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March 13, 2008

A weekend with the iPod touch

Last week I got myself an iPod touch, because I had to spend money from a grant on hardware quickly and there is currently nothing else that I need. I got it primarily for testing web apps on its mobile Safari browser and to optimize them for its screen dimensions and touch interface. The iPod touch shares the same interface, operating system and applications with the iPhone (which becomes available in Austria tomorrow), but lacks three of its features: cellphone capabilities, camera and Bluetooth - I actually own a cellphone which does all this, so I am quite happy feature-wise, but naturally cannot comment on these aspects of the iPhone.

After a week of use I now want to share some of my experiences and observations with you. The first thing that stunned me is that they ship this thing a-maz-ing-ly fast! I ordered it on Monday afternoon, and on Tuesday early afternoon it was delivered to my door! Next: over at Apple, they know how to package their stuff - the packaging is so nicely done it is really a fetish on its own.

The touch interface is really good for a "wow" from everyone, especially with the nicely done details I admire Apple for: Lists don't just stop scrolling at the end, but you can scroll a bit further and they will elastically go back after you release your finger. Applications zoom into view when you start them, and the thing emits this perfectly designed click sound on every action. Multi-touch is overrated IMHO, since I very rarely use it and would find it more convenient to have a single-finger gesture for zooming (multi-touch always also means multi-hand, which is annoying - you cannot hold the thing and perform a multi-touch gesture with the same hand). The complete absence of haptic feedback also quickly turned out to be a caveat: simply no way of reliably controlling the audio player (volume, next song) while it is inside your pocket - you have to take it out, unlock, look at it, every time you want to change the volume. Also I found especially the volume slider would recognize gestures with my thumb unreliably, which is most annoying when the music is too loud and you have to fiddle around for seconds to be able to turn the volume down. Generally, a few (freely assignable?) physical buttons on the side of the thing would probably spoil the super-minimalistic design but would improve usability a lot for me.

Speaking of design: Maybe my hands are just too sweaty, but after a short time of usage the thing looks really ugly, on both sides. Finger taps and grease all over the screen and the shiny back makes you want to clean it all the time, which really is a Sisyphus thing. So its not exactly the kind of device you want to give out of your hand for business presentations, as everyone will go 'yuck, I'd better wash my hands...'

Interestingly I already had several occasions where the much-appraised tilt sensor turned out to be annoying. Obviously, if gravity doesn't point in the direction of your own 'down' vector, you are in trouble, which happened to me in bed several times. I wanted to browse some pictures before going to sleep, and they all would turn to their sides. The other day, Patrizia wanted to turn a photo to look at some detail, but the photo would just turn together with the device and there was no way of stopping it from doing so. So there are situations where it would be nice to be able to deactivate or override that tilt sensor thingy.

What surprised me is how little you can actually do with that thing, in terms of producing or editing content. You cannot edit song information. You cannot reorder the pictures in a folder. You basically cannot delete anything that's on there while on the go. Speaking of limitations, this brings me to the iTunes software you are forced to use. But I do not want to go into the details here, in short: iTunes on Windows is utter crap! I just hate it, and I will never understand how iTunes got the reputation it has... bleh! I hate it, hate it, hate it, and it will probably be the reason why my iPod will soon sit somewhere collecting dust, because actually they force you to use iTunes with the iPod touch - it is not possible to activate "disk mode" on this device which would allow you to use alternative programs. I guess this also means no chance for Linux users to ever sync their stuff with an iPod touch.

The full meanness of the Apple corporation is revealed when you look at the syncing options for calendars and address books on Windows: Outlook and Windows Address Book are the only supported options. Importing bookmarks only from Internet Explorer! No Mozilla, no iCal, no standards support. They have their deals with Microsoft, and they don't give a dime about standards or open products. But it all comes in a nice package, and hey the user interface is nicely animated, so the geeks are flying for Apple. Pfui!

What really surprises me is that they seem to get away with it, and the competition is screwing up so badly that Apple still, after all these years after the first iPod was released, looks like the only company that understands designing products. It's just unbelievable. Even though I hate this closed, proprietary, unhackable thing for its political implications, I wouldn't want to use any of the alternatives out there I have seen so far.