Monday, August 27, 2007

Why can't Steve Jobs make the iPhone at least as useful as my old Psion Series 5?

I was taking notes for this post down in Wingra Park on my 10-year-old Psion Series 5 handheld computer, although my original headline was a bit too long (click on photo to enlarge). So I shortened it after uploading it to my iMac and Blogger. (Note: The doggies that wandered into the frame aren't mine, but they sure are cute, aren't they?)

The Psion Series 5 went on the market 10 years ago. I've "only" had one for the last nine years -- and when the screen cable breaks and shorts out, as they eventually do, I just buy another on eBay and swap the removable CF card.

Why do I go to so much trouble? What do I love about the Psion Series 5? This handheld beauty turns on instantly, since all the software is in ROM. The clamshell case is elegant and functional. It has a very useable keyboard -- and a complete sofware suite that reads and saves MS Office compatible files. Not to mention a really cool organizer and address book. The Series 5 no longer made, of course, but the software evolved into the Symbian operating system used in some Ericsson and other overseas mobile phones, some of which offer many of the original Psion functions.

I'd like something newer, mainly to get color and wireless/mobile functionality. Also, the uploading process has gotten rather laborious. To get formatted Word files, I have to first upload to a Windows 98 PC, then email to my iMac (the formatting, however, is flawless). Increasingly, I'm just using the Psion to capture keystrokes, which I save as text files, which I can upload directly to the Mac via a card reader. However, nothing has has tempted me yet. Steve Jobs could have with the iPhone, but he didn't, because he left out something important.

It's called a keyboard.

With the Series 5, I've written article drafts on deadline while flying across the country, with plenty of space on my tray for some snacks and beverages, while my traveling companions struggle with their laptops. And, as you can see, I take it down to the park. I take it to the coffee shop when I want to do some writing and don't need wireless to upload it right away. I couldn't have done any of that on an iPhone. I am not going to write by typing into a virtual keyboard on a screen that tries to make up for its shortcomings by guessing what I intend to write.

I don't know what Steve Jobs has against keyboards on handheld devices. It couldn't possibly be sibling rivalry with his sister, novelist Mona Simpson, could it? Whatever the reason, the lack of a keyboard ruined the Newton, a really cool handheld that was ahead of its time. And it threatens the future of the iPhone, by reducing all its high-tech wizardry to the status of an expensive toy.

And as long as I'm complaining, I should also mention that weird AT&T thing. Why, a quarter century after the government broke up AT&T and its telephone monopoly, is Steve Jobs apparently trying to reinstate his own version? Why should the iPhone only work on the AT&T wireless network?

Hackers around the world apparently are asking the same question and are starting to alter iPhones so they can either work with other carriers' SIM cards, or fool the iPhone into thinking it's on the AT&T network when it's not. According to the NY Times:
Two weeks ago, a company called Bladox, based in the Czech Republic, began selling an $80 device called a Turbo SIM. The thumbnail-size card, attached to another carrier’s SIM card and inserted into an iPhone, tricks the iPhone into thinking it is running on the AT&T network even when it is not.

The company has reportedly been overwhelmed by orders and is not selling the product on its site. But Jesús Díaz, a technology writer in Madrid, said he bought the Turbo SIM last week and was now using his iPhone on Spain’s Vodafone network.

“Everyone here asks me: ‘What is that? Can I see it, can I touch it?’ ” said Mr. Díaz, whose iPhone draws a lot of attention because Apple has not yet announced a deal to sell the device in Europe.
I wish the Czechs all the best -- especially since Europe, with its faster mobile data networks, should be an ideal home for the iPhone.

And in a broader sense, I hope the hackers convince Apple to open up the iPhone, not just to other carriers, but to third-party developers as well. If not, it will be the Mac vs. the PC story all over again -- Apple develops cool device, Microsoft or some other company transforms it into a mass market hit, and Apple is left with the elegant niche product.

The iPhone is a beautiful, elegant device. I would love to be able to use it. Remember, I'm not asking for much. I just want a keyboard. It doesn't have to be attached, as in the Psion. I wouldn't mind plugging in one of those little folding keyboards. Or using infrared. Or Bluetooth. Just give me a keyboard. Please.


Anonymous said...

My old Psion series 5 was on its last legs. Last week I found a 5mx for £49 (UK pounds) in a charity shop, perfect condition, possibly never used, and a 32mb CF card in the slot. Despite the murky screen, can't see that these machines with their superb keyboards will be beaten any time soon. You just have to avoid opening & closing them 100 times a day. If something better does come along, I'll want it.
Good luck - John.

Templar said...

I'm a huge PDA/Palmtop computer lover. Nothing and I mean NOTHING has come close to my old Psion 5. The Psion 5 came out first in 1997(!) and even some fourteen years after, nothing has come as close to the Psion in terms of reliability (minus the screen cable) or the typing capabilities.

I've recently bought an Android Palmtop, bought it because it reminded me of the Psion. I'm going to see how it turns out. The battery life compared to the Psion 5 SUCKS, but I guess that's what you pay with a color screen and wireless. :(

Nice blog, loved reading your articles!