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iPhone OS 3.0 Ships 17-Jun-09

At last we know. The iPhone OS 3.0 Software Update will be available 17-Jun-09. The software is free for all iPhone owners; iPod touch users will pay $9.95 because of accounting regulations. And it’s a good thing it’s not expensive at all, since you’re going to want it. It may not come with a pony, but nearly everything else seems to be there.

Although Apple initially showed off the new iPhone 3.0 software a few months ago (for details, including many we’re not repeating here, see “Apple Previews iPhone 3.0 Software,” 2009-03-17), the company kept a few features in reserve to reveal at the Worldwide Developers Conference. Apple also trotted out a number of third-party developers to show how previously announced features work in the real world.

Among the most notable features unveiled were tethering, which lets you connect a computer to an iPhone as a mobile broadband modem, and Find My iPhone, which uses MobileMe to keep tabs on your phone in case of loss or theft and helps you find it if it’s merely misplaced. Also demoed were in-application purchases and subscriptions, peer-to-peer networking for games, turn-by-turn navigation services (GPS manufacturer TomTom has already announced TomTom for iPhone), push notification, and parental controls. The new software will also enable iTunes movie and TV show rentals and purchases, and the purchase of audiobooks directly from an iPhone, although downloads over 10 MB can happen only over Wi-Fi

Tethering — The tethering feature should be a huge hit in every country but the United States, where AT&T is apparently and perversely refusing to offer the feature at launch. Tethering connects the iPhone to your computer directly via USB or using a Bluetooth connection. (Bluetooth 2.0 tops out at about 2 Mbps of real throughput, which is somewhat below the top real throughput rates available in the new iPhone 3GS on AT&T’s 7.2 Mbps HSPA network.) AT&T came off as a major spoilsport on tethering, with Apple announcing 22 cellular carriers worldwide that would offer the option, and quietly but conspicuously leaving AT&T off the list.

AT&T does offer tethering plans for the BlackBerry and other smartphones, as well as a $60-per-month laptop mobile broadband service (via PC Card, USB dongle, or ExpressCard). But AT&T’s laptop plan tops out at 5 GB of transfers per month and requires a 2-year commitment, as well as the purchase of an adapter. Tethering at a flat monthly rate might promote more usage than AT&T wants to sustain, while a 5 GB limit could irritate iPhone users, as iPhones come with unlimited 2G and 3G data plans.

Find My iPhone — Find My iPhone keeps MobileMe subscribers in contact with their iPhones. If your iPhone is lost or stolen, you can log into MobileMe and see where on a map the phone is located. You can then remotely trigger an alert, so someone will find the phone (including you if it’s under the cushions). The alert sound plays even when the iPhone is in silent mode.

In the event of theft or if you can’t let anyone else access your iPhone for business reasons, you can remotely erase the contents of your phone via MobileMe, too. This option would be ripe for pranking, but it’s tied to a MobileMe account. (If you find the iPhone later, plugging it into the computer and re-activating it restores all of your data.)

In a more serious vein, this feature has huge implications both for safety and privacy. On the safety side, when someone disappears due to being lost, kidnapped, injured, or confused, it’s often tricky to involve the police until a certain amount of time has passed – especially for competent adults. (In a case in Washington State not long ago, a woman drove off the road in an accident, and her husband couldn’t persuade police or the cellular company to provide information for days. Ultimately, he prevailed, her cell phone was still on, and she was found quickly.)

On the flip side, however, Find My iPhone users will need to consider carefully who has access to the MobileMe account, because anyone with access will know precisely where you are at any time. Apple has apparently kept MobileMe quite secure, with no breaches of access or passwords. You can take advantage of this, though, by seeding your MobileMe account information with those you trust just in case they ever need to find you.

In-App Purchasing — This new option will enable users to acquire (for an additional fee) new content or updates to apps that they’ve purchased while running them. Terms for developers are the same: 70 percent of the fee goes to the developer, with no credit card fees deducted, paid monthly. In App Purchase is not available for free apps, which must remain free to the end user for the life of the app. Unfortunately, free apps are still allowed to repeatedly encourage users to “upgrade” to the paid versions of free “lite” apps they’ve downloaded.

Safari Enhancements — The mobile Safari Web browser receives several improvements, some of which were previously known. On the performance end, JavaScript has been boosted, with Apple saying that JavaScript could run three times faster than in the iPhone 2.0 version of Safari.

Safari can remember passwords to Web sites and on Web pages, and autofill that information on your return, which is highly welcome given the clumsy virtual keyboard. Safari in iPhone 3.0 also supports HTML 5.0, which, among other things, expands support for media playback features.

Automatic Wi-Fi Login — Before iPhone 3.0, you had to tap in your credentials each time you connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot that required a Web-based login. Safari’s new autofill feature should help in that regard, but Apple says (without any elaboration at this point) that iPhone 3.0 will automatically reconnect you to any hotspot that you’ve previously logged in to. Currently, you need third-party software to get that seamless login for hotspots that require a login (and, often, a fee to gain access). AT&T iPhone subscribers already get free access to 20,000 domestic hotspots in AT&T’s Wi-Fi network.

Upgrade Recommendation — Despite the excitement about the new software, we recommend you wait at least a day or two before upgrading any existing iPhone to the new software. The upgrade requires reactivating the iPhone, and there were plenty of glitches during the 2.0 release due to the load on servers at Apple and telephone companies. Do yourself a favor and exercise a day of restraint, or at least read the early reports to make sure there are no glitches that might brick your iPhone.

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