Skip navigation

First Looks: Apple iPhone 3G, iPhone Software 2.0, and MobileMe

Unlike certain technology reporters from, say, major national newspapers, I'll actually deliver meaningful reviews of the Apple iPhone 3G, iPhone Software 2.0, and MobileMe service after actually using them for reasonable amounts of time and interacting with them via Windows, the operating system that's used by most of Apple's customers. That day, alas, has not yet arrived, and in one case--the iPhone 3G--I don't even have the actual product to review, yet. That said, I've already spent some time with the iPhone 3G, and significant amounts of time with the other two products. So I'd like to offer my first look overviews of each, with an eye towards helping Windows users decide whether they should embrace or ignore these trend-setting products. In the coming weeks, I will flesh out these initial views into more thorough reviews. And as was the case last year with my multi-part review of the original iPhone, I think what you'll find here is something that's a lot more accurate and relevant than the hype-tastic baloney spewed by Apple's highly-placed fans.

The issue here, of course, is that while Apple and Microsoft compete in some ways--in PC operating systems, certainly, in smart phones, and somewhat in the digital media market--there's a much bigger crossover between the companies' users than many seem eager to admit. Most of Apple's customers, as it turns out, use Windows, not the Mac. That's because Apple's volume products--the iPod, the iPhone, iTunes, and, soon, MobileMe--are used by more Windows users than Mac users. So sure, covering Apple products on a site like the SuperSite for Windows is sometimes done from a competitive standpoint, as when I examine new versions of Mac OS X, for example. But more often than not, when writing about an Apple product here, what I'm really discussing is a product that's used by Windows users. A lot of Windows users. Products like iTunes and iPod, especially, are a big part of many Windows users' computing experiences, and because Apple's products are so influential--with both Microsoft and its customers--it just makes sense to keep an eye on this stuff.

I'd also point out that while Microsoft does have a smart phone platform, Windows Mobile isn't particularly interesting, innovative, or trendsetting, while the iPhone, for all its faults, is. Microsoft innovated with its Media Center solutions, but found few takers, and the AppleTV is now gaining ground. Apple's iPod was so successful that Microsoft copied it with Zune, a product that is solid, sure, but let's be honest: It's just a copy. And while Microsoft has thrown numerous online services against the proverbial wall just to see which would stick with consumers (few have, by the way), Apple has clearly seen the light with its MobileMe service, a package of solutions that Microsoft should have (and could have) delivered years ago.

Put simply, I cover Apple products when doing so makes sense for Windows users. But then that's true of other non-Microsoft products like Mozilla Firefox, various Google services, and the like. The SuperSite is for Windows users, not Windows fanboys. If you're looking for a Microsoft cheerleader, you'll have to look elsewhere. I'm interested in what's best for us, the users, not what's best for Microsoft. If Microsoft has any credibility, they'll try harder to make sure that, more often than not, those interesting, compelling, and useful products and services that are enjoyed by Windows users come from them. Too often these days they do not.

But back to Apple and last week's iEvent. The Cupertino company has been fairly criticized for the way it mishandled the launch of three major new products, the iPhone 3G, the iPhone Software 2.0 update, and MobileMe. I've been blogging about some of that stuff on the SuperSite Blog, so I won't rehash that here. What I'm more concerned with in this first pass over the products is whether they're something that Windows users should considering buying into. Let's take a look and find out.

iPhone 3G

I've only spent a few hours with the iPhone 3G, and what I've seen so far is a very mild hardware makeover with few real world improvements over the original model. Once you factor out the functionality that is actually provided by the iPhone Software 2.0 upgrade (see below), the iPhone 3G differs from its predecessor in only a handful of ways, only two of which are even meaningful:

A confusing name. Apple has historically used the letter "G" in its iPod names in order to differentiate between different generations of particular iPod models. So for example, there is an iPod 3G (third generation iPod) and an iPod 4G (fourth generation). Confusingly, the 3G in the iPhone 3G's name does not refer to "third generation," but rather to the device's compatibility with so-called 3G wireless networks. In fact, the iPhone 3G is arguably not even a second generation device since the underlying hardware platform is so similar to its predecessor, as is the form factor.

New pricing model. Whereas the original iPhone featured a hugely expensive up-front cost ($600 for the most popular model) and expensive monthly fees (a minimum of $71 a month in the US after taxes and fees), the iPhone 3G features a more reasonable up-front cost ($200 to $300 in the US) and unbelievably expensive monthly fees (a minimum of $86 a month on the US after taxes and fees if you choose the cheapest possible SMS package, which was previously free). How do I feel about this? You may be surprised to discover I'm OK with it. Most people, I feel, would rather spread the cost of something expensive out over time, and the iPhone 3G lets you do that. You know, like a mortgage.

3G support. Support for superior 3G wireless networks is the iPhone 3G's only major new feature, and it's an important one. The EDGE network that is required with the original iPhone is an absolute nightmare, but by contrast, AT&T's 3G network is widely considered to be the fastest available 3G network in the US, and coverage is generally good. That said, those in rural areas will want to see whether they can even get 3G coverage before taking the iPhone leap. I'll be comparing 3G and EDGE speeds in my eventual review.

GPS. The iPhone's GPS functionality is hailed as a major new feature but it's not. In fact, GPS is so hamstrung on this device, I'm unclear what all the fuss is about. Yes, it's more accurate than the original iPhone's EDGE-based triangulation feature. But it's often not as good as Wi-Fi-based triangulation, and it can lose its signal easily if you're in a big city under tall buildings. More important, it does not offer any navigational functions. All it can do, in fact, is tell you where you are. Sometimes.

And that's about. From a form factor perspective, Apple has fixed some of the issues with the first device, but let's not fall all over ourselves applauding the company for righting the wrongs for which it is responsible. The silly and incompatible recessed headphone jack is replaced by a normal jack that actually works. The wet bar of soap effect is minimized by the use of grippier (and more wireless friendly) plastic on the back of the device. Audio quality is improved, but as any iPhone user will tell you, audio quality on the original device was horrible, and even more so in iPhone-to-iPhone calls. These improvements are neat, but they're necessary.

More problematic is what Apple didn't fix. Why does this thing require a new dock (and not ship with a free dock, as did its predecessor)? Why is the camera still the junky 2 megapixel model from the first version, with no zoom or flash of any kind, and no video features? Why is the battery life so horrible? And why can't we remove the battery ourselves? There's no voice dialing, still. The virtual keyboard is still locked on one side of the screen in almost every application. There's no Flash, Java, or Windows Media in the Web browser. No copy and paste. No MMS. No stereo Bluetooth headphone support. The list goes on and on and on.

Still, it's an iPhone. And everything that made the iPhone so special the first time around is still true now.

Preliminary verdict: It's not a huge improvement, but keep an eye on this one. The iPhone 3G is astronomically expensive, despite its lower up-front cost, and far more expensive than its predecessor. If you can afford it, and can get 3G coverage where you live and/or will be spending most of your time, this is the smart phone to beat. There is nothing like the iPhone anywhere, not even close. And that's never been more true than now.

iPhone Software 2.0

The iPhone Software 2.0 upgrade, which comes with the iPhone 3G and can be added to the original iPhone (for free) and to the iPod touch (for about $10), is huge, important, and excellent. Apple has fixed numerous problems I and many others had voiced about the original iPhone software, and they've added such a rich range of new functionality that it's hard to even know where to start. For that reason, allow me to hit some high points.

Push support. Apple is deemphasizing its support for push technologies because of issues getting it to work nearly instantaneously on Mac- and Windows-based desktop computers, but push support is alive and well on the iPhone. And it lets you do things like sync contacts, schedules, email, Web browser bookmarks, and other data in real time between the so-called "cloud" (in this case, Apple's servers) and your phone. Push is amazing and it works well, though there are some reports that this technology is, in fact, responsible for the poor battery life people have been experiencing. Push works with Exchange Server (for business users) and MobileMe (for consumers), but my guess is that other email/calendaring providers like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft will soon be doing their own thing in this space as well. I can't wait.

App Store. If you're looking for the one big differentiator between the iPhone of 2007 and the iPhone of today, think Before App Store and After App Store. The App Store, which is available from the PC-based version of iTunes as well as via the iPhone itself, lets you choose from an ever-growing selection of free and generally inexpensive applications, which run the gamut from games to utilities to eBooks to educational tools. The selection is vast, and the quality is all over the map, but generally good to excellent. The games are predictably similar--there's an over-emphasis on driving-type titles in the first round--but some of the free utilities are amazing, and if you're a baseball fan, be sure to check out MLB At Bat, my personal favorite.

Little improvements across the board. If you've spent any time with the iPhone at all and then grab the new software, a thousand little improvements will scream out at you. You can search contacts. Delete multiple emails simultaneously. Save images from the Web. Open and view (but not edit) PowerPoint presentations. Switch keyboard languages on the fly. Enable parental controls. And use a scientific calculator. There are a lot of small but welcome improvements.

Preliminary verdict: Forget the iPhone 3G, this is where the action's at. If you own an original iPhone or iPod touch, you need to upgrade to this wonderful new software version immediately. Apple often refers to Mac OS X updates as being "like getting a new Mac." That's a crock, but in the case of iPhone Software 2.0, it's true: This is like getting a new iPhone. It's spectacular.


Apple bills its second-generation .Mac service--rechristened as MobileMe to attract the Windows-using masses--as "Exchange for the rest of us." (Or at least it used to.) And that makes sense, when you consider that the main aim of the service is to provide push-based email, contacts, and calendar management, a la Microsoft Exchange, that works between PCs, Macs, and iPhone mobile devices. However, unlike the mature Exchange product, the initial version of MobileMe is half-baked, with glaring functional holes that make it less desirable than it could be. That's especially true on the Windows side because Windows users get dramatically less for the $99 a year that Apple is charging than do Mac users. And I have a problem with that.

I have a bigger problem with the fact that MobileMe just doesn't work. In fact, when Apple first showed off MobileMe during its WWDC 2008 keynote address (see my MobileMe Preview) I immediately sensed something was wrong: There was Apple senior vice president of worldwide product marketing Phil Schiller, showing off all these "cool" MobileMe features to a cooing audience of Apple lovers, and all I could think was, these aren't new features. In fact, they weren't: Every single email feature Schiller showed off that day actually worked with the previous .Mac service. And I knew what a piece of junk that was, since I'd been a .Mac subscriber since the day Apple first made it available. And sure enough, MobileMe suffers from the same genetic disorder as did .Mac. It's a piece of junk.

To see why that's so, let's examine the various parts of the service and see where it falls flat. Because flat it does fall.

Lackluster Web applications. On Windows, you pretty much interact with MobileMe via Web-based applications, but only on Firefox or Safari: Apple refuses to write MobileMe to work with the world's most popular Web browser by far, Internet Explorer. Adding insult to injury, Apple even included a cocky note suggesting that this is Microsoft's fault (Figure). Once you do get into the Web site, you'll discover poor performance and a lackluster feature set. Some apps don't work at all: I apparently mis-synced calendar once, and now it refuses to come up. And the Photo Gallery app has lost hundreds of my photos ... twice. (That's actually working now.) This isn't a solution I can trust. Or, in the case of calendar, even use.

Sync issues. One of the biggest issues with the original iPhone on Windows was that it synced with far too few data points. This problem is replicated with the iPhone 3G (and iPhones upgraded to iPhone Software 2.0), though Apple has finally added support for some obvious sync candidates. Anyway, the problem is amplified by MobileMe. I mean, think about it: If you're going to switch to MobileMe, you're going to want to move your email, contacts, calendars, and other data from wherever it is now to Apple's service. So interoperability is a key concern. Just not for Apple.

Here's what I mean. Let's say you want to get your contacts over to MobileMe. To do so, you'll need to be using Google Contacts, Microsoft Outlook, Yahoo! Address Book or Windows Contacts, which is a surprisingly healthy list of candidates. But if you want to sync calendars, you can only use Outlook: Popular (and free) alternatives like Google Calendar and Windows Calendar (part of Vista) are not supported. You can't sync To-do items at all: MobileMe, like the iPhone, for some reason does not support this functionality. And the Bookmark syncing is hilarious: MobileMe will sync between IE and Safari, but not Firefox. But to use the MobileMe site, you need to use Firefox or Safari, but not IE. Good stuff, Apple.

While iPhone sync is indeed immediate and uses push technology, MobileMe can only sync with Windows and Mac desktop applications on a schedule. Apple is working on this, but I don't feel it's a huge issue.

Photo Gallery. On the Mac, the MobileMe Photo Gallery service integrates directly into Apple's iPhoto application, part of the $75 iLife software package (it comes free with new Macs, too). On Windows, the MobileMe Photo Gallery doesn't integrate with anything, so if you want to actually use this service to store or view photos online, prepare yourself for disappointment. There's a Web uploader, which I assume is designed to upload photos to the service. But I've never actually gotten it to work, in any Web browser, including Apple's own Safari. You click the upload button and nothing happens. Neat!

Another related issue is that Mac users can use iWeb (also part of iLife) to create any number of MobileMe-hosted Web sites. These Web sites can contain photo galleries from the MobileMe Photo Gallery application, of course, along with other content. There's nothing like that available on the Windows side. Heck, I'd be happy with basic photo uploading at this point.

Other Mac-only features. In addition to the major differences listed previously, Mac users receive a number of other features not duplicated on the Windows side. They can sync Dashboard widgets (analogous to Vista's Sidebar gadgets) from Mac-to-Mac. They can sync Dock icon layouts, some application and system settings, and notes (Leopard only). They can upload photos from Aperture 2 in addition to iPhoto. They can upload movies with iMovie. Apple even lets Mac users host personal Web sites with custom domain names via MobileMe. Nothing like that exists on the Windows side. On and on it goes.

Picking nits. There are many other issues with MobileMe. The Web-based applications--which, again, are pretty much the only way in Windows that users can access the service--refuse to save your logon, even when you check the box to do so, forcing you to retype your password every time you hit the site. It's amateur hour.

Pricing. MobileMe costs a whopping $100 a year. For that price, you get 20 GB of online storage, which can be used to store photos (if you could upload them) and, via a painfully bad Explorer extension, other files. It's not a bargain for Windows users, but those with iPhones should know that the primary draw here is super-simple push support for email, contacts, and calendar, and that works pretty well with Apple's devices. Assuming you have what's needed to sync the data in the first place.

Preliminary verdict: MobileMe is a disgrace, and Windows users should avoid it like the plague until major changes are made. What makes MobileMe so frustrating is that it could have been--and could still be--the ultimate companion for iPhone users, and a must-have solution for those looking towards the cloud for email, contacts, calendaring, and other related services. But MobileMe is so buggy, so lacking, and so Windows-unfriendly, it makes me want to scream. This product is unacceptable in its current state.

Final thoughts

So let's recap here. With the understanding that full reviews are still in the making, my initial reaction to these products varies greatly depending on what we're talking about. The iPhone 3G is an obvious and solid upgrade, but nothing dramatic. The iPhone Software 2.0 update is fabulous, and you must run out and get it now if you qualify. MobileMe, however, is a disaster, just a complete waste of time. Which stinks, because it could be so excellent. And maybe it will be, in the future. I'll be watching.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.