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Originally published July 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 7, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Practical Mac | Glenn Fleishman

Apple delivered on iPhone promise

My wife, Lynn, two sons and I were driving back from the fantastic St. Edward State Park in Kenmore last Sunday, with Lynn riding shotgun...

Special to The Seattle Times

My wife, Lynn, two sons and I were driving back from the fantastic St. Edward State Park in Kenmore last Sunday, with Lynn riding shotgun and using my new iPhone and its Google Maps feature to check highway conditions as we headed around the top of the lake. We were trying to choose between I-5 and Lake City Way to get home.

At a stoplight, as Lynn waited for the map to load, a driver in the car to our right gestured to her. We figured we'd left the gas-tank door ajar at the filling station we had just left.

When Lynn rolled down her window, he asked instead, "Is that an iPhone?" Sure, and we have some Grey Poupon in our Subaru's glove compartment, too. The fellow was considering buying an iPhone and wondered if I liked it. I gave him a thumbs up.

Spreading idea

All the marketing power in the world couldn't lead people to be so intensely interested in the iPhone and to want one in spite of themselves. This desire comes from the simple idea that Apple has been lightly spreading for six months: It said it could deliver a phone as elegant and superb as the iPod. And it did.

I've used the major U.S. smartphone operating systems (OSse) — BlackBerry, Palm OS, and Windows Mobile — and the iPhone outshines them all as a portable information device despite its rather substantial current limitations as a platform. (It's not the greatest phone, nor does AT&T have the best network, but plenty has already been written about that.)

The other OSes along with Symbian (a dominant worldwide smartphone OS hardly used in the U.S.) allow developers to write software that the phone's owner can install. Apple and AT&T do not.

That would seem to be a showstopper. Except that Apple took the challenge of providing a limited set of initial programs seriously and provides better calling, media handling and browsing than any other phone. This is much the approach Palm took in its early days before Palms could connect to the Internet and handle calls: limited, but effective, and better than any alternative.

E-mail is a notably weak entry among iPhone's four primary applications, but its exception proves the general case. Even as clunky as Mail is in its first release, it still outshines any other phone's e-mail program. Mail displays richly formatted messages as they would appear in a computer e-mail program and shows Excel, PDF and Word attachments as originally formatted.

It's easy to enumerate the flaws in Mail: In PDF files with many pages, there's no way to jump to one; you can't rotate the iPhone to landscape and have the view change as you can while browsing to fit more text horizontally at once; and text-only messages with fixed line widths are formatted in a less-than-optimal way.

Ease of tapping

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But, again, none of that distracts from the ease of tapping on a message to view its contents, flicking a finger down to read through it, and tapping a URL to open it in the Safari browser. It's frictionless, and I'm not referring to the slick optical-glass screen. I enjoy reading e-mail on an iPhone despite the flaws; I enjoy everything on an iPhone despite gaps and missing settings.

The iPhone does fall short when you stop flicking, pinching and tapping to type. After a few days, I haven't mastered the "glass" keyboard. I find it awkward to toggle between a keyboard of letters and another containing numbers and punctuation.

I've been a touch typist for 20-odd years, and a colleague suggested that perhaps that's my problem. Another wrote in to say that he types just as fast on the iPhone as on a keyboard: that is to say, not very fast, and thus his expectations aren't as high as mine.

I can look past this, because of the high utility of having a handheld computer that incidentally makes phone calls instead of a decent phone that incidentally accesses the Internet. And I also expect constant improvement from Apple so that the burrs in today's software are removed or smoothed down in continuous releases pushed to my phone.

The company is releasing a set of guidelines for Web developers that define how to write Web-page software that can take advantage of unique features in the iPhone without breaking the pages for other browsers or handhelds (developer.apple.com/iphone/). That's just the beginning. Simple is fine, but the real test of the iPhone's longevity is how Apple lets the software mature and how it builds an ecosystem of other companies and products around the iPhone.

Palm didn't age well; iPhone might.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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