Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Apple iPhone as a Multifunctional Device

I recently acquired a first-generation Apple iPhone to use as a mobile multifunctional device. Before I recount my successes and failures in this endeavor, I should first define exactly what a multifunctional device is. Quite simply, it is a device that performs more than two functions within four broad categories: communication, entertainment, information, and productivity.

The iPhone operates in all four of these areas, and it does so in multiple ways. The implementation of this functionality isn’t perfect, which is partly due to the designed limitations of the device and partly due to the fact that I’m a cheapskate. Though it was intended to operate on AT&T’s premium voice and data networks, I am running my iPhone on an inexpensive prepaid voice plan, while relying solely on Wi-Fi for data.

Not unexpectedly, communications and entertainment are the iPhone’s greatest strengths, descending as it does from earlier music phones. Voice calling and text messaging are standard features alongside the built-in iPod audiovisual player. Wi-Fi connectivity adds the ability to send and receive e-mail, to stream video, and to download music, games, and e-books.

Ubiquitous access to information via the Internet would be the iPhone’s greatest value, if data plans weren’t so damned expensive. Wi-Fi helps to fill the gap here, but coverage is still far from complete. Nevertheless, the convenience of always having information at your fingertips can’t be overstated.

In my case, I’ve turned to off-line solutions for certain information needs. For example, when I can’t access Google Maps, I now use a mapping application that I downloaded from the App Store for a few dollars. While not ideal, it’s still far more convenient than fiddling with paper maps.

In many ways, productivity is the iPhone’s weakest capability, even though it has a dedicated piece of on-board productivity hardware (a camera). The failure is actually one of software, in this case the lack of a built-in editor for documents and spreadsheets. While boring perhaps, I think that an advanced productivity suite will be vital to future multifunctional devices.

Fortunately, there are already workarounds for the productive user. Notes and e-mails can be used to create content for later export to a document. Google Docs can be used to view and edit spreadsheets when Internet access is available, and Google added the capability to edit documents while I was writing this post. Finally, there are third-party productivity applications available to download, but I have yet to try any of them.

Overall, my iPhone has proved itself as a prototypical multifunctional device. Though so-called smartphones are just beginning to penetrate the market, I expect they will become commonplace as mobile computing technology grows and matures.