Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
Last week's Switched On discussed the iPhone's controversial software-based keyboard in the context of its phone, media playback and Web-surfing features in which text entry plays only a walk-on role. (Note how no one seems to be bemoaning the iPhone's lack of handwriting recognition.) But email is another important part of the Internet experience. And while here, too, time reading generally outweighs time writing, email is one of the most compelling justifications for a good keyboard on a mobile phone.
It's no accident that RIM's Blackberry was one of the earliest phones to have a thumb-typable keyboard. Indeed, Blackberry supported such a keyboard even before it supported phone calls (and even on the Blackberry's predecessor, the RIM 950 "interactive messenger"), operating on a two-way paging network. If it's consistent with its desktop cousin, the iPhone's version of Safari actually does a good job of Outlook Web Access.
However, the iPhone is not optimized for the level of Microsoft Outlook synchronization that the Blackberry and Windows Mobile devices are. If you need your phone to be your lifeline to your business communication and you work for a company where IT appropriately protects the Exchange server like The Lost Ark, you will have bigger problems using your iPhone for searchable offline email than its keyboard until Apple support Exchange ActiveSync as other Microsoft competitors Palm and Nokia have.
Finally, there's SMS and instant messaging. Unfortunately, Apple is supporting only the former now, albeit with an iChat-like interface. This is the most synchronous use of the iPhone's keyboard and one where the iPhone's keyboard is a more significant liability. In the approximately 20-minute iPhone walkthrough, e-mail isn't discussed in depth until almost 15 minutes have passed and SMS even later than that
Other text-entry situations will develop. The iPhone sports a notes widget. Zoho has begun to support Apple's sleek slate with its Web-based word processor as have the makers of Trillian with instant messaging, but the iPhone simply has a different center of gravity than did the Newton, which focused extensively on capturing notes throughout the day. And history has shown that, apart from perhaps the Twitter-addicted, the market for daily recording devices has yet to materialize.
Besides, for composing anything beyond a few paragraphs on any handset, one should consider a larger keyboard that can be laid flat like the Bluetooth Stowaway developed by ThinkOutside. However, according to at least one accessory maker I've spoken with, that may take a while as there seems to be no apparent way to offer text input through either Bluetooth or the dock connector.
In this initial incarnation, consider the iPhone more an evolution of the media handset as opposed to a productivity-boosting smartphone of yore. Buyers will come away happier if they want a phone designed to play some novel tunes, and not tune novels.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.