Stuart buys iPhone: eternal night descends

Police Commissioner (Norman Matlock): The walls in the 53rd precinct were bleeding. How do you explain that?

Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

So, I bought an iPhone.

Those of you who have known me for a while might be surprised by this.

My history with phones is long and detailed and very, very idiosyncratic. I do not expect my reasons for wanting a thing to apply to anyone else. Don’t see this as a prescriptive essay telling you what you should do, because it isn’t. End of caveat.

After some considerable time using various phones I think I’ve defined the criteria, the things I want from a phone, as three: beauty, vitality, and openness. Beauty is about the software and the hardware together: does the thing feel pleasurable to hold, to use, to work with? Vitality is about the community: are there loads of apps? Is there competition so individual apps get better? Do bugs get fixed? When new things arrive, do they arrive on this platform? And openness is about stuff that the platform prevents you from doing: are there things that only certain magic anointed apps can do? Can I use this device from Ubuntu? Can I build apps without buying the one specific choice of IDE which doesn’t work on my laptop? Are there things which ought to work but don’t because they compete with the platform vendor’s business model?

This, in the words of the old joke, is one of those “three things: you can choose any two” situations.

Android, and Android phones, have vitality and openness, but not beauty. (Idiosyncratic definition, remember. If you’re just about to tell me that you think the Nexus 4 is beautiful, I don’t care; I don’t think it is. Disagreeing here is like telling someone you don’t think their husband is attractive; they’re not interested in your opinion.) I find Android to be inconsistent, incohesive, and annoying (with more detail 9 months ago if you want to read back). You are welcome to feel differently; you probably don’t share my taste in clothes either. (Hardware beauty is achieved in Android phones solely in my opinion by Sony with the Xperia range, but that doesn’t help the software. And Sony have a long-term record of unopenness, which is why I don’t buy their stuff.)

The Nokia N9… openness and beauty, no problem. I loved, and still love, the N9 hardware, and I love the software too. Swiping to switch between apps, that’s great. Three home screens, great. The feed, great. Applications that background explicitly rather than the phone thinking it knows better than I do about when to kill an app, great. Accessories that fit with the device and share design themes, great. But vitality is not with the platform. It’s decapitated upstream, and half the community don’t want to build great things on it; they want to build it itself. So there are not many apps, and there’s not much competition. So you don’t get Shazam. You don’t get Google+. The web browser is mildly deficient but more importantly isn’t tested, so things like Grooveshark’s HTML5 version don’t work. There are great apps for N9 (most of which are written by Thomas Perl ;)), and there’s nothing technical which stops it from being great. It just didn’t take off. You can name reasons for that until the cows come home — it wasn’t supported right by Nokia, it’s too difficult to write apps, it wasn’t available in the right countries, being open-source actually turns people off, the community are too busy hacking the OS to build great things — but the reason doesn’t matter. It didn’t take off, and so the limitations I find in it are very unlikely to be fixed.

And the iPhone… that’s beauty and vitality and no openness.

Beauty, vitality, and openness

Well (as I hear voices clamouring that I’m being unfair to the iPhone), I can’t create apps for the iPhone with Ubuntu. (You may be thinking that I’m wrong, that I can make PhoneGap apps with build.phonegap.com, or that I can do it some other way, and you’re as far as I can tell incorrect, and I spent a long time looking into this. You need a provisioning ID, and you can’t get one without a Mac. No, I’m not interested in buying a Mac, nor am I interested in having a friend with a Mac do the packaging for me.) My existing micro-USB chargers don’t work and Apple adaptors cost fifteen quid each. I can’t sync with iTunes because I don’t and won’t have iTunes. How can I even consider a phone which doesn’t let me do this basic stuff without locking me in to Apple’s ecosystem? What am I, some sort of traitor?

The three things I want: beauty, vitality, and openness. They’re all important. Having a phone where I can’t make apps, where I can’t sync, where it’s surreptitiously an upsell for the company’s laptops, is most certainly a compromise of my ideals, and I’m not totally happy about it. However, and this is the point, having a phone where I can’t do what I want with it (the N9) or one where I find it unpleasant and unbeautiful (Android) is also a compromise of my ideals, and I wasn’t happy about that either. It might not be a compromise of your ideals — you’re not expected to have the same goals as I do. You might not have those three goals in balance: perhaps beauty’s more important to you, or perhaps vitality is, or perhaps openness is. For me, they’re roughly in balance. And no-one provides them all. So I’ve tried two sides of the beauty-vitality-openness triangle; now I’m trying the third side. Nine months ago I said that “no-one can convincingly say that I will never, ever, ever need iTunes“, and “I’ll doubtless be looking at a new phone again in a year; convince me then.”. Thanks to popey and rockstar I’m now reasonably convinced that I in fact do not need iTunes to use an iPhone 5 with iOS 6. So far that’s been the case. I cannot write apps, this is true, and that by itself might annoy me so much over the next year that I get some other phone a year from now; we’ll see. I can write web apps for the things I want, and maybe that’s good enough. I don’t know. I certainly don’t need iTunes to sync: that’s what Ubuntu One is for, and so far that’s working excellently: the first three apps I installed were Ubuntu One Files, Ubuntu One Music, and Bluefire, and now I can read all my ebooks on my phone and that’s about 40% of what I use it for taken care of right there.

So, I’ve got this iPhone. Niamh is properly annoyed that I have one and she doesn’t, to which I say: unlucky, darling daughter. Wait a year and you might inherit it when I move on again.

Meanwhile… anyone have any recommendations for cool apps?