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Getting religion with the iPhone

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Iphone_l“Here’s your new life,” said the Apple Store clerk, beatifically, handing me the little black bag with my hot-off-the-FedEx-truck new iPhone. The comment was supposed to warm my heart, but I felt a slight chill. I’d just been thinking in line about how waggish bloggers had long since dubbed the long-in-coming device “the Jesus Phone,” so the clerk’s sendoff got me wondering what level of spiritual commitment I’d just made. I felt a little like Tom Cruise, finally graduating from the highest level of Scientology (and like I’d paid nearly as much for the privilege). When I ported over my old phone number from my previous carrier, would I also be automatically ported over from my previous religion?  My paranoia was compounded when I got home, activated the thing, hit the “weather” button on the opening interface, and for the longest time couldn’t find a way to bring up a forecast for any place other than “Cupertino.” Perhaps, in the fine print about the two-year agreement, there’d been something about having to pack up one’s home and actually move onto the cult grounds.

As I walked out onto a crowded Colorado Blvd. in Old Town Pasadena, though, I felt nearly as enviable as Tom Cruise for a few fleeting moments. Now, back in the ’90s, I once bought a sporty lemon of a car after reading the assertion on a message board that with this automobile I would “have to beat the chicks off with a stick!” — an assertion I soon learned contained some margin of error, depending on the driver. (It was probably  a bad sign that I was taking advice from someone on the soon-to-be-defunct Prodigy dial-up service, and that the celebrity spokesman for my soon-to-be-defunct Eagle Talon was Greg Kinnear. I digress.) Believe me when I tell you, anyway, that with your new iPhone, you might actually require just such a mythical baton for protection, if by “chicks” we mean paunchy middle-aged guys named Phil. I did also get my share of attention from the coveted younger-female demo: Wandering into the 21 Choices Yogurt shop across the street from Pasadena’s Apple Store, I nearly managed to shut down service entirely as the entire line of 20-ish female employees stopped what they were doing to fawn over the shrinkwrapped box. Not since I’d gone out riding in a limo with Bono on Sunset Blvd. a decade and a half ago had I inspired quite so many jealous (maybe hatefully jealous) stares.

I would like to report that, once I got it home, the buyer’s remorse and backsliding set in — no Cupertino Kool-Aid drinkers here, no sir — and that I set my bank account aright by returning it (with a restocking fee) after my test run. But it is with some financial bittersweetness that I tell you I did learn how to change the weather setting to Los Angeles, and that, after 72 hours, I love the iPhone almost as much as life (not to be confused with iLife) itself. Which isn’t to say that I, like everyone else, didn’t find a drawback or three to drive me crazy. There’s a reason why “three and a half stars out of four” has become the default review.  For anyone considering making the leap, let me go through a few of the features, perhaps hitting some angles that some of the more tech-oriented reviews might have skipped. (And I am certifiably a non-techie; my only previous “smartphone” was a Sidekick, and, as they say, how smart could it be if Paris Hilton had one?)

The smudge factor. “Touch screens — they’re not just forairline self-check-in kiosks anymore.” That might not be such a catchyslogan for Apple, but after spending some time with the iPhone, withthe design malleability an almost completely buttonless interfaceoffers, you may be ready to consign physical keypads back to the 20thcentury. Or not. This is probably not a phone for the trulyanal-retentive, since the very nature of the thing is that you rub yourgreasy fingers across it all day long. And trust me: your fingers aregreasier than you think they are, even if you’re no KFC regular —something that’ll quickly become evident once the sun reflects off it acertain way and you realize the device you were working so hard to keeppristine is, from moment to moment, a CSI investigator’s dream cometrue. For those of us used to telling our children to keep their dirtymitts off the TV screen, there’s something that just seems wrong aboutthat. The iPhone will affect any number of personal lifestyle changes,and the first one for me is this: Suddenly, I’m an obsessive-compulsivehand washer.

But if you’ve learned to love the diminishing use of actual buttons onlater-model iPods, you’ll learn to love it here. The on-screen virtualkeyboard does have a learning curve, to be sure. At first, even thedaintiest typist will probably feel like he or she has thumbs biggerthan Shrek’s. But after a couple of days, I’m typing with two thumbs atabout three-fourths the speed I used to on my Sidekick. (I’m feelingrather cocky about it, in fact — anyone want to challenge me to a WPMtournament?) The only really bad news here is that the keyboard onlyexpands to fit the horizontal width of the phone when it’s in web mode,which is great for typing in URLs and such; when you’re doing e-mail,though, it stays in vertical mode, meaning the keys are even smaller.The limited use of the wider virtual keyboard has been a constantcomplaint on message boards, so expect Apple to use future softwareupdates to allow the phone to go into “widescreen” mode in otherapplications.

The opening interface. No complaints whatsoever here:This is Apple’s simple brilliance at its best. You get 16 introductoryicons as “buttons”: Phone, e-mail, Safari Internet browser, and iPodare the critical four on the highlighted bottom panel, with theremainder on that bright opening grid including such obvious go-tos ascalendar, photos, and camera… and such not-so-obvious choices asstocks, weather, Google Maps, and YouTube. Speaking of which…

Stupid cat tricks, on the go. The iPhone is the result ofthe greatest minds in technology putting their heads together to solvethe number one unserved need of cell phone users: the ability to watchthat OK Go video with the treadmills while standing in line at the postoffice. YouTube is pretty much the only source of streaming web videos,since the device’s Safari web browser doesn’t support the Flash format,and Apple got YouTube to convert many of their clips to aniPhone-friendly protocol. It’s hard to predict which YouTube videosyou’ll be able to view and which you won’t. I did a search on myfavorite artist, Elvis Costello, and came up with nothing on the phone,versus the myriad amount I would find doing a similar search on YouTubeon my laptop. So then I did a search on Duran Duran, the favorite bandof one of my editors, and instantly came up with clips of themperforming at the previous week’s Princess Di tribute concert. Buttoilet-flushing cats? Readily available, and that surely, we can allagree on while waiting for stamps.

GPS, Scheme-PS. Who needs it? For me, Google Maps countsas a killer app on the iPhone. For others, it may not, since you canalready access mapping systems on any smartphone with web access. Butthe iPhone has set it up in such a brilliant way, you’ll swear you wereusing GPS. The “button” is on the opening interface; just type in theaddresses and not only do you get map and satellite overviews of yourroute, but sequential lists of turns and mini-maps. You can alsoquickly zoom in on a satellite view of your house, of course. (CueRobert Blake in David Lynch’s Lost Highway: “As a matter of fact, I’m there right now!”)

The entire Web, on the head of a pin. That’s kind of whatit looks like, when you call up a particularly busy web page; theentire width of the page shrinks to fit the screen, which may involvemicroscopic type. But to zoom in on an area of a page, you start withyour thumb and forefinger together on a desired area, then spread themout; to zoom out, you pinch them together. Depending on the web page,it can be a little bit like scanning a newspaper with a magnifyingglass. But DIY sizing beats any other method of browsing I’ve seen onsmartphones, which usually put you through a lot more unnecessaryscrolling to find whatever you’re looking for.

Instant messaging. There is none. For some of my fellow(former) Sidekick users, this will be a deal-breaker, as it nearly wasfor me. If you’re young enough that you use AIM constantly to keep upwith your social network, you might hold off on the iPhone for a while.It stopped being a stumbling block for me when I realized that days goby where my wife is my only real IM partner, and that a lot of myincoming instant messages amount to: “Dinner is getting cold. Where areyou? Please tell me you didn’t stop at Amoeba Records on the way homefrom work.” For that, I can probably use the phone’s standard SMStext-messaging system, which is set up with balloons that resemble alive chat interface.

Will Apple add instant messaging to the iPhone in a future softwareupdate, as they easily could, or do they have no intention? Hard totell. When the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg asked Steve Jobs about thisand a few other missing popular applications, Jobs replied: “I will saythat the iPhone is the most sophisticated software platform evercreated for a mobile device, and that we think software features arewhere the action will be in the coming years. Stay tuned.” Which couldmean: Yes, we just couldn’t get IM-ing together in time for the launch,or no, AT&T demanded we leave it off so people end up paying extrafor unlimited text messages. Asking Steve Jobs about what may or maynot be made available on the iPhone in the near future is likeconsulting the Magic 8-Ball: “Reply hazy. Try again.” “Concentrate andask again.” “Better not tell you now.” “Ask again later.” If only youcould shake his head in frustration till you finally get a “Signs pointto yes.”

The advent of talkies. Not only does the horizontalscreen make watching widescreen movies less of a squint than they wereon previous iPods, but there’s a built-in speaker. So if you forgetyour earbuds, or just want to share that hilarious episode of According to Jimwith a friend and don’t have an audio splitter handy, now you can enjoythe soundtrack in the open air. The sound for videos and movies isactually better than the sound when you put the headset to your ear forphone calls, which requires turning the volume up as far as it’ll go.But you were expecting subwoofers in something not much thicker thanthe credit card you depleted to buy the thing?

Eternal life. Not included, at least in version 1.0. Whatkind of self-respecting Jesus Phone is this, anyway, without theguarantee of a great hereafter, kingdom come, promised land, streetspaved with gold and/or with no name, et al? Asked by Walt Mossberg ifthe promise of a blissful eternal rest might be included in futureupdates, Steve Jobs replied, “I will say that the iPhone is the mostsophisticated software platform ever created for a mobile device, andthat we think software features are where the action will be in thecoming years. Stay tuned.” Until then, hallelujah anyway, and pleasepass the deliciously fruity concentrated beverage that I swear isn’twhat you think it is.