iPhone 3GS: What's Missing

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Now in its third generation, the iPhone handset has made improvements with each successive model. This year, though, the improvements are less about what you see and more about what's packed under the chassis--and what's available in the iPhone OS 3.0 software update (accessible to current iPhone owners and on new iPhone 3GS units).

That's not to say that the iPhone 3GS isn't good. In fact, this new model is among the best handsets on the market today. Still, the 3GS's combination of hardware and software continues to miss the mark in a few critical areas, and these deficiencies prevent the iPhone from leaping far ahead the competition.

1. Mass Storage Connectivity

Why can't I connect an iPhone to my PC and then drag and drop files onto it? Apple says that it has considered introducing a disk mode, of the type found on all iPods, but feels that the iPhone's audience doesn't require one. I disagree. Early adopters and the enterprise workers that Apple is targeting (now that iPhone 3GS has hardware encryption and other enterprise-friendly features) would greatly appreciate direct-to-device file transfers. Plus, the capability would simplify transferring photos and other relevant data files (such as Excel spreadsheets and PDF files) to the device. The latter feature is especially important as the iPhone grows ever closer to converging with netbooks (a couple of office productivity apps are already available for the iPhone). Right now, to read a Word or Excel file or a PDF, you'll need to e-mail it to yourself, and read it from within your e-mail. (Some files are supported over Google Docs, as well.)

I recognize that Apple hopes we'll all subscribe to its $99-a-year MobileMe service, and give its cloud iDisk storage a try. But that isn't going to happen across the iPhone's mainstream market, nor is it going to happen with the tech-savvy audience. The sooner Apple realizes this, the better.

With the iPhone 3GS available in capacities up to 32GB, it makes more sense than ever for Apple to allow users to transfer raw data to the device. In some cases, users may want to access the data from the device; in others, they may want to use the storage to move files from PC to PC (why carry a tiny, easily misplaced USB flash drive for your important work files, when you can store files on your phone, which is less likely to disappear--or go through the washer).

2. Broader Data Handling

Why is there no way to save text messages on an iPhone? (At least with the 3GS you can copy and paste a message into a note or e-mail message; but that's not the same as being able to archive an entire thread or to e-mail all or part of a thread to yourself.) And what's with the antiquated Notes app, which limits you to exporting a Note by e-mailing it to yourself? That restriction is ridiculous at this stage of the iPhone's development. A simple yet substantial improvement would be to make such notes appear as text files that users could open in Windows Explorer. Better still: Give iPhone users direct access to the files, and back up the files within iTunes (currently, you can sync Notes into Outlook and nothing else).

3. iTunes Reconstructed for Data Management

Apple's iTunes began life eight years ago as a music jukebox that interfaced with the first iPods and later with the iTunes Music Store. Fast-forward to 2009, when iTunes has gone far beyond its original purpose.

At this point, working with iTunes' tabbed data management interface is akin to using Windows 3.1's File Manager in a Mac OS X Snow Leopard environment. ITunes' cluttered interface contradicts Apple's minimalist design aesthetics, and the menus for syncing Info, Ringtones, Music, Photos, Podcasts, Video, and Applications are a text-and-check-box travesty.

ITunes is long overdue for an overhaul, given the multifaceted functionality of the iPhone (and of the iPod Touch, for that matter). Why can't I drag-and-drop into iTunes? Why can't I import specific photos into iTunes? Or view applications by their icons, instead of having to resort to a text name that I might not even recall? How about making it easier for me to import self-generated video--from within the tabbed syncing interface?

If Apple were to shake up and reshape iTunes with an eye toward simplicity, it could also make the service far more powerful and compelling. And that, in turn, would make the iPhone platform even more attractive than it is today.

4. Improved Integration With the Web

The iPhone's hooks into calendars feel fairly archaic. Calendar syncing is limited to Outlook and CalDAV; but if Palm's WebOS and its Pre smartphone can extend this process seamlessly across multiple calendars, why can't Apple and the iPhone do so in Gen 3? Granted, with an iPhone you can sync contacts with Outlook, Yahoo Address Book, Google Contacts, and Windows; but why can't you access those contact lists directly from the iPhone's Contacts app to begin with? Stronger ties with existing, established Web services would help make the iPhone a more Web-centric communications handset.

5. A Better Camera--Really

Yes, Apple has bumped the camera in the iPhone 3GS up to 3 megapixels and added tap response to focus/expose and macro functionality. But the camera needs more work to improve its standing in today's vigorous camera phone competition.

Let's start with the megapixel count. The iPhone 3GS's 3 megapixels feels almost entry-level in comparison to the offerings of today's high-flying phones. Such models as the Nokia N97 have already reached 5 megapixels, and higher megapixels are appearing with greater frequency on pricey camera phones. Bump up the megapixels and the image quality, Apple, and you bump up the device's functionality--and its ability to fill in for a point-and-shoot camera for casual snapshots.

Also high on my list: Allow one of the existing buttons (the volume control or the home button) to act as the shutter. I find I can't steady the camera adequately when I have to push on the screen to snap the shutter. A physical button would solve that problem--and make the phone's camera much easier to use one-handed. For example when you're snapping a picture of yourself and a friend at a party, with the phone's screen facing away from you, pushing a physical button is a lot easier than finding and pressing a virtual button on the display.

Software image stabilization would be another great feature, as would better light-sensitivity capabilities and an LED flash (another increasingly common feature on camera phones). Include the ability to shoot multiple frames rapid-fire, and suddenly the iPhone 3GS's camera could be a very powerful tool.

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