iPhone brings back the DOS dilemma

Apple's iPhone is supposed to be about the cool, new mobile Internet future. But using the smartphone reminds me too much of the past. The beautiful, ergonomically-designed iPhone has two related flaws: Fixed battery and prohibited background applications. Apple wrongly chose to put form before function in designing iPhone hardware and software.

The device's related flaws remind me of MS-DOS PCs' 640k memory limit. Microsoft used digital steroids -- extended and expanded memory -- to bulk up MS-DOS. But it was never enough to make up for what memory limitations took away from DOS' performance or stability.

MS-DOS of the 1980s and iPhone of the 2000s share an important similarity: They're emerging application platforms. Apple's App Store arguably offers the best mobile applications available anywhere; hey, 100,000 apps are nothing to snicker at. MS-DOS and later Windows succeeded largely because of the breadth of available applications. But number of apps isn't the measure of a successful platform.

The IBM PC and later clone memory architecture brought great pain to developers, end users and IT organizations. So many early problems running MS-DOS go back to hardware memory limitations and which device drivers loaded when and where in the 640K memory space (which technically was much less). Meanwhile, a huge aftermarket of memory enhancements developed. Microsoft sought to fix memory problems first with Windows 2.0 and later Windows 95, but never really satisfactorily; backward compatibility made the 640K limit an ever-present handicap. Windows NT, particularly v4, brought much better memory architecture, but the masses didn't see the benefits until Windows XP (and v2000 for many businesses).

The iPhone inflicts developer and end user pain, too, just with a different ceiling. Most of iPhone's problems start with the battery, which simply isn't good enough as designed. Battery life is too short for the device's use as phone and pocket computer. If the battery life were adequate within the fixed design, Apple would allow background applications to run freely. But they would too quickly sap battery life. Like early PCs, a hardware limitation undermines the operating system and applications.

Most every iPhone user I know plans daily activities around the device's battery life, even 3GS users. Some people keep the smartphone constantly cradled. Others use daily commutes to recharge the battery. Still others defile iPhone's beautiful form by attaching extended batteries. But none of these people squeeze much more than a full day's phone and application use from a single charge of iPhone's internal battery. These people modify their lifestyles because they so love iPhone and App Store.

If you do get enough from a single charge, I'd like to read about it, as probably would many other iPhone users. Please comment. Everyone else, feel free to gripe and offer your iPhone battery coping techniques. People who modify behavior because of alcoholic or dysfunctional family or friends seek counseling. You, iPhone users, I share your pain. Let's open up a mass counseling session in the comments.

Apple doesn't just inflict coping behavior on iPhone users. There is the aforementioned technological compromise, too. All modern mobile operating systems multitask -- even iPhone OS is capable. But Apple largely hobbles background applications.The company is on record admitting that background apps sap battery life. Apple's push notification solution, which released more than a year late, by the way, reminds me of Microsoft tricks to get around MS-DOS PCs' 640k memory limitations.

It's a case of Apple putting form over function, which is a longstanding -- and perhaps flawed -- practice. Some examples, since Apple cofounder Steve Jobs' return:

  • Power Mac G4 Cube, which couldn't easily be upgraded, cost too much for the form and suffered from beauty marring mold lines.
  • Mac OS X 10 1.0, which released without support for optical drives that Apple shipped on several generations of Macs.
  • First generation iPod nano, which scratched way, way too easily.
  • iPhone/iPhone 3G, which when released lacked basic and expected features, like MMS and video recording, that are standard on even the cheapest of handsets.
  • MacBook Air, which is light and beautiful but costs too much for the hardware features (look how many are available refurbished from Apple Store).

There are plenty of other examples, but the list is long enough to make the point. Apple chose a fixed battery for purposes of form. Additionally, there is no removable cover that could be lost or broken and would mar the phone's svelte form.

The iPhone could be so much more if not for physical limitations created by the battery and arbitrary limitations of background applications to cope with the fixed battery. Now it's your turn, so I ask: Do you really get enough oomph from your iPhone battery? Do you have confidence that background apps could run without sapping battery life to quickly? Please answer in comments.

[Editor's Note: A different version of this post appeared on Joe Wilcox's personal Website in June 2009. That version is no longer available-- only its revised replacement here exclusive to Betanews.]

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