successful, it seems quite certain that, like the Apple Newton (hardly a commercial success), every device that comes after it will be different because of it. That’s good news, no matter what phone you buy.