iPhone Goodness (and Gotchas) from Google

Apple did something very evil this summer: they timed the launch of the iPhone to almost perfectly coincide with the start of our familial migration to Seattle from Pennsylvania (for a new job opportunity). Knowing that we would need to be interacting remotely quite frequently for some time, my wife and I made the decision to free ourselves from the backwater phone tech that Verizon had to offer, bite the (extremely painful) early termination bullet and purchase two iPhones. (As an aside, while I do not miss Verizon’s choice of phones, I do miss their stellar network service). It has been the first phone my wife has actually enjoyed using and I was looking forward to the opportunity (during the pre-launch hype, at least) of writing applications for it and converging mobile broadband computing, telephony and entertainment – a path was loathe to take pre-Apple. I had no idea it would be the key to at least my survival in our new hometown.

It started with relatively painless access to e-mail (Google hosts e-mail for our domain, so there were some initial challenges with Mobile Mail) and the brilliant iChat-like SMS implementation. We were able to easily exchange vital data regarding the house sale, house purchase, flights, etc, and visual voicemail and no-brainer conference calling made vocal coordination a snap. The real power of the iPhone – for me, at least – came from Google. Prior to this opportunity, I had never been further west than Vegas, so I was completely new to the greater Seattle area. Google Maps for iPhone made it a breeze to figure out where I was and where I wanted to be. The gotcha was how to get there. I was car-less for a while (in transit for a while as it made its way across the country) and didn’t really want to drive anyway – trying to be as eco-friendly here as possible. That’s when I discovered Google Transit. Until the most recent incarnation of the web tool, it made getting around the mass transit system here a breeze. Now, it’s pretty much useless as the results page brings up Google Maps for iPhone and driving directions instead of a well-formatted transit schedule. [Gotcha #1] Thankfully, the other local transit web apps are more than usable in Mobile Safari until Google gets their act together.

The initial hiccups with POP mail access to hosted GMail accounts were frustrating, and the Mobile Safari experience to the full GMail client was less than stellar. Google’s recent switch to IMAP helped, but since they did a pretty rudimentary IMAP implementation it was also lacking. Then, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they completely overhauled the Mobile Safari version of their mail interface. Even over EDGE it beats IMAP by a wide margin and is overall less buggy than Mobile Mail. Plus, there is far more consistency between it and the full web interface than IMAP or POP.

Being a mass transit road warrior, I use the iPhone for entertainment even more than I had originally expected, but at some point during my first few weeks in Seattle I was longing for a dedicated RSS reader (it’s an application that is still sorely lacking) to go beyond moving pictures and sound. I reluctantly imported all of my feeds into Google Reader – I’ve been a die-hard NewsFire user for quite a while and have not looked back. I was able to catch-up on-the-go and not have to sift through the same feeds when I was at a full browser. The mobile interface wasn’t perfect, but it worked. So, I was further impressed when the fine folks on the Reader team gave the mobile version an awesome face-lift for the iPhone. Not only does it look better, but it’s much faster as well.

They’ve applied the same cosmetic surgery to practically their whole suite of mobile web apps – including Docs & Calendar – and have done such a good job that now retains a permanent spot in one of the eight coveted open “tabs” in Mobile Safari. Despite a few areas that still need improvement, Google has provided the tools that really make the iPhone indispensable.