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Apple Previews iPhone 3.0 Software

At a special press event at its headquarters, Apple previewed the new iPhone 3.0 software, which adds the long-awaited push notification capability, support for subscriptions and purchases within applications, and copy and paste, among much else.

The software will be available this summer and will be free for iPhone users, while iPod touch users will pay $9.95 for the upgrade. Apple made a beta available to all those enrolled in the iPhone developer program following its morning announcement.

iPhone Stats — With sales of 13.7 million iPhones in 2008, Apple exceeded its goal of 10 million unit sales. That makes for a total of 30 million iPhone OS devices sold to date, comprising 17 million iPhones and 13 million iPod touches.

This is the first time Apple has broken out the iPod touch numbers, which were previously only a matter of speculation. This news should be reassuring to developers, as they can count on a much larger universe of potential buyers. Applications that work best or only over Wi-Fi also clearly have a significant audience.

The App Store has been doing well too, and Apple says that it now contains more than 25,000 apps (the number after subtracting flashlight, calculator, and Twitter apps wasn’t mentioned). Even more impressive, 800 million apps have been downloaded in the 8 months that the App Store has been open, though the company didn’t enumerate the difference between paid and free apps.

On the developer side, there are now 50,000 members in the paid developer program, and the iPhone SDK has been downloaded over 800,000 times. Apple claimed that 60 percent of iPhone developers are new to Apple platforms. Apple also made a point of noting that the App Store is a meritocracy, serving big and small developers alike. Although Apple has been improving the App Store of late (see “App Store Reviews Now Distinguish Versions,” 2009-03-12), many developers still feel as though it’s impossible to stand out among so many applications. According to Apple, 96 percent of apps submitted are approved, and 98 percent of those are approved within 7 days or less.

App Store Changes — One frustration among iPhone developers has been the rigidity of application sales models. For example, publishers have asked for the ability to offer subscriptions. Scott Forstall, Apple’s senior vice president of iPhone software, gave as an example a game that comes with 10 levels, with the option to purchase additional levels separately. He continued, “Today we’re supporting all of these additional business models.”

In-App purchasing will enable renewable subscriptions, the purchase of individual items (such as books in a bookstore or new levels of a game), and other add-ons within programs distributed via the App Store. iTunes will be used to handle the transaction, and Apple will offer the same split on sales: 70 percent of fees collected for In-App sales will go to the developer.

However, only paid apps can charge for add-ons: a developer won’t be able to offer a free application and then charge for additional content (which means we’re likely to see even more $0.99 apps, but the developers will have a greater opportunity to recoup development costs). Several demos during the event showcased the capability to add extras, such as a $0.99 rocket launcher for the first-person shooter game LiveFire.

Bluetooth and Bonjour — The iPhone 3.0 software adds 1,000 APIs, the hooks that enable third-party software developers to tie into functions in the operating system.

The new iPhone 3.0 software will add peer-to-peer connectivity, using automatic discovery via Bonjour and Bluetooth to find nearby devices and services. This will allow for networked games, among other uses. No pairing is required, which can be an irritating process in Bluetooth.

Peer-to-peer networking should also allow software that can exchange files and enable forms of chat and whiteboard collaboration. (SubEthaEdit for iPhone, anyone?) Although you almost certainly won’t be able to transfer music files across a peer-to-peer connection, Apple said that music streaming would be possible.

Programmers will also be able to talk directly to devices connected to the iPhone dock connector, which will allow a host of additional accessories that go beyond the passive audio-output and charging options available today. Apple offered the example of a blood-pressure cuff that could send live data through a network connection, or customized equalizer controls for attached speakers.

Stereo Bluetooth support will allow the use of Bluetooth headphones. This missing feature was rather peculiar, because the software, connection, and processing components were already present in the iPhone 3G. Apple may have felt that battery usage wasn’t tuned enough for the option until now. The original iPhone won’t gain this feature, unfortunately, presumably due to lacking necessary hardware bits.

Unfolding Maps — Maps, one of the most popular built-in apps, has been made more ecumenical, with developers now offered hooks that allow them to embed maps directly within their own apps. All the standard map features will be available, such as pinch, zoom, and location data, but developers will have to provide their own map data, and won’t be able to access the Google-derived Maps app. However, Google offers a variety of licensing models for its map data, and we suspect Google will provide an App Store developer offering.

Developers can also tap into reverse geocoding, which allows an address to be derived from a point on a map, useful for navigating strange cities or figuring out what address you’re at when lost, as well as tagging photos with more specific information than a set of coordinates and a city name.

Forstall also said that developers will be able to use location data for turn-by-turn directions. Turn-by-turn data, according to those who develop GPS hardware, requires a refresh of at least one new set of location information per second, which the iPhone with GPS should be capable of. Look for iPhone navigation apps from GPS companies like Garmin, TomTom, and Magellan.

Push Me, Pull You — Months after Apple’s initial promise, push notification capability will finally be available to developers. With push notifications, programs can capture specific events and display them much in the way the iPhone’s built-in apps display SMS messages and updates to the Contacts and Calendar apps.

Forstall said that Apple had to redesign its entire push architecture to achieve the miserly use of battery life that the company desired. As originally explained a year ago, push notifications require a developer to send messages through an Apple server that then manages their distribution to individual iPhones. Push requires customization for nearly each carrier Apple works with, and that work is currently underway, Forstall said.

Apple has not yet mentioned whether it plans to charge developers for blocks of push messages, which would appropriately pair the technology with subscription services or high-value applications.

Other APIs — Additional APIs will give developers access to the built-in proximity sensor that Apple uses to dim the iPhone display when it’s used against one’s face for calling, access to the iPod library, firewall tunneling for streaming audio and video (corporations are going to love this), data detectors that identify embedded data in Web pages, and voice-over-IP features.

Apple has also added an email “sheet,” which will enable developers to have their software send email without quitting the active application and launching the built-in Mail program.

User Improvements — At last! Apple finally brings 1984 technology to the iPhone with the addition of copy and paste. The feature works through a sequence of taps and drags and will work across all applications with a global clipboard. Or rather, it becomes available for developers to add; initial comments from some developers indicate that doing so may not be trivial in all situations. When asked in a Q&A session following the announcement why copy and paste took so long, Apple said it was hard to combine simplicity, security, and cross-application support.

Double-tapping a word brings up a pop-up menu with commands for Cut, Copy, and Paste, while draggable icons let you make changes in the selected text. Tapping twice in an empty area brings up a menu with commands for Select, Select All, and Paste. Shaking the device triggers an undo prompt.

Content can be selected and copied in any enabled text area, as well as from Web pages. Copy and paste also apparently extends to images in the Photos application. You can select multiple images in a new mode, and then copy and paste them into the Mail program.

The iPhone 3.0 software will also collect all kinds of messages into a new Messages app, including SMS text messages and new supported MMS messages (Multimedia Messaging Service), MMS enables certain forms of attachments to be sent over the iPhone’s cellular connection. Apple will use MMS to allow business card information, location data, and other data to be transferred and stored. MMS is typically pricey, and may be irrelevant for some users given Apple’s rich email support.

Turning the iPhone on its side makes Safari switch to landscape mode now, but in the iPhone 3.0 software, other Apple apps such as Mail and Notes will also gain support for landscape mode. It will be especially helpful in those two, since the wide landscape keyboard is easier to type on than the portrait keyboard.

A new Voice Memos app will let you record notes to yourself using the built-in microphone or an external mic. Several third-party applications previously added this feature to the iPhone with varying levels of sophistication.

Search capabilities have been added to a number of applications, including Contacts, Mail (where it can search message headers, but not message bodies), Calendar, iPod, and Notes. But Apple has gone further, adding a Spotlight app that can search across all supported apps, something that becomes more necessary as the number of apps on an iPhone increases.

The new software adds what Apple described as “auto-login” for Wi-Fi hotspots, which would appear to replace the functionality in programs like Easy Wi-Fi from Devicescape. It’s unclear whether Apple has licensed and incorporated such software or if it has its own approach, nor is it clear what the interface settings for such logins will look like.

Finally, although it was mentioned only in the Q&A session at the end, tethering will apparently be supported in the iPhone 3.0 software. That will allow a MacBook, for instance, to access the Internet using an iPhone’s cell data connection.

Still Missing — Despite the significantly increased support for Bluetooth, when questioned about the necessary Bluetooth “human interface device” profile, which generically supports wireless keyboards, mice, and other pointing devices, Apple said there was nothing to announce. This lack has been a point of contention for many iPhone and iPod touch users who would like to rely on the diminutive device while traveling, but who need to be able to type for real, not with the clumsy virtual keyboard. It’s especially galling because the necessary Bluetooth profile is built into Mac OS X; if the iPhone is a complete “OS X,” the profile is there and turned off.

Although push notifications will undoubtedly be welcome, Apple is implementing them instead of allowing apps to run in the background, claiming that tests with an instant messaging app running in the background on BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices reduced standby time by 80 percent. In contrast, using push notifications reduced standby time by only 23 percent. Plus, Apple claimed that background processes could hurt overall performance. And while these criticisms are all true, it’s always a little depressing to see Apple basically say, “It’s too hard.” instead of coming up with an innovative solution to a problem that push notification won’t fully address.

On the App Store side, although Apple made a point of discussing all sorts of great new business models that will be available, no mention was made of the desire on the part of developers to be able to offer free demo versions that expire after a certain number of uses or a particular time period. We can only hope that this was merely an oversight during the presentation and that the support actually is included given Scott Forstall’s claim that Apple is supporting “all these additional business models.”

Support for Adobe’s Flash technology is still missing, and in the Q&A session at the end, Apple merely said that there were no announcements about Flash, but that there were plenty of alternative methods of distributing video that don’t require Flash. Many analysts and developers have described Flash’s heavy processor use as being a battery drain, and Apple has attempted to bar uses that would dramatically shorten typical battery life.

Coming Soon — When will we be able to play with all this good stuff? The developer beta of the iPhone 3.0 software is available now, so all developers in the beta program can get started right away.

The rest of us will have to wait for the iPhone 3.0 software to ship “this summer,” which means June, July, or August. It’s seldom wise to assume the earliest possible date that counts as “summer.”

The update will be free for all iPhone owners, including people who bought the original iPhone, but once again, it will cost $9.95 for the iPod touch. The original iPhone, although it can run the iPhone 3.0 software, won’t be able to take advantage of all its features due to hardware limitations. We’ll see just how significant those limitations are when it ships, and if it’s incentive for owners of the original iPhone to upgrade. Of course, by then, it’s possible Apple will have another revision of the iPhone hardware out as well.

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