The obligatory iPhone post: I love my Treo

I’m a big Mac fan. I’ve been into Macs since my dad bought the original 128K Mac. I regularly read Mac news sites, especially John Gruber’s excellent Daring Fireball. And yet, despite all the hype, I don’t see an iPhone in my future– even if the price comes down.

The fact of the matter is that I love my Treo. And I love it for many of the things that Apple is rejecting. It has great physical buttons; I can play Astraware Sudoku comfortably with one hand while holding a sleeping baby in the other hand– at times without looking at the screen. I have appointments in my calendar dating back to 1997 and recipes dating back nearly as far. If I really want to geek out, I can write little Lisp programs with it. And it plays a text adventure written by my friend Seebs. Last week I bought a Spanish dictionary for it. The iPhone, on the other hand, will only have limited capabilities to run third-party software. How limited, Apple won’t say.

The fact of the matter is that the cell phone market isn’t like the PC market or the pre-iPod music player market. Apple isn’t the only company in the world that does good design work. Apple has been able to excel by not making the sorts of mistakes that technology companies often make.

The main mistake is to think of features only. Features before function and features before fashion leads to features without fun. If getting to a feature is annoying or frustrating, people won’t use it. Apple’s signature is to simplify a design until it looks more like a slab of plastic or metal than a device with buttons. And they also like to shrink a device to unimaginable proportions.

In fact, that same design aesthetic is what launched the Palm Pilot. Apple’s own product, the Newton, was a technological tour-de-force with an incredibly sophisticated operating system. But it was slightly too big (the size of a paperback) and the handwriting recognition required legible handwriting. The Palm Pilot, like the original iPod, was lambasted by critics for being too limited. It had no printer port and rather than recognizing handwriting, it had a funny language for entering text. But it took over the handheld market because it was had a long bettery life, synchronized well with computers, felt good in one hand, and–most crucial– fit in a shirt pocket.

The cell phone market is one which trades in Apple’s strengths: highly integrated software and hardware, design that makes a fashion statement, and top-notch usability. Microsoft couldn’t penetrate the market for the longest time because they forgot what Nokia and Palm never do: that the phone must work flawlessly as a phone, first and foremost.

So why is it that, after Steve Job’s demo, everyone is complaining about how hard cell phones are to use? (Strangest to me is the claim that it’s too hard to insert phone numbers, since just about every cell phone will offer to add a number after every call, sometimes including the caller ID info.) Part of the answer is wishful thinking: typing on these things isn’t as nice as using a full-sized keyboard, and we can hope (despite early reports to the contrary) that Apple’s solution is better. And every new technology sounds better before you try it. But Apple does have an advantage that Palm and Nokia don’t. Integration.

One of the cool features of the iPhone is voice mail as a graphical application. That’s something that every cell phone could do and should do. And don’t think that the manufacturers haven’t thought of it. The problem is that they need buy-in from the cellular providers. And the cellular providers don’t care enough to handle the technical hurdles. From the demo, it’s not clear if the voice mail goes over the cell network, the messaging network, or the Internet. If it’s the Internet, you’re dead in the water if you don’t buy that additional service. I don’t have Internet service on my Treo, and I’m glad I don’t need it.

There are lots of chicken-and-egg issues in the cell phone business. Cell phone makers don’t want to sell to only one provider, so they don’t work with one provider to add special services. Meanwhile, providers in the US often disable features they don’t like. Apple, being a newcomer with a huge amount of clout, was able to cut a deal with Cingular to provide a phone with all sorts of integrated services.

A second issue, specific to Palm, is the Palm OS. Once it was a paragon of simplicity. Now it’s under-capable. Not just that, but Palm, trying to be the next Microsoft, split into a software company and a hardware company. Long story short, Palm (the hardware company) hasn’t always had control over Palm OS. And the latest phones need PC-style multitasking capabilities. Palm isn’t there yet. Manufacturers which use Linux are there. (If you strip away the desktop user interface, it takes a hard core geek to tell Mac OS from Linux. On a cell phone, Mac OS has no particular advantage.)

So the iPhone has two distinct advantages: no legacy, and tight integration with Cingular. In terms of making a cell phone with an easy-to-use and flashy interface, that’s a big advantage. But seeing as Verizon has better customer service and better coverage around here than Cingular, and seeing as I’m enjoying my ability to use my old Palm apps (and would hate to loose my recipes!) I’ll be sticking with Palm for the forseeable future.

I expect that the iPhone will shake up the industry in a good way. Expect to see graphical voice mail everywhere in a few years. I just hope Palm weathers the competition (which is not just from Apple right now) and comes back fighting.