Not (Quite) Indispensable

Don’t get me wrong: I love my iPhone. It’s awesome to have the internet at my fingertips almost anywhere. But, for me, it’s still a toy. It’s not an indispensable tool. Not yet.

I regularly use my iPhone to Twitter, track my daily weight, look things up on Wikipedia, read USA Today, check my Gmail, track my to-do list, and check the weather. I rarely use it as the phone it is, as my friends are mostly e-mail or Facebook types, and I don’t have a kid to track down multiple times a day. I do text with Aaron every now and again, when one of us is at work.

Very few of these things actually require a mobile handheld device. I could check the weather from my computer at work or at home. Same with my e-mail and Twitter (although Twitter wouldn’t be quite as much fun that way). I have an Excel spreadsheet with my daily weight. And so on.

That said, the iPhone was the closest thing to an indispensable tool when we were in Japan.

Home ScreenWe went ahead and paid for the 50MB international data add-on for both of us, and it was completely worth it. We used our iPhones to get around Tokyo, to Twitter and post photos, to check the weather, and to translate words and kanji that we didn’t know or couldn’t read. Could we have done these things without our iPhones? Mostly. We have a bilingual Tokyo atlas, and a phrasebook, and we know where the Apple Store in Ginza is (for free internet access). That’s how we did it in 2007.

It was so much more convenient this time, though.

Some things were a little too localized to be helpful: the AroundMe app, for instance. We could look for coffee shops nearby, sure, but we could only locate them if we could read the names in Japanese. Same for mapping subway routes or walking directions with Google Maps — we could see the general direction to go, but there was no option to translate the station names or street names to romaji (Japanese spelled out with the “normal” alphabet).

We were fine on the subway front, though, since we had the Tokyo Metro app (seen in the bottom right of my home screen). It actually did include a few JR lines, but mainly all we needed was the Metro, anyway. That made our lives so much easier: just ask the app how to get from Point A to Point B instead of sifting through the multicolored spaghetti on the English subway map. (Again, we could have done it — we’ve done it before and not gotten lost — but the convenience factor!)

Although it wasn’t great for subway routes, Google Maps was fantastic for finding our way to destinations we’d marked out earlier on My Maps on the web. Google currently doesn’t have an official way to sync My Maps with the iPhone app, but luckily there’s a website out there that does it for you. Just plug in your public map, and it will provide you links that open in the Google Maps app. From there, you can save the location in the app, then ask the app for directions from your current location. The quasi-GPS only flaked out on us once or twice; for the most part, it tracked where we were perfectly. It was great for finding stores that weren’t well-marked, or were in weird parts of town, down narrow back alleys.

The AT&T myWireless app was a dud. Every time I tried to check our data usage (which was why I downloaded the app in the first place), the service was unavailable. It wasn’t just because we were in Japan, because it did work sometimes. We were still fine, though — we just reset the usage statistics when we got on the plane to Japan, at the same time we put our iPhones into Airplane Mode. Then we took a screenshot of our usage when we flew home, just in case AT&T decided to screw us over at billing time. (Which, thankfully, they didn’t.)

I love my iPhone. Aaron loves his iPhone. (Possibly more than I love mine.) But the only place where they were an awesome, AWESOME tool was on vacation. Just a touch ironic, don’t you think?

As for the 3.0 upgrade… there are only a few things that will make me a happier camper. Being able to log into my YouTube account will be nice, for sure. Landscape keyboard will be welcome, too. I’m not sure how much I’ll use cut-copy-paste, but we’ll see. I rarely text, but I suppose being able to send and receive photos via MMS will be pretty sweet. Voice memo? There’s already apps for that. I suppose syncing notes will be nice, but only if I can edit them on my PC, which I’m assuming isn’t the case.

So, I do enjoy having an iPhone, but I’m not particularly pissed about not being able to upgrade for a reasonable price. I signed up for a two-year agreement, and expected to be stuck with (“stuck with”? This thing rules!) the same phone for the entire two years. It’s what contracts are all about.

Maybe by the time I’m ready to renew, the 32GB iPhone 3GS will be a little cheaper. Then I can retire my “Classic” iPod… maybe.

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