The Best Phone in the World?

The good

  • Stunning display
  • Full technical compatibility with BMW’s in-car Bluetooth telephone interface
  • Uses iTunes to manage music content
  • Thinner than the Motorola Razr
  • Replaces several devices (great for travel)

The jury is out

  • “Innovative” multitouch user interface (slow for typing)
  • Only uses iTunes to manage music content

The bad

  • Wi-Fi from iPhone causes in-car interference
  • No 3G
  • No stereo Bluetooth
  • Limited storage for a music player
  • $399 price with two-year AT&T contract (was originally $599)
  • “Locked” to a single mobile operator (AT&T)
  • No flat rate international data plan
  • No insurance available

What’s missing

  • Cure for in-car interference from Wi-Fi (besides turning off Wi-Fi)
  • Multimedia messaging
  • 3G

Even before the iPhone was introduced at Macworld 2007, the world (not limited to Mac aficionados) couldn’t contain the excitement. What would the iPhone look like? What features would it have? How much storage? What would the interface be like?

One thing was not a secret: the iPhone combines a mobile phone, widescreen iPod with touch control, and a PDA in one lightweight handheld device – and it would be different from anything previously available.

In launching the iPhone this past June, Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, told the world: “iPhone is a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone. We are all born with the ultimate pointing device — our fingers — and iPhone uses them to create the most revolutionary user interface since the mouse.”

BMW: MEET THE IPHONE

BMW quickly got on the iPhone bandwagon, sending out a news release announcing full iPhone compatibility with Bluetooth-equipped BMWs a few days after the iPhone’s launch. BMW promises compatibility on “most” BMW Assist-equipped models with Bluetooth handsfree calling manufactured starting in October 2004 (for the 7er as of March 2005 production). In addition, BMW promised compatibility for the “6FL” factory iPod/USB interface (http://www.bmwcca.org/node/7241) but was silent on the dealer-installed MOST bus interface for the iPod.

BMW was the first auto maker to offer an iPod connection in its cars as well as the first to offer Bluetooth for in-car handsfree calling.

In the car, the phone itself is easy to use, both as a phone and a music player. The driver can make and receive phone calls from the MFL (Multifunktion Lenkrad or steering wheel) as well as from iDrive or the MID (Multi-Information Display), depending on how the car is equipped. If the car has Voice Command functionality, this can be used to place calls as well. The iPhone clearly differentiates between home, work, and mobile numbers by displaying “home,” “work,” and “mobile” on the car’s display. Drivers in BMWs with iDrive and a CCC (Car Communication Computer) can utilize the car’s speech-to-text conversion and specify the location by saying either “Dial Franz Klammer home” or “Dial Franz Klammer mobile.”

To use as a music player, simply use the iPod adapter cable, which provides full integration. The cable has an iPod docking connector on one end and separate cables on the other end for connection to the vehicle’s AUX IN jack and USB connector. This permits full control via the iDrive display or MID. BMW owners will find the iPod experience far more satisfying with iDrive because the Bordmonitor provides full information and makes navigation through the iPod’s music content that much easier. We haven’t tested the iPhone with the MOST bus adapter but we will do so shortly and report.

REVOLUTIONARY?

The iPhone, as revolutionary as it appears, is not the first touchscreen of its kind. LG and HTC beat Apple to the punch with the Prada and Touch respectively (curiously enough, Apple introduced the iPod touch a few weeks ago, no word yet from the trademark attorneys on this). But the iPod wasn’t the first music player either; it just turned out to be the coolest, easiest to use device with better infrastructure (iTunes) behind it. The iPhone ups the ante in the mobile phone multi-function space, with optical-quality glass and a 3.5″ display, and software that allows users to control the iPhone with a tap, flick, or pinch of the fingers. However clever this may be, the lack of a real (thumb-operated) keyboard may be a glaring weakness, as more and more users see such devices as e-mail and SMS appliances. Although some claim lightning speeds, I have found that I can type out a message much faster on a BlackBerry or Palm with full keyboard and that I only make errors when using the iPhone.

Apple isn’t the first to provide visual voicemail, either. A quick search using Google revealed that dozens of companies already offer what Apple calls an “industry first”; in fact, I have been using SimulSays, a free, downloadable visual voicemail application for newer BlackBerry devices, that provides functionality virtually identical to what Apple delivers with the iPhone.

The iPhone, introduced with a choice of four or eight gigabytes of storage (the four gigabyte model was discontinued recently), won’t replace most people’s iPods, since many users have filled their 30- or 80-gigabyte drives with favorite music.

And the corporate world isn’t quite rolling out the welcome mat either. Many companies and government agencies don’t like iPods to begin with, since they see them as just another external storage device that could allow a person to walk out the door with gigabytes of confidential information.

CAVEATS
Many drivers, myself included, experienced significant interference and poor voice quality when using the iPhone in the car. This was largely resolved by turning off the iPhone’s Wi-Fi radio, which apparently causes the interference. However, because Wi-Fi is an essential piece of the puzzle, having to turn it on and off is inconvenient and Apple should come up with a better solution to eliminate such interference.

Many purchasers of the iPhone may not realize the ins and outs of how the phone works, especially when it comes to the data side. The media (for one example, see the New York Times) is full of recent reports that Apple iPhone customers found thousands of dollars of data roaming charges on their bills when they traveled internationally, even though they didn’t use the phone to check mail (it checks mail automatically). BlackBerry users can sign up for a flat monthly rate for international roaming; this is not available to iPhone users. Disable your e-mail feature if you don’t want to see a bill that would eat up half of your European Delivery savings on a new BMW.

The iPhone is only available with a two-year AT&T contract and comes locked to that mobile operator. [There are ways of unlocking it, both via hardware and software , which would allow its use with other mobile operators, but these are not sanctioned by Apple or AT&T and could void the iPhone’s warranty.] If you are not an AT&T customer, you may incur penalties if you terminate the contract with your current mobile operator before it is over.

THE VERDICT

Apple is likely to introduce cheaper, faster, iPhones with more storage in the coming six months. If you love the interface and can’t wait, it will mate with your BMW quite nicely. Just remember to turn the Wi-Fi off.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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