At an invitation-only press event in Cupertino, Apple began to lay out what programmers and consumers can expect in its forthcoming iPhone OS 4.0, due in mid-2010. At the top of everyone’s list: some form of multitasking, which would enable users to run multiple applications on their iPhones at the same time—and Apple looks like its going to deliver this summer.
Of course, Apple’s event falls on the heels of the company’s recent launch of the iPad, so Apple CEO Steve Jobs would be remiss not to mention the iPad’s progress. Apple claims to have sold some 450,000 iPads as of today (a good bit short of the 600,000+ claimed by Chitika), with customers having downloaded more than 3.5 million applications and 250,000 iBooks so far. Overall, Apple’s App Store has pushed more than 4 billion applications to consumers, and already some 3,500 of the store’s 185,000 applications are for the iPad.
New iPhone OS 4 Features
Then Jobs quickly moved to highlight what developers and programmers can expect in iPhone OS 4: Jobs says the update will include over 100 new users features, as well as developer APIs that will speed up math functions (very handy for graphics, media, and games), add SMS capabilities to their applications, as well as provide access to iPhone data sources like users’ calendars and onboard image libraries.
Jobs then went on to focus on seven “tentpole” features of iPhone OS 4: multitasking, an improved Mail application, home screen folders, iBooks, enhanced features for enterprises…and a social gaming network called “Game Center” and Apple’s own mobile advertising platform, iAd.
The most significant of iPhone OS 4’s new features will be multitasking: Jobs re-iterated that Apple doesn’t want to implement multitasking on the iPhone in a way that substantially reduced battery life or that turned foreground applications to sludge…but iPhone OS 4 will finally offer a multitasking system for consumers. Users will be able to switch between running applications using a Dock-like interface that shows all currently running apps across the bottom of the screen, enabling users to quickly switch back to another application, or return to their home screen.
Apple apparently worked around multitasking performance issues by analyzing “tens of thousands” of iPhone applications, then focussing on creating an API of services they would need in order to run successfully in the background, so applications themselves don’t have to worry about trying to conserve battery power: that’s all left to the iPhone OS. Apple invited Pandora founder Tim Westergren on stage to show a version of the Pandora streaming music application that ran in the background behind other iPhone apps, but could still be controlled on the iPhone’s locked screen. According to Westergren, it took their developers just one day to convert Pandora into a background-aware application. Apple also highlighted VoIP solutions like Skype as another win for multitasking: users would be able to switch to another application (say, to check their calendar or a Web site) while staying on a VoIP call. Users would also be able to receive Skype calls while the application is in the background.
Background applications will also have access to location information, which will help with apps providing turn-by-turn directions or other location-based services. Location services can be based on the iPhone’s integrated GPS receiver, although a battery-saving services based on cell tower and Wi-Fi locations will also be available—and are probably preferable for apps (like social networking tools) that don’t require constant location information. To protect privacy, users will be able to control whether applications have access to location information, and an indicator will tell users whether an app has asked for location information in the last 24 hours.
iPhone OS 4 will also feature a new notification service, enabling foreground and background applications to let the user know when a task is complete (like a file transfer) or when something important is going to happen (like the series of finale of Lost). Background way applications will also be able to use a fast-switching service, so the application can sit in the background and consume no CPU power: the fast-switching service is ideal for something like games, enabling them to be suspended while a user switches to another application, then come back and immediately pick up where they left off.
The downside? Multitasking will apparently only be supported on the iPhone 3GS and current iPod touch: earlier iPhones (including the still-available iPhone 3G) and second-generation iPod touch apparently simply don’t have the hardware capability to support multitasking, although other features of iPhone OS 4 will be available on those devices.
iPhone OS 4 will also feature homes screen Folders enabling users to create nested groups of applications: iPhone users could create a Folder for “Games” and put all their game applications inside it: Folder aim to solve the problem of home screen clutter, and users will be able to create as many folders as they like. Folders can live on the iPhone’s dock, and each folder can have its own home screen/lock screen background image.
Apple is also planning an improved version of the iPhone’s Mail application with a unified inbox that pulls together messages from multiple email accounts; the new version of Mail will also support accessing more than one Microsoft Exchange account. The Mail application will also feature thread-based organization (highlighting threads that have new messages); users will also be able to open email attachments with applications from the App Store.
iPhone OS 4 will also be picking up some stuff from the iPad: most notably, iBooks, Apple’s new electronic bookstore. Like Amazon’s Kindle platform, users will be able to read iBooks on any supported device, rather than re-purchasing them for iPad and iPhone: users will be able to synchronize their bookmarks between devices so they can pick up reading right where they left off on another device.
Enterprise & Microsoft Exchange
Under the hood, Apple is also adding some serious featured aimed at enterprise and developers. iPhone OS 4 will feature improved device management functions to help IT departments keep all the iPhones deployed to employees on the same page. iPhone OS 4 will support wireless application distribution, support for Exchange Server 2010 and SSL/VPN, and new APIs to help developers encrypt data stored on the iPhone. In comments after the event, Jobs indicated wireless application distribution for enterprise is not opening the door to alternative ways for developers to distribute iPhone applications other than through the App Store.
Next, Apple is aiming to improve the iPhone and iPod touch as a gaming platform: a new feature will be “Game Center,” which will enable users to challenge friend to multiplayer game environments, automatically matching them up with available players at a similar skill level. Apple envisions Game Center as a social gaming network, enabling iPhone and iPod touch users to immediate engage in social casual gaming anywhere they can get Internet access. Game Center applications will be able to offer players Xbox Live-like achievements, but other sorts of player ranking and matching options are apparently under consideration.
Finally, Apple is also taking the wraps off iAd, it’s new mobile advertising platform built right into the iPhone operating system. Stemming from Apple’s recent acquisition of Quattro Wireless, iAd is aimed at giving developers a way to create a revenue stream from inexpensive—or free—applications. Although firms like Google have been focused on bringing search advertising to mobile phones, Apple argues that mobile users aren’t really searching: they’re spending their time inside applications. Therefore, in-application advertising is more effective for mobile users than search advertising&helip;and Apple’s iAd platform provides a way for developers to easily and quickly integrate advertising into their application—and receive 60 percent of the revenues generated from ads in their applications.
However, Apple seems intent on making iAds more than a translation of Internet banner ads to the iPhone: applications will keep people in their applications (rather than interrupting what they’re doing) but offer interactive video advertising content within applications. Apple’s sample advertisements (one is for Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3, not-so-coincidentally) is implemented using HTML5 video; iAds is not using Adobe Flash. Video ads do not start playing automatically: users have to decide they want to see an ad, and they can be dismissed with a single tap. Advertisements will be able to tap into location-aware services to (for instance) show retail locations or related events closest to the user. Jobs says Apple doesn’t intend to become a worldwide ad agency; rather, it sees iAd as an integrated advertising platform for which many agencies and advertisers will develop content.
Coming this Summer…and This Fall for iPad
When will iPhone OS 4 reach users? Apple isn’t supplying a specific date, but says it will roll out to customers “this summer.” However, it will only be available for the iPhone 3G, 3Gs, and current iPod touch: owners of the original EDGE-only iPhone and the first generation iPod touch will be left out in the cold. Jobs also implied that not all iPhone OS 4 features—such as multitasking—would be available on the iPhone 3G and second-generation iPod touch: apparently the hardware just can’t support it. That pretty much means the signature feature of iPhone OS 4 will only be available on the iPhone 3GS and current iPod touch…although Jobs also says all these features will be coming to the brand-new iPad “this fall.”
And iPhone developers can get their hands on the iPhone OS 4 beta SDK right now.