Last year’s Macworld Expo was devoted almost exclusively to the iPhone, and despite speculation of a hardware refresh to a 3G iPhone, this year’s keynote delivered a few welcome software improvements available at no cost to the 4 million iPhone owners who bought one in the first 200 days of sales. The iPod touch was also brought into greater software parity with the iPhone, but existing owners must pay $20 to get the goods.
Google Maps Improvements — Google’s Maps application is truly one of the killer apps of the iPhone, but one limitation has been especially maddening: it doesn’t know where you are (even though by law your iPhone, and all recent cell phones, can roughly determine your location for emergency calls). We find ourselves having to enter “espresso seattle” or “cupcakes 98103” to tell Maps where to narrow the search.
Now, however, the iPhone gains the capability to triangulate its position using a combination of accessible cellular tower locations and the locations of recognizable Wi-Fi access points. Apple said that Google provides the cell tower location data, while Skyhook Wireless provides the Wi-Fi locations.
Skyhook Wireless has trucks constantly driving the largest cities in the United States and many cities worldwide, matching the unique identifiers of all Wi-Fi networks (not just public hotspots) against coordinates retrieved from a GPS receiver on the truck. Jobs said that Skyhook has 25 million networks recorded – but Skyhook probably has billions of snapshots that match each network with a point on the globe. (For more about Skyhook’s service, see “Loki Here,” 2007-06-18, which focused on their Loki toolbar. Also see a competing approach in “Glimpse of GPS Future in iPhone Hack,” 2007-09-21.)
Because the iPhone has an EDGE connection for cellular data, the iPhone does not need to be connected to a Wi-Fi network to scan the current Wi-Fi environment and send the results of that scan over EDGE to whatever servers handle the triangulation. However, the iPod touch, having Wi-Fi has its only means of Internet connectivity, must be connected to a Wi-Fi network to obtain its location. (Skyhook Wireless had previously told Glenn about a several megabyte database that could provide cached information that would be updated over time, but the company told Glenn that only live queries are being performed for the iPhone and iPod touch.)
Once Maps shows you on a map where you are, you can ask it for directions to where you’d like to go. You can also use a virtual pin to bookmark locations. The pin is new, too: there was no good way in previous versions of the iPhone firmware to mark arbitrary locations (such as where you parked your car, to use Apple’s example) in the Maps application.
Home Screen Customization — In advance of the anticipated software development kit for the iPhone in “late February,” the new iPhone software allows users to customize the home screens of their iPhones. Being able to rearrange, add, and subtract icons from the home screen is welcome: simply tap and hold on the home screen, which makes the application icons wiggle like kids on a sugar high. You can then drag the icons to whatever location you like, even moving them to the iPhone’s dock.
Even more welcome is the addition of eight more customizable home screens – it looks a bit like Spaces on the iPhone. Drag an icon to the left or right side of the screen to slide into the next space; the dock remains constant on every screen.
Web Clips — When Web bookmarks aren’t good enough, the new Web Clips feature can jump in. Web Clips lets you save a Web site as a button on the iPhone or iPod touch home screen. Tap the Plus button (now relocated to the bottom of the screen) to share the page, and choose Add to Home Screen.
The advantage of Web Clips, however, is that you can save just a portion of a Web page as a clip by zooming in and panning to a particular spot and creating the bookmark. You could zoom in on the Most Popular Articles sidebar on the TidBITS home page and get back to just that information in the future, for example.
SMS for Multiple People — With this new feature, you can send a single SMS message to several people at once. Apple has added a simple plus-sign button to the To: field of the New Message screen that enables you to add multiple people from your contact list, just as you would add people to a mail message.
A cynic would note that SMS is among the most profitable service of any kind ever developed. The iPhone service plans include 200 messages per month as part of a basic plan, while $10 extra gets you 1,500 messages, and $20 extra gets you unlimited messages. That extra $10 or $20 per month (or 15 cents per message for exceeding your monthly limit) is almost entirely profit, and each additional party to whom you send a message counts against your total.
Improved iPod — Also new in the iPhone 1.1.3 update is support for chapters, subtitles, and multiple languages in videos, and support for displaying lyrics on top of cover art when music tracks are playing.
Enhanced iPod touch — The $20 iPod touch update, available through the iTunes Store, adds five of the iPhone’s core applications – Mail, Maps, Stocks, Notes, and Weather. The update also includes Web Clips and home-screen customization, as well as the iPod features mentioned above. With this update, Apple has moved the iPod touch much closer to the iPhone, making it less of a hobbled also-ran. The only things missing are the camera, microphone, and cellular access (and the monthly phone bill!).
New iPod touches will come with the software update, but if you are shopping in the near term, make sure you know what you are getting. There’s no word yet on whether Apple is providing a grace period for devices just purchased, or currently on store shelves, that have the older firmware installed. (The $20 charge may be due to an accounting issue, which came up with the 802.11n enabler upgrade for Macs sold with 802.11n chips in late 2006 and early 2007 that wasn’t enabled; see “Two Bucks for 100 Mbps 802.11n Enabler,” 2007-09-07. Features that are beyond what’s promised in a sale have to be accounted for separately. Apple could have revised its earnings and eaten the cost, too; that’s equally legitimate. That said, the software update for Apple TV is available for free, even though it clearly offers new features.)
Other Changes — A few smaller updates have also appeared in the new software update. Support for IMAP mail via Google is now incorporated into the Mail application, and you can now purchase songs from the iTunes Wi-Fi Store using gift codes.
A Healthy Market — Jobs shared some market statistics on the iPhone, noting that the most recent numbers provided by research firm Gartner covered only the third quarter of 2007 in the United States, so this doesn’t reflect what were apparently stronger sales later in the year due to the iPhone’s European introduction. The iPhone had garnered 19.5 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, behind only RIM’s 39 percent share for its BlackBerry series of devices. The iPhone’s share was roughly equivalent to the sum of the next three vendors – Palm at 9.8 percent, Motorola at 7.4 percent, and Nokia at 1.3 percent – and to the large “Other” segment at 20.2 percent. (The Windows Mobile OS was part of the Other and Motorola figure, and not broken out.)
[Note: This article was updated after publication with additional details about how the Skyhook Wireless Wi-Fi data is sent over the network.]