Apple saddles up to get the iPhone back on track

Apple saddles up to get the iPhone back on track

After a few days to digest Apple Inc.'s OS 2.1 update for the iPhone, users are generally reporting that it takes care of numerous problems that have plagued the phone since the 3G model was introduced in July. As Computerworld 's Gregg Keizer has already documented, initial postings to Apple's support forums were positive, with the majority of 2.1 adopters seeing user interface speed and stability improvements, better backup speeds and other small and welcome changes.

My own experiences have more or less mirrored those of Computerworld blogger Seth Weintraub: functionally, what went wrong after the 2.0 upgrade seems to be right again -- and there are even a few fun new features, too, like the ability to create Genius playlists.

But the fact that things are now working as they should raises a question: why should one of the major joys of the 2.1 update be a relief from how horrible 2.0 was? This is the way things should have been from the day the iPhone 3G launched. In general, Mac users simply aren't used to this sort of problem. In comparison, most Mac OS X releases, after that first 10.0 release in 2001, have all been pretty damn stable, functional and usable right out of the box. And yes, I'm including Mac OS X 10.5 in that mix. Although it had a few early kinks that needed ironing out, for most users it worked as advertised.

When I describe the iPhone 2.0 update as "horrible," I don't mean that it was suddenly as bad as, say, an early Windows Mobile device. Even after applying that update, the iPhone was still an iPhone, albeit one that seemed to crash more often, dropped more calls than even the iffy AT&T network could be blamed for, and featured a UI that responded so slowly at times that typing text was nearly impossible.

In other words, we were all angry at Apple's initial 2.0 update because it wouldn't let us love our iPhones as much as we had previously.

We expect a qualitatively different kind of experience with a phone or PDA than we do with a computer. After all, programs crash and even with my less-than-awesome typing skills, I'd often get ahead of Microsoft Word. Perhaps there's something to the more basic level of tasks expected from a handheld device. Sure, your old cassette Walkman never crashed, but could it use GPS to tell you exactly where you are? On the other hand, I'm not computing the history of the universe here, I just want to make a call or perhaps e-mail a picture. The iPhone is something we can hold in our hands, not a large, mysterious HAL-like machine -- but it's still a computer of sorts. Part of it goes back to the fact that our current expectations are based on past performance; After all, our old Ma Bell phones didn't fail. (I'm dating myself with that reference, aren't I?)

It was no secret that cooking up an iPhone OS was a tough recipe, even for Apple's vaunted software development team. Apple even acknowledged that one of the reasons Leopard was taking longer than expected was that the company had pulled developers off the OS team so it could throw more coding firepower at the new device. And there was no way Apple was going to delay the introduction of the new iPhone last year. Longtime Apple computer fans would be a lot more forgiving of an OS delay than a totally new consumer base would have been had the iPhone release been pushed back.

Apple faced similar issues with the iPhone 2.0 release: push it out and tweak issues afterward, or delay the introduction of the long-awaited iPhone 3G. Apple chose option 1, leaving us with an update that wasn't quite fully baked. The problems were so noticeable that Apple chief Steve Jobs himself did something you rarely see from him, or from any CEO. He explicitly talked about the problem, listing several issues: dropped calls, battery life, crashes and slow backups. Basic PR would state that you never admit past failures, focusing instead on how much better the new product is.

So we don't know, and probably won't know, what issues Apple's developers and engineers came across when creating the iPhone OS, and what else popped up when they revised it and/or added new features. Remember, with the iPhone, Apple's developers are working on a product that depends on an external network. And there's little doubt a too-tight delivery schedule compounded the problems.

That was then, this is now. Hopefully, Apple learned some lessons along the way and it's nice to know the company is saddling up. There's a far piece yet to go on the road to ultimate iPhone goodness. But if you look back and see how far Apple has already come -- and how quickly the iPhone has taken on iconic status -- you'll see that a few hitches along the way were bound to develop. What matters more is where Apple goes from here.

Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications, including Salon, eWeek, MacWeek andThe New York Times.

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