Five Random Notes on Apple and Related Topics

Yep, last evening (at midnight) was the big launch. I was home nursing a cold, but spent an entertaining day getting up to speed on my new corporate (re)org, planning for another big thing we’re doing tonight, and following the news, so I have a few personal notes on the whole thing.

1. The iPhone 3G

I am going to leave my (fortunately small) involvement in the iPhone 3G launch for my (hitherto unwritten) memoirs, but there are a few things I can share publicly and a few opinions that are eminently personal.

First off, I actually went and bought one – an 8GB – with my own money. Just so you know.

Even with it not supporting MMS messages1, and the likelihood of it being obsoleted (or considerably cheaper) by Xmas. I think of it as a way to reset the Karmic balance of my having access to pretty much any device I want and not having bought a single phone (for myself) for nearly ten years now.

Plus I’ve been wanting a personal phone (i.e., something I could call my own and not have to give back after a couple of weeks) where I could have both decent e-mail and a decent browser, and right now it is the best compromise between both requirements (there are vastly better e-mail clients, but no browser that can even begin to compete).

Whether the device will be a mobile history milestone or a lodestone, however, is not yet completely clear to me.

For starters, battery life is dismal when compared to a BlackBerry or an E71. I have a feeling I will have to completely disable push services if I want to get through a complete working day (i.e., 12h) without re-charging the thing, even if I only use the browser during my daily commutes2.

Next, it is full of irritating little pauses when I try to access my contact list, my calendar, etc. I have a feeling that it’s actually trying to check for server updates before rendering the content, which is less than ideal.

Still, it managed to sync my Exchange contact photos, which was a nice touch (the Nokia still can’t, for whatever daft reason).

And finally, it is the first Apple mobile device that feels cheap. The plastics make it lighter, sure, but the E71 and iPod Touch’s metal backs give them a sturdy, reliable feeling.

Oh, and the white model looks like a kitchen appliance (there, I’ve said it).

2. The iPod Touch Upgrade

Right now, this link goes nowehere for me (iTunes launches, but that’s it). Which is a shame, because I would not only like to upgrade my iPod Touch to fool around with the nifty iTunes remote app but also figure out if the iPhone 3G feels slower than my iPod due to the new firmware features or to more aggressive power management.

I guess I’ll know by Sunday or so.

3. The App Store

More than 500 apps, right? Just like Palm sites of old, there are plenty of apps but there are entirely too many redundant ones. I’m already seeing ad-ridden iPhone app review sites sprouting left and right, but what irks me the most is that the in-store buying experience (both on iTunes and inside the on-device store) is still confusing.

Plus, buying applications isn’t quite the same as buying content – most often you’ve already heard or seen portions of the content, but applications are a different thing. Of course you can always put up a “free” (or ad-sponsored, bandwidth-sucking) version for folk to try out, but that feels somewhat like a kludge.

And what’s with all the applications that do very little besides wrapping a web site inside them? I mean, can’t people code decent web sites or something? Or do they think that monetizing HTML wrappers will get them far in this new business?

4. MobileMe

In case you’ve been paying attention, I don’t have .Mac / MobileMe e-mail since last Sunday, and have pretty much given up on even trying to reach a live human being at Apple support for the time being.

(Last time I tried, they had finally escalated it past tier 2 support to Engineering, and it’s now been well over 24h by my reckoning and still no word.)

I have already lost a bunch of e-mail, cannot retrieve my password for at least one site (fortunately nothing too critical, but extremely annoying) and have vowed not to give out my e-mail address anywhere that I might really need to get feedback from.

But that’s not important right now. What is relevant is that I am completely underwhelmed by MobileMe so far (yes, I can access pretty much all of it except webmail, despite the site’s tendency to emulate that 60s favorite, the “Yo-Yo”:Wikipedia:Yo-Yo).

Yes, it is beautiful. But beauty without brains is a major turn-off, and there are a number of things that make the “upgrade” completely irrelevant for me.

First off, iDisk still does not support SSL (you can try diddling with the URL, but you’ll hit an Akamai SSL listener and get redirected to an error page).

I will be updating my usual article on this soon, once Mac OS X is updated on all my machines and the .Mac moniker vanishes from the UI – lest Apple have added some kind of advanced user preference somewhere.

Second, iDisk performance is dismal. Absolutely dismal. I’m not talking about the overall site performance – a file upload or download (i.e., a single HTTP transfer, the bit performed after clicking on a download or submitting an upload) is still amazingly slow.

Clueless critics will jump in at this point and complain that the whole thing is slow right now due to curiosity and demand, and I’ll just say this – if you’re designing a web-based storage system, your filers’ performance should never, ever be influenced by the front-end’s (i.e., the thing should have been architected in such a way that HTTP file access was cleanly separated from all the fluffiness).

Contacts also does not use SSL. So accessing your contacts on a Wi-Fi hotspot is great for anyone who does identity theft for a living and happens to have the basic skill sets required for sniffing packets (i.e., pushing the right button on the right app). Plus you can only pick between US, French, German and Japanese address formats, which is… Daft3.

Galleries look pretty much the same. The only improvement is the new browser-based management, and I look forward to the opportunity of getting completely rid of integration with iPhoto, since it hung for minutes every single time it tried to access .Mac to publish the simplest subset of my photos (i.e., one).

But, alas, Apple has failed to implement password protection management for galleries, so not even that is really useful to me.

And Calendar is also somewhat pointless for me (I use Exchange, thank you very much), so I won’t mention it further.

5. The Engineering Angle

I won’t go on about the ongoing breakage, so I’ll sum it up to this: Apple has massively underestimated the infra-structure boost required for supporting the launch of both MobileMe and the 3G device, which is odd considering what happened when the first iPhone came out.

Maybe “Eric Schmidt”:Wikipedia:Eric_E._Schmidt ought to get the Google guys in for a consult or something – but hey, I’m not their advisor.

1 Which I still find unforgivable in a phone sold in Portugal and within my social circle. Your mileage (or social requirements) may vary – there is nothing that can sustain a rich media “conversation” in the same way for me and my friends and family.

2 For the record, the Blackberry Bold and the E71 both have a battery life of two to two and a half days for my usual workday usage pattern.

3 Fortunately, you can switch off automatic formatting mangling of phone numbers, since all the formats provided are dangerous for anyone who likes to manage their address book in international format.