The iPhone 4 Missteps

It’s easy for the fanboy in me to get excited, enthralled and simply out of control fired up for a new piece of hardware. I’m the guy who you will find camping out overnight for Mac OS updates, so the iPhone announcement had me jumping up and down when the first photos appeared back in April. I’ve read over 300 blog posts from pro and amateur bloggers recounting what they think of iPhone 4 and have come away with what I feel are the biggest missteps Apple made with this product.

It appears that, for the first time since the hockey puck mouse, Apple let design win over function. Apple bashers would argue that this is the case for every product but the design of products like the 27″ iMac, MacBook Air and iPad show that Apple has successfully merged technology with liberal arts in a way that enhances our lives and makes technology more fun and accessible to everyone. The iPhone 4 got the technology right but failed at packaging it in a way that everyone can enjoy without being overcome with gripes and issues that only lead back to the device’s design.

Reception

Let’s get one thing out of the way and touch briefly on those pesky reception problems discovered a few hours after the device began shipping. I’m going to take the middle ground and say that Apple is completely correct in saying that this issue affects all modern mobile phones and that holding the phone differently will yield improved results but I also believe that a design mistake was made in how the band was formed where the rubber connection shouldn’t be in a place where most users hold the phone. I am confident Apple will improve this with its 4.0.1 update, but the only solution now is to purchase a case that keeps the user from making physical contact with the band. Reports that Apple was negligent for testing the iPhone 4 out in the field without a secretive protective case (like the one found shrouding the iPhone 4 when it was discovered in a bar in April) makes sense to me.

[inline-ad]I hope this is something that’s easy to fix because asking the user to hold the phone a different way is unacceptable and not something that most people will even think about. When creating consumer products, the user grabs the device, tries to make a call and it drops time and time again and Apple’s refinements in hiding the technical details from the end user means they will just go to Apple and not think of changing hand positions or buying a case.

Glass

My first complaint upon seeing the field test unit acquired by Gizmodo was that glass on the back of the device would be a terrible mistake. Glass is glass no matter how strong you make it or how much you enhance its ability to reflect scratches. Glass breaks more easily than plastic and metal. It’s a material only used out of necessity when you must see through it such as a car window or to peer inside of an oven to check on your food that’s cooking. Using painted glass on the back of a refrigerator (where all of those coils are) is not something you’d see yet Apple finds a way to bring glass to the back of the phone. My first thought upon seeing this design decision was joyous as I assumed Apple would finally have resolved and improved the reception of the iPhone 4 because a radio masked behind glass would be a huge improvement over the original aluminum and plastic iPhone back we’ve grown accustomed to but, we all know Apple chose the stainless steel band for that, so the glass is just a design decision that makes the device far more fragile.

It took a little under three hours for the first iPhone 4 devices to shatter from accidental drops and Apple’s only replacing these on a limited basis, so if you drop your iPhone and the pretty glass on the back of the device breaks, you can deal with it or purchase a new iPhone 4 at full price ($599/$699).

The aluminosilicate glass used in iPhone 4 is 30 times harder than plastic. The issue is, it still scratches and it still breaks. Even GDGT editor, Ryan Block has shown that a normal iPhone 4 test unit he had was scratched after a few days of use. It was a poor choice for a mobile phone and one that Apple decided to risk for awe factor.

Shape

Moving on, let’s discuss the choice of making the iPhone a perfectly rectangle device with no curve. Curves on the back of devices enhance the feel and handling and you see this on most mobile phones including the Palm Pre which has a terrific feel in the hand in how it feels like you’re holding a stone. Even Apple’s iPad has this curve which makes it easier to grip. By squaring off iPhone 4, Apple was able to make the phone 24 percent thinner than its predecessor but it removed the aesthetic and comfort of holding a phone of the 3G’s shape. The other downfall of the boxy design is that you have no idea what orientation the phone will be when you decide to pull it from your pocket unless you’re keen enough to locate the home button before pulling it out.

Finally, as Macworld.com notes in its design commentary:

I put my iPhone 4 in one pocket of my jeans, and my old 3G S in the other (with the curved back facing out), and you can’t even tell the 3G S is in the pocket, whereas the iPhone 4 is clearly visible.

If you have both handsets, hold one in each hand, then put one in each of your front pockets. You’ll see for yourself that Apple chose design elegance over usability.

I don’t quite agree that it’s an impossible differentiation and extremely noticeable between the two, but it’s something worth noting especially to my friends who opt for tight jeans where the square iPhone 4 design will show through with much more definition than the iPhone 3G/3GS.

Core77.com spoke briefly with Jony Ive, Apple’s VP of Industrial Design of Apple. These quotes from him completely contradicts what I see when holding the iPhone 4.

“So it’s assembled first, the band, and then the final machining and grinding are performed, so the tolerances are extraordinary…. Whatever people’s feelings are about the actual design of the product is of course subjective. But objectively I can say that the manufacturing tolerances are phenomenal. And we determined this, we designed it from the very beginning to meet those goals.”

He continues:

“The best design explicitly acknowledges that you cannot disconnect the form from the material–the material informs the form,” says Ive. “It is the polar opposite of working virtually in CAD to create an arbitrary form that you then render as a particular material, annotating a part and saying ‘that’s wood’ and so on. Because when an object’s materials, the materials’ processes and the form are all perfectly aligned, that object has a very real resonance on lots of levels. People recognize that object as authentic and real in a very particular way.”

Apple has long been applauded for its design and attention to detail in products and regarding the technology that’s built into every iPhone 4, it’s amazing that so much was crammed into such a small package but it’s more clear that design took a front seat and reliability, usability and quality of the iPhone 4 was removed in an effort to please design experts and be ready for display in an art gallery instead of being used day after day as a phone.

It’s a matter of fact that if you drop your iPhone (any generation), the chances of it not recovering from that drop are pretty big, but we’ve long accepted that Apple has the best touch screen because it uses glass, but Apple’s decision to use glass on both ends in a form factor that disrupts knowing which direction the phone is pointing when you pull it out and the decision to place antennae connections where a normal person would hold the phone is frustrating. Apple needs to truly merge technology and liberal arts in a way that my own mother could understand and not in a way that has consumers shelling out $699 just for missing their pants pocket and dropping the phone on the ground.

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