The Business Traveler’s Take on the iPhone 5

I received my iPhone 5 last week, and was excited to upgrade from my aging iPhone 4. I travel regularly for business, and my phone is a key tool as I traipse around the world.

The internet is rife with detailed technical reviews of the new iPhone, but I wanted to put together a some brief thoughts for those that are considering the iPhone 5 as a business tool, particularly those who travel frequently.

Hardware

Like most previous iPhones, the iPhone 5 looks nice. With the width being the same, and the device being a touch thinner, the increased height goes almost unnoticed in your hand. The phone is also a bit lighter, adding to the feeling that the larger screen comes with no perceived size penalty. I find the lightness of the device attractive, and have never understood the equation of weight with quality. If you’ve ever held a well-built titanium part, that’s about what the new iPhone feels like: uncannily light but well-built. I personally find the back of my white iPhone 5 with it’s overly shiny lettering and branding to look a bit chintzy, but I’ve never been accused of being fashionable so take than with a grain of salt.

The larger screen is a nice addition, particularly for reading. I often use my phone to catch up on books, news, and the WSJ, and the longer screen makes this a nicer experience. When reading, one really doesn’t notice apps that aren’t yet optimized for the larger screen (more about that later).

Supposedly there’s more “magic and revolutionary” in this new screen than the iPhone 4, and it seemed slightly nicer to me in terms of how it renders colors, but nothing earth shattering.

Speed

Yup, it’s faster than the iPhone 4. In some areas like loading certain applications, the speed increase is fairly dramatic. Not Earth-shattering, but certainly noticeable. Superlatives aside, this really is a noticeable benefit.

Passbook

Much ado has been made about Apple’s toe dipped into the world of mobile payments in the form of Passbook, a document/coupon/loyalty card storage application. For me, it’s essentially useless at this point. A couple of airlines I don’t regularly fly (United and American) are the only travel-related offerings, as are a bunch of stores I don’t really frequent.

When you open the application, you essentially get a “hey, this doesn’t do anything until you add apps” screen. Like all the mobile wallet systems, there’s promise, but little current benefit. In theory, Passbook has some neat features whereby it will figure out when you’re at the airport and make your boarding pass available on the lock screen, saving a few taps, but until US Air hops on board I generally won’t use it.

From a technology standpoint, it’s a bit disappointing Apple is essentially adding one more standard to an increasingly convoluted mix. While 5 million units sold during “opening weekend” is motivation to jump aboard Apple’s bandwagon, I think it will be another 5-10 years before mobile wallets are commonly used, and vendors now need to wonder whether they support Apple’s closed standard, Google’s “standard” or just stick with cross-platform tools like current mobile boarding passes that rely on the web browser.

Maps

Ahhh, the red-headed stepchild of the iPhone 5: Maps. Without beating a dead horse, Apple has taken some justified flack for its maps app. For a US-based business traveller, thus far I find Apple Maps to be helpful. You get more information about points of interest, and direct links to Yelp, which is a key tool for me as I seek food options on the road.

In terms of navigation, the iPhone goes from no inbuilt navigation, to a reasonably competent system, assuming the location you’re trying to navigate to exists in its database. This is the big flaw in Apple Maps: it looks nice and works reasonably well from a functional standpoint, but the data isn’t up to Google Maps quality. Exit numbers on major roads are incorrect, and handy details like exact building locations aren’t present in Apple’s mapping program.

Where things get particularly nasty is for the international traveler. I rely heavily on mapping when visiting a foreign city, and Google Maps has rarely let me down from Tulsa, to Thessaloniki, to Tianjin. Maps are detailed and accurate, and this has literally changed my travel experience. I can wander a foreign city aimlessly, and know that Google Maps will get me back to my hotel. Some preliminary browsing of foreign cities in Apple Maps paints a less rosy picture. The absence of public transit, something I’m more likely to partake in internationally is a glaring miss, and the level of detail Google provides in places like China seems to be missing. At this point I wouldn’t fully trust Apple Maps for an afternoon of wandering in a non-US or Western European city.

Siri

I was looking forward to Siri, a feature absent on the iPhone 4. The idea of an semi-intelligent robotic assistant is quite compelling, and something I’ve been following and yearning after for decades (although I wish we’d get the flying car out of the way first). Apple’s commercials make Siri look like an amazing tool for the harried traveler, but my experience has been a bit less impressive.

While it has only been a few days, Siri is batting around 0.300 for me, accurately fulfilling my request about 30% of the time. She’s diligently created a couple of reminders, but struggles mightily with transcribing emails or text messages to the point that it’s faster to enter them manually. She’s also failed several seemingly simple queries (like “When is the Beijing marathon”), and occasionally takes 2-8 seconds to “process” what I’ve said, or gets stuck in an infinite “processing” cycle, so she’s rapidly bumping against the point of diminishing returns.

I love the smart assistant concept, and thus far have been slightly more impressed with Android on this one. A recently-acquired Android phone prompted me that it seemed I muted my phone before going to bed each night, and asked if it should automatically mute at bedtime, and only allow calls from emergency contacts. I find that sort of functionality far more intelligent and helpful than telling bad jokes during celebrity TV commercials.

In both cases, at least this type of functionality is finally moving out of the labs and into the public, where it will presumably only get better.

Battery, Lightening, and Network

The battery in the iPhone 5 seems up to snuff for a full business day, and I’ve managed to go from 6AM to 11PM with around 20% left in the tank. The negative of course is that Apple’s new “Lightening” connector precludes you from borrowing a colleagues cable, or taking advantage of the ubiquitous iPhone docks now present in many hotels. There’s also an absolute dearth of accessories at the moment, so no adding an external battery or battery case unless it’s a “generic” USB unit. This will presumably change in the coming months, and again, the sales numbers of the iPhone 5 certainly bode well for a diverse aftermarket. I do find the new connector easier to use, and less annoying to pack, so the new connector is a positive in the long run, but a negative in the here and now, especially when I have a drawer full of “old” Apple cables, and the new Lightening cables border on highway robbery at their current $40 a whack.

On the data side, yep, the 4G/LTE stuff is actually faster, and in some cases startlingly so, particularly when downloading attachments. I can’t say my life was particularly lacking when I had to wait a whopping 8 seconds to download a picture or email attachment, but that same download now takes less than a second.

Closing thoughts and Apple’s Big Miss (it’s actually not maps!)

There’s a lot to like in Apple’s latest iPhone. The battery is solid, it uses the latest mobile networks, and checks the “lighter, faster, thinner” boxes. You also get the global network of Apple retail stores, which make for easy service and exchanges when needed, a feature I’ve used to painless exchange two defective iPhone 4’s and an often-underestimated “feature” on the Apple product.

The biggest miss in my experience is not maps, but the “letterbox” mode that accommodates applications that aren’t yet compatible with the longer screen. In this mode, black bars appear above and below the application to fill in the missing 0.5” of the older application.

Visually this is no problem, and for apps where you’re not typing all is well. The problem comes when you need to type. The black bar at the bottom of the screen moves the keyboard up a few millimeters, and thus changes the location of all the keys. I’m not a touch-typist on these tiny keyboards, but apparently my brain naturally expects certain things, for instance that the space bar is located at the border of the screen. My typing on the new phone grows noticeably worse when I switch between “old” and new apps, due to the keyboard moving up or down. This is a major productivity killer in my mind.

While this will be alleviated to some extent as apps update for the newer screen size, I would imagine it’s something that we’ll be stuck with to a large extent, and something that will make typing on this device sub-optimal. I hope Apple will correct this by putting all the “filler” for legacy apps on the top of the screen, so the keyboard stays in the same place, but I would imagine the company’s preference for the visual will win out over the needs of boring pragmatists that want to write things rather than gaze at pretty pictures.

Some of the major negatives are imminently fixable, and part of the early adopter penalty. The problems with Apple Maps are primarily around it’s data, something stored “in the cloud” that will presumably improve rather rapidly. The dearth of accessories will certainly improve, and I hope Apple with revisit it’s “moving keyboard” problem. If you like Apple products and own an older iPhone, the iPhone 5 seems like a sure winner for the business traveller, although you may consider waiting a few months if you’re troubled by the current problems, most of which should soon be things of the past.

The iPhone 4S: Strategic move or chinks in the King’s armor?

Apple announced it’s latest iPhone, the iPhone 4S, largely to critical comments from a press corps expecting the iPhone 5, and entirely new device. The phone is a gussied-up version of the company’s iPhone 4, and hardware-wise offers better “feature porn”: more gigahertz, gigabytes, and megapixels while remaining outwardly the same. The company’s flagship operating system, iOS received several noteworthy updates, but again many were evolutionary rather than magical.

The usual superlative-laced commentary was on offer, with Apple introducing “pioneering” antenna diversity, which my 1991 Nissan Maxima also prominently featured. For gadget lovers, the announcement was largely a let down, but seems a repeat of the company’s prior strategy to carefully manage new releases, essentially selling the same customer two devices, a “major” and “minor” release of sorts, rather than a single major release.

The one problem with this strategy is that the mobile world has changed quite a bit since Apple “refreshed” the iPhone 3G with the iPhone 3GS. For one thing, there are now four major mobile operating systems: Android, iOS, Windows Mobile, and Blackberry OS (the latter being debatable). When Apple introduced the 3GS, Android was still a new kid on the block, Microsoft was irrelevant, and Blackberry was looking a bit long in the tooth for a “smart” OS. The iPhone 3GS was a Porsche in a world of Hondas, but in October of 2011 it might be a Porsche in a world of Ferraris and Lamborghinis. An iPhone that looks the same as last years model sitting next to the latest Android with a larger screen and newer hardware makes the average consumer pause before automatically checking the iPhone box.

While I have no insider information and am going off pure speculation here, I would guess some combination of three factors are at work here:

  1. Apple is either trying to milk customers with an interim upgrade, knowing that some of those customers will buy whatever the company puts out. Good for shareholders, bad for consumers.
  2. The iPhone 5 simply isn’t ready, and Apple is sweating bullets wondering if incremental upgrades can ward off the Android assault.
  3. Apple has become arrogant or too inwardly focused, and thinks it will retain the #1 position by playing it safe.