There’s No App For That

I’m a nerd. I admit it. I derive enjoyment from unnecessary fiddling with machines and gadgets. In my case though, that isn’t combined with much of a desire to acquire the latest, flashiest gadgets. I understand the attraction, but it’s not something that affects me.

So I don’t have an iPhone, but I do see why people want one, just for the thing’s pure, mesmerizing gadgetyness. The feel, the look: the designers got it spot on, so that people just want to hold it in their hand, and do.. well, all the cool stuff that an iPhone can do. It’s only now, more than three years after the iPhone was released, that other manufacturers have products that approach the design quality of the Apple iPhone, but I don’t think there’s anything yet that actually beats it.

In comparison, I found the iPhone’s big brother, the iPad, a design disappointment. In my opinion, the flat front and big border round the screen give it a cheap look, like a downmarket digital photo frame. (Although the clarity and sharpness of the screen itself are both excellent.) But, again, I can understand why somebody might want to buy one.

iPadIn fact, in my days as a travelling executive, I’d have been very interested at the prospect of a compact and lightweight device to access e-mail and documents and browse the web. All of my colleagues carried laptops, and always the latest and most powerful models, and I could have had one too but didn’t. I found traditional laptops too heavy and bulky to be worth carting around the country. For a time, I tried a handheld computer, running Pocket Windows. (I had originally bought it to talk to a GPS module and run mapping software. More on that later.) But what I settled on eventually was an obsolete laptop which was exceptionally thin and light, like one of today’s netbooks, except not as powerful. The convenience of the small size made up for the lack of computing power.

As well as attractive hardware, Apple are known for software which is easy to use, and that’s probably why they’ve chosen to have the iPad run the same operating system as the iPhone, rather than OS X like a Mac. That decision also means that the normal user can only run software frm Apple’s App Store, giving the company much greater control. For the nerd, that lockdown is a serious irritation, but the iPad isn’t a product for nerds anyway.

But there’s a more fundamental difference between the iPhone type of operating system and the sort of thing you use on computers: no files. While browsing files is the usual way of working with a computer — and you know that if you double-click on a file with a .doc extension, Word will open up and you’ll be able to edit it — on the iPhone and iPad, you work from the applications, not the files. The data, say your Contacts, is “on the device somewhere”, but you can’t access it outside of the correct application.

That probably does simplify use for the average owner. For example, there’s no way you can even try to open your Contacts as a spreadsheet or any such crazy nonsense, something you could easily do on your PC or Mac. Except, say you wanted to?

When I was on holiday, I had a sudden thought that if I lost my phone or broke it, I’d lose the numbers of everyone I might want to call. I decided that I needed to back up the phone’s Contacts list, but I’d stupidly forgotten to bring the phone’s USB lead. You see, I had a computer with me, the very same little laptop that I used to use in work, now laughably antiquated, but suitable for basic purposes. If it had Bluetooth, I could have copied over the Contacts using that, but no. Then I remembered that my navigation device, although also fairly ancient, is a Windows Pocket PC and has Bluetooth.

What’s more, it has a function to receive a Contacts list from a phone via Bluetooth. Except, it doesn’t work. I don’t know if it’s the phone or the PC, (probably the latter; it is Windows, after all) but only the first name and number was showing up. But that’s the whole flaw in the concept of hiding the file, because “not working” was all I knew. In contrast, when I send the Contacts to my proper computer using Bluetooth, it appears as a file, called Whole_Contacts.vcf. I don’t appear to have any applications that know what to do with a .vcf file, but that’s OK, since it’s actually just specially formatted text, which you can open with the equivalent of Notepad and see all the information.

By removing the ability to access your own data, apart from by the approved application, you’re being put at the mercy of the application designer. If something happens which he didn’t think of, you could be left with something which just doesn’t work for no apparent reason. And no software designer can cover all the eventualities. I know, I used to be one.

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