iPhone 3G (or why Apple really piss me off)

So I admit it. I’ve got an Apple shinyitis problem. Like many other people, I had to buy the first iPhone (there just wasn’t an option), and in order to be one of the cool kids (and to get a few features that actually are useful) I had to upgrade to the 3G. But this has not been a smooth process…

WARNING: The following blog post contains ranting.

I’m an AT&T loser. I signed up to Cingular when I moved to the US (purely on ideological grounds), and they happened to get re-bought by AT&T and go full circle again somewhat later than Ma Bell might have liked. I wasn’t prepared to use a cellular network not built on standards used outside of the US and the notion of using Verizon, Sprint, or similar was almost repulsive to me. That would be like endorsing China’s attempts at creating new “standards” for their cellular networks, just because they don’t like the US defining everything else. Besides, GSM (and its successors) won the war a long long time ago everywhere outside of the US. American networks just didn’t get the memo.

Anyway. So I was already on AT&T, getting the original iPhone didn’t prove too much of a battle – aside from the stupid activation nonsense. I was luckily not too late to the game, or I’d have been offended by the forced in-store activation crap they’re into these days. I enjoyed the iPhone as much as one can enjoy a sub-standard attempt by Apple at producing a cellphone, complete with the following defects:

*). No open development platform.
*). No third party apps (and no ssh).
*). Excessive per-application memory limits (Safari will crash when it tries to render a page with large or complex content).
*). etc.

I was, therefore, forced to crack the first iPhone (to fix the lack of ssh – the phone was completely useless without it, almost negatively useful). That only took about 8 hours of research and effort to repeatedly upgrade cracked firmwares until I finally got a stable enough 1.1.3 installation. I never “upgraded” to 1.1.4 since I just didn’t want the hassle of figuring that downgrade-to-upgrade path out. The phone was functional enough, and it didn’t have Apple’s stupid lockdownd getting in the way of doing useful things with the phone. Almost quite useful.

When the 3G was announced, I was semi-interested. A 3G iPhone with aGPS (not full GPS – it requires cellular coverage to perform the assist) was fairly interesting, and the App Store suggested more official SSH solutions might become available soon. Coupled with a recent gift card, recent (useful) App Store additions, a MA Tax Holiday weekend, and a few other things, I decided it might be worthwhile. So I wondered down to the Apple Store yesterday, like one of the many other Apple sheep.

Approaching the Apple Store, I was greeted by the Apple people. My response was a very obvious – shall we say – “religious gesture”. It was either going to be that or getting down on my knees – just to draw attention to the ridiculousness of the Apple shrine glasshouse they have down on Boylston St. and the crazed Apple people who enjoy seeming to be smarter than everyone else. They had hoardings up in case a stampede of people came in, and a line with those silly retractable dividers like you get in a bank. This was so I could stand around pointlessly in a line while someone “prequalified me”.

It’s a good thing I was going into Orbit on the next NASA mission, because had I been just buying a phone I might have found it all extremely amusing and offensive – that I needed to give my personal details to some dude to “check” I was “qualified” to make such a special purchase. Was I worthy? Sure. Did I make a scene and get management to justify this nonsense in front of the others waiting in this pointless line? Of course. It won’t stop there, more people need to poke fun at the silly little game Apple and AT&T (who apparently forced this activity) are playing so they learn to stop being so silly. If a customer with an iPhone already says they’ve even used the online AT&T account checker to verify their account is in good standing and all that crap, then Apple should accept their word as an honest citizen.

Anyway. So Apple had already pissed me off nearly to the point of walking out of the store without a phone even before selling one to me. But I waited with my silly coupon “valid only at this Apple Store”. I got the “3G” iPhone. It didn’t descend from above with a halo around it, harps playing. Instead, someone got it from the back room and brought it over. One more check to make sure I was “qualified” and we were in business…nearly. First they had to figure out how to handle a Gift Card…which of course is rocket science. Finally, a purchase. Now, let’s activate the new phone and make some test calls in the store so we don’t find it doesn’t work the moment we leave. Ok, it’s more or less working. I didn’t even have to sleep with Steve Jobs.

Aside: There’s no dock and I know this (I also know they have the 2.0 software reject many charging solutions that used to work with the old iPhone – like my perfectly functional iPhone 1.0 charger), but surely my existing one will work? I should have known better, and that I’d be back later to spend an extra $30 on one. When is Apple anything if not the most able of any company to make you spend $30 (more in Europe, I’m sure) on a piece of shiny plastic to rest your phone on? Seriously. If anyone else made these, people would scoff at the notion, but we’re all shiny Apple people here and expensive plastic is the order of the day.

I left the store after about an hour, having made one final complaint to management about the absolute ridiculousness of the experience. Then I sat in Starbucks while I got a couple of Apps that I wanted. I could finally remotely connect to the outside world without having to crack the firmware. Perhaps this was worthwhile after all. I took it home. On the way, I discovered that the App Store App on the iPhone doesn’t like getting disconnected by a train tunnel during install. It really doesn’t like that to the point where the App wont be installed and can’t be re-installed again without a lot of hassle. Nice work, Apple.

Syncing with iTunes, the new phone did pull in all of my existing settings and content. That went fairly smoothly for the most part – even my old photos were back in the gallery, and so forth. But it did trample on the Notes I had made on the way home. The old phone, no longer able to connect to AT&T’s network got upgraded finally to the 2.0 software update and is currently serving as a slightly more advanced iPod Touch (with a camera) and a backup/development unit. I hope to try some App Development since there are some missing features still. The original 8GB iPhone I picked up earlier this year is in pieces and will now be used solely to help out with the iPhoneLinux port efforts – we’ve got to get Linux running on this gorgeously capable hardware (and save it from the horribly limited Apple Software).

Here comes the bad news: the 3G iPhone is crap. Although the software is somewhat better than the EDGE-based predecessor, there’s a (by now, anyway) well known bug affecting the Infineon 3G chipset used in these things. It manifests in my case as an inability to hold a 3G connection after transitioning from WiFi or EDGE. Instead, I need to set the phone into Flight Mode and back to force a reconnection. Then I am able to hold a VPN connection and connect to the outside world. The battery life is also crappier than they claimed on 3G, which might force me to run mostly in EDGE mode unless that gets fixed.

I would not recommend you buy an iPhone 3G unless you like shiny plastic crap as much as I do, or you have an Apple problem. It’s very shiny, it’s probably the most sophisticated cellphone in production today and for the price, it’s really not bad hardware at all (though I get the feeling that this is very much a “cost reduction” over the original iPhone hardware – it doesn’t feel quite as polished and well built). But Apple continue to lock this thing down, play a game of utter secrecy, and do all of those usual Apple things that constantly make me wonder when I’m going to finally snap and realize I’ve given into it completely :)

Why didn’t I just buy a Neo Freerunner? I advocate the OpenMoko platform in my latest book, so why not use one as my regular cellphone? In a nutshell, the Neo is a fantastic example of Open Source done right in many regards, but it is far from a fully functional cellphone for the modern age. It can make and receive phone calls (just) and it does have WiFi, but there is (and may never be – due to issues outside of their control – free EDGE/3G support. It will unlikely ever be a mobile broadband device, but will be a cool phone. I might get one to play around with, but I can’t rely on it until I can ssh properly on the go (incidentally the reason I also had to crack the first iPhone to fix it).

Since we live in a world of mobile broadband, and the world is becoming dependent upon it (the assumption is that one has such access, especially once one actually does have this after buying an iPhone and others know this), it’s difficult to justify a Neo over an iPhone aside from pure ideology. And with my pragmatist’s hat on, I benefit from being able to read email from the taxiway like the other evening – yes, maybe that’s a sad reality of modern times, but it’s true nonetheless. Especially now my corporate VPN supports the iPhone – it’ll only get worse.


P.S. Do not think NFS-mounted-music is a good idea to try with iTunes unless you want a world of pain. What a load of horrific crap – I’ve simply got to stop relying on iTunes for stuff.

One Response to “iPhone 3G (or why Apple really piss me off)”

  1. Sushubh says:

    had fun reading your iphone 3g experience :)

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