Friday, August 15, 2008

Don't Buy an iPhone (at least not yet)

If you're thinking about buying an iPhone ... don't. At least not yet. Not until Apple solves a major problem with the iPhone that is rendering the phones unusable for many people.

I'll explain the problem (and Apple's lack of response) in a minute, but first a bit of background.

Way back in the '80s, I inadvertently became a "Mac" guy. It's a long story that isn't worth going into, but from 1986-1988 I was maintaining Macs, teaching students how to use Macs, and programming for Macs. I even attended a Mac programming conference and served on a host committee for another Mac conference. I even got to play with a Lisa (click... go to lunch... click... go to dinner... click... hey, it did something)! And yes I got teased by my PC- and mainframe-oriented friends. I say all this so that you don't think that I've always had an irrational bias against Macs or Apple. Anyway, when I was a Mac guy I recognized that the Mac had several very big advantages over the PC (remember, this was still the days of DOS), but, even with the early WYSIWYG technology, the mouse, and everything else, I still preferred the PC. Don't get me wrong: I wasn't a Microsoft junkie by any means. I just preferred DOS and my PC (a Compaq portable weighing in at a nifty 22 pounds) to the Mac.

Now, jump forward way too many years. I still prefer Windows to the Mac, although I will readily admit that my current preference is based largely on familiarity with Windows and a corresponding lack of familiarity with the Mac.

One of my criticism of Apple products, both then and now, was that Apple seemed to think that they knew what you wanted to do better than you did and didn't really allow you to customize things the way you wanted them to be. Microsoft has developed this bad habit in Microsoft Office, but Windows itself is much more open. (I know, I know. Lots of Mac folks out there will tell me how wrong I am; maybe I am. I don't know. All I can do is tell you my perception of Macs).

So, until I bought my first iPod a few years ago, I'd never owned an Apple product. For what it's worth, I've loved my iPods. But I've always felt that they weren't as customizable as they should be (come on, it took Apple until last year to allow you to change how songs and artists were sorted and there's still no way to delete a song from the iPod). And I really hate iTunes (although it is slowly getting better, it is still inferior to a number of other music catalogs and players).

Thus, when I bought a first generation iPhone last winter, it was the first Apple "computer" that I'd purchased (somehow an iPhone seems more "computer-like" than an iPod). And I loved my iPhone. But there was a fairly major flaw. It didn't have a to do list. And it didn't have any games. It was a great piece of hardware, but unless I wanted to hack it ("jailbreak"), I couldn't add anything to it other than the software installed by Apple. That was frustrating.

When the iPhone 3G came out last month I was excited. Yes, it had a GPS; yes it connected via the 3G network; yes it did this and that differently. But the really exciting thing about the iPhone 3G was the App Store and the ability to buy and install third party applications. When I bought my new iPhone I immediately started downloading and trying some of these "apps". Lots of great free utilities and games were available and I paid for a few more (Super Monkey Ball and Labyrinth are really cool on the iPhone). I even found a program and workaround that lets me sync my Outlook tasks to the iPhone (not a perfect solution, but at least a stopgap until a more elegant solution becomes available). Every now and then my iPhone would lock up or an app would fail to run, but hey, it's a computer. I expect the occasional crash. Reboot and go.

My biggest complaint with the iPhone was how long it took to Sync with my computer. Every time I connected my iPhone to my computer, iTunes wanted to back up my iPhone. Great idea, but each backup took between 30 minutes and 2 hours. Who has time to wait 2 hours for their phone to back up. So, I got into the habit of cancelling backups, syncing the phone, and going about my business. No harm, no foul.

And then my iPhone died. I was updating an App when suddenly the iPhone rebooted. During the reboot process, the screen turns black and a silver or white Apple logo appears. Usually, the logo disappears after a minute or five and the iPhone is up and running. Not this time. I waited and waited and waited and wai... OK. You get the idea. No luck. So I rebooted the iPhone. Same result. Waited longer. No dice. Tried again. Same thing. Aaaaaaarrrrrrgggghhhhh!

On my way home from work, I stopped at the Apple Store. The geniuses at the "Genius Bar" (come on... is Apple serious?) were totally flummoxed. None of them had seen this problem before. Finally, one told me that the only thing that he could think to do was to do a "factory restore" which would erase all my data, but that I could simply restore from my backups. Oops. But what was my choice? Factory restore or no phone. So I told him to go ahead. I waited around for a while and then the "genius" (nice guy, but...) told me that the restore didn't work at which point he gave me a new iPhone.

I spent most of that evening setting up my new iPhone. I had to reenter lots of my settings, re-sync my music and apps and contacts and calendar. A pain in the ass, but oh, well. Then, the next day, I noticed that the iPhone was not connecting via WiFi. Nothing that I could do would let the phone use a WiFi connection. I called Apple's tech support. They were stumped and decided it must be a hardware problem. So, back to the Apple Store I went and, after a fairly brief stay, walked out with iPhone 3G #3. Another night of syncing and restoring and so on and so forth, although this time it was quicker because I'd made a backup of the faulty iPhone the night before. The next morning at the office I connected my iPhone to my office computer to sync there and, as the sync finished, the iPhone rebooted ... and died. I've since learned that the black screen with the Apple logo is not-so-affectionately known as the "Screen of Death" (at least Windows' Blue Screen of Death provides an error code that you can use for debugging). Yet another visit to the Apple store (the geniuses still claimed to have never heard of or seen this problem) and iPhone #4 was ready to go.

Once I'd finally let my anger boil over and I'd calmed down (at least a bit), I started researching the issue online. Guess what? I was not the only iPhone user to see a Screen of Death. In fact, it appears that literally hundreds of people have experienced the same problem and reported about it online. How many more have had the same problem but don't participate in online forums to discuss the issue? As I read more and more, I learned that all across the country people had been taking their iPhones to Apple stores and been given new iPhones when the geniuses couldn't solve the problem. I learned that people who called Apple tech support to report the problem encountered support techs who claimed that they'd never heard of this problem happening. And I learned that Apple has not commented on the problem at all, not even to acknowledge the problem and say, "Gee, sorry, but we're working on a fix." In fact, not only has Apple been silent on the issue, they've taken to editing posts on their discussion forums to delete criticism of Apple from posts discussing this issue. (One user posted [on another site] screenshots of a before and after post, where is statement that Apple's failure to address the issue was irresponsible was deleted from his post.)

Thankfully, several people have identified a few methods that usually work that allow a user to perform a factory reset without having to exchange the iPhone for a new one. The problems with those solutions are that: (a) you have to have a good backup (and remember how long backups take) and (b) the process of performing the factory reset and then restoring the iPhone usually takes somewhere between 3 and 6 hours. That's right. Every time my iPhone crashes, I'm without my phone for 3-6 hours (and that assumes that I took the 2 hours to back up my phone before it crashed). And so far, I've gone through the reset and restore process about 10 times.

And just so you don't think that I'm making all of this up, take a look at this post on Apple's website (427 posts and 21,000+ views as of the time of this post) or the articles Troubleshooting iPhone and iPod touch issues and Second thoughts about iPhone 2.0? posted on MacWorld. But nothing from Apple. One of the really amazing things is to read the posts from longtime Apple fans who say that this debacle has damaged their faith and support in Apple.

To the best of the community's ability to figure out what's going on (remember, Apple isn't helping), it appears that somehow when the iPhone installs or updates an app, it may get interrupted or the app installation gets corrupted. The problem does not appear to be with the apps themselves; rather, the problem is in the installation or updating process. Many people have elected not to install any apps from the App Store on the iPhone. That seems to solve the problem for some. But I haven't installed any apps that way for a while and I still get crashes from apps installed or updated through iTunes.

The best advice that anyone has come up with is to simply not use any apps on the iPhone (or to use a very small number of apps). While that may be sound advice, the suggestion that a user not use a main feature of the phone is a bit like saying here's this great new computer, but don't install any software on it.

So, for the time being, I've decided to recommend to people that they not buy an iPhone. I'm fairly certain that Apple will solve the problem eventually, but who knows when. In the meantime, I'm walking on eggshells using my iPhone afraid of yet another crash. This weekend, I plan to completely reset my iPhone, delete all of my apps, and start from scratch. I'm going to load a bare minimum of apps until Apple solves the problem. I just hope that day is sooner rather than later; if not, I suspect that I will be a party to somebody's class action lawsuit against Apple. Who knows? Maybe I'll be the lead Plaintiff.

Oh, and if anybody at AT&T is reading this, you need to put some pressure on Apple, because it won't be long before people like me start asking for service credits because of the amount of time that our phones (mine was purchased at an AT&T store) are out of service.

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