The Internet in My Pants

Since my job involves creating systems that underpin a bunch of websites, I’d ordered an iPod Touch for work as soon as they were announced. I’d been keen to get to spend more time with the version of Safari that ships on that device and on the iPhone, but wasn’t eager to tangle with AT&T and their usurious wireless plans. This provided a great chance to check out the sites we create and to let the team have some exposure to this new browser.

So let’s get it out of the way right off: Apple has exceeded my high expectations with the little device. I had read through the developer guidelines before receiving it, and didn’t expect our menus to work at all, since they rely on knowing when the mouse is over a menu header to pop it down. But even though the official docs said that sort of thing was unsupported, we were able to get through our site menus with a minimum of fuss.

More importantly, however, the iPod does remarkably well with nearly all existing websites. Though most mobile devices mangle pages in various ways to make them viewable, the version of Safari on the iPod displays them exactly the same as Safari on Mac or Windows would (which only makes sense since it’s built on the same rendering engine). I was able to visit all of my usual online haunts and navigate them with little difficulty.

Better yet, many of my most-used web tools, including GMail, Remember the Milk, Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader have versions optimized for the iPhone, which means even less tapping and dragging than would otherwise be necessary. Unoptimized pages are quite usable, but these optimized ones are an active pleasure to work with.

Now, I’ll admit that $300 seems like a lot for a media player. However, because of the strength of the browser (as well as the included Address Book and Calendar applications), in many cases it makes a legitimate replacement for a laptop. It thus compares very favorably to the $1,000 units that are, in some ways, its competition.

A few instances I’ve found myself using it:

  • Reading personal and university email and catching up on news during a 4 hour long training session. (It’s also more discreet than a laptop in these situations.)
  • Updating Twitter wherever I happen to find wifi access (which is surprisingly easy to do these days).
  • Reading a PDF summarizing election issues as I walk to my polling place. (The browser has a capable PDF reader built in as well.)
  • Bringing it to meetings instead of a laptop.
  • Checking my reading list while I’m at the library or bookstore.
  • And of course listening to Podcasts while I walk and accessing my calendars and contacts whenever they’re needed.

My only complaints:

  • Google Maps is unusable without mouse dragging, and Apple for mysterious reasons did not include the Map application on the iPod that comes with the iPhone. Hopefully they’ll remedy that (and add the Mail app, while they’re at it) soon.
  • The wireless reception is a bit weak, though better than I would have expected.
  • No support for Flash. This isn’t a big deal for sites that are designed for the iPhone, as you can do most anything you’d want with DHTML, but it does make its support for the web at large a bit weaker.
  • No camera. It would have been nice to have left that in when they took out the phone part.
  • No GPS. While this would be a bit more useful on the iPhone, it still seems shortsighted not to be able to do navigation when all the other hardware is there already. Perhaps they’ll add this for version 2.

In spite of these niggles, it’s fantastic to have something so small and lightweight that provides access to the web wherever one happens to be, and which does so with a good deal of panache. I call this one a home run for Apple.