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Apple Previews Major New Features in iPhone OS 4

Less than a week after shipping the iPad, Apple established at a media event on 8 April 2010 that it’s the Company that Does Not Sleep by offering an extensive preview of iPhone OS 4. The new operating system offers more than 100 new user features and 1,500 APIs for developers, and tackles most of the outstanding criticisms of the iPhone, including support for particular kinds of multitasking, folders for app organization, enhanced Mail support, iBooks, and greater enterprise support. It also brings a new way for developers to make money from apps: iAd, Apple’s new in-app mobile advertising service.

A beta of iPhone OS 4 is currently available to registered iPhone developers. It will be available for iPhone and iPod touch devices in the summer and for the iPad in the fall (those being Northern Hemisphere seasons).

Along with the iPad, iPhone OS 4 will work on the iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPod touch 2nd generation (late 2008), and iPod touch 3rd generation 32 GB and 64 GB (late 2009). Even among that list, some features, like multitasking, will be available only to the iPhone 3GS and 3rd generation iPod touch. The original iPhone lacks the hardware to run iPhone OS 4, according to Apple. Apple will probably also announce at least a new iPhone model by July that would likely ship with iPhone OS 4 installed. (The iPod touch is typically revamped along with other iPod models in the third quarter.)

In his presentation, Steve Jobs ran through the main categories of features by calling out seven “tentpoles,” making for a very large and odd-shaped but interesting tent.

Tentpole #1: Multitasking — The most significant improvement planned for iPhone OS 4 is multitasking, and as Adam noted in “Does the iPhone OS Need Multitasking?” (8 February 2010), most people haven’t thought very carefully about what multitasking really entails. Luckily, Apple has. In iPhone OS 4 the company has introduced seven services that satisfy most of the desires of those who called for multitasking without allowing true background apps that would carry out simultaneous, independent actions while a foreground app was running. True background apps would likely reduce battery life and certainly hurt performance, especially considering the devices’
memory constraints. Apple’s multitasking services include:

  • Fast App Switching: There’s no provision in the iPhone OS, even on the large-screen iPad, to display multiple apps simultaneously, but in iPhone OS 4, it will be easier to switch between apps. Pressing the home button twice will display a strip at the bottom of the screen showing all the apps that are running. (The effect appears to be like adding a widget in Dashboard in Mac OS X, where the entire screen shifts up.) You tap an app’s icon to switch to it.
  • What “running” means here is that the app’s state has been suspended. When you press the Home button in the current iPhone OS, an app’s state is normally dropped, but some apps (like our TidBITS News app) are coded to resume in the same state when relaunched. This takes time and resources, however, and has a notable delay for games and other complicated apps that have to set up network connections. In the new regime, the app is just in quiet suspension, consuming no active resources, but storing some data to resume instantly from where it left off. From remarks during the Q&A session following the announcement, it’s unclear whether and how you quit a suspended app.

  • Background Audio: The poster children for why the iPhone OS has needed multitasking are music streaming apps, like Pandora, and Internet radio apps, like Public Radio Player. Streaming audio apps currently work only when active, unlike Apple’s iPod app, which can keep playing in the background. Apple has now opened up an API so developers like Pandora and Public Radio Exchange can continue to provide audio even when not active. Pandora CEO Tim Westergren said that it took them only a day to make Pandora fully background-aware on the developer preview.
  • Background VoIP: Skype and other voice-over-IP apps are another class of apps whose users have begged for multitasking. With the new background VoIP API, these apps will be able to receive calls in the background and continue a call even if the user switches to another app. This is huge, since it will turn the iPod touch (and the iPad, to a lesser extent) into far more powerful voice communications devices, without relying on cell carriers. With the coming support from Apple and AT&T for VoIP over 3G, background VoIP puts a real crimp in the need for large minute pools for most subscribers. (Plans for VoIP over 3G outside the United States aren’t quite as clear.)
  • Background Location: Also needing background services are GPS apps like Navigon and CoPilot, which will be able to continue tracking your location and giving you voice directions even when you’ve switched to another app. They tend to suck up a lot of power, but are usually engaged while the iPhone is plugged into a car’s power outlet.
  • The new Background Location API will also be useful for location-aware social networking apps, but, cognizant of the privacy issues, Apple has added a status bar indicator next to the battery icon to show if an app is asking for your location. We do wonder if there have been actual problems with people revealing location unintentionally, or if people are simply squeamish about the concept.

    iPhone OS 4 will also let you turn location awareness on and off for each app; currently, you opt in or out during the first two sessions in which an app requests location; you can’t easily reset this choice for a particular app later. (There’s an ad tie-in as well: if a program uses Apple’s iAd system, described later, and you opt in to providing location data, Apple could target ads to you more closely.)

  • Push Notifications: Introduced with iPhone OS 3, push notifications have been as close as apps could get to multitasking before this, and it’s unclear if much of anything has changed. It would be nice, for instance, if there were a way of showing more than one notification at a time, if they’ve stacked up. Apple did note that their servers have pushed out 10 billion notifications so far.
  • Local Notifications: What is new is the concept of local notifications, which builds on the same approach as push notifications but doesn’t need to use Apple’s servers. Local notifications will be extremely useful for apps like calendars and clocks that need to alert the user to an event. This addition may explain why there’s no Clock app on the iPad – Apple may expect other developers to fill that gap.
  • Task Completion: The final multitasking-related service is task completion, which will enable an app to complete a task – uploading a picture to Flickr, sending a tweet – even if you’ve switched to another app.

Tentpole #2: Folders — Since the early days of the iPhone OS, the mechanism for organizing apps on the Home screen has been limited. Scrolling through several screens’ worth of apps gets old quickly. To improve the experience – and to deal with the capacity for up to 2,160 apps on a device! – Apple is introducing folders.

Folders enable you to group related items into categories. Press and hold an app until all of the apps jiggle (the current way to move or delete apps), and then drag an app on top of another to create a folder. The folder’s initial name is based on the predominant App Store category represented within; for example, grouping games creates a Games folder, though you can also rename the folder as you please.

When you tap the folder icon (which features miniature icons of the apps within the folder), the home screen splits to reveal the contents while the other apps in the background are made semi-transparent. Jobs also pointed out that a folder can be added to the Dock, a quick way to access many categories of apps without swiping between multiple home screens.

Given that iTunes provides an alternate and more straightforward way to organize app layouts, it’s likely that you’ll have a stripped-down way to add apps to folders there, too.

Tentpole #3: Enhanced Mail — Anyone who checks multiple email accounts on an iPhone or iPod touch will be happy to learn that the Mail app under iPhone OS 4 finally features a unified Inbox – no more tapping several times to exit one account’s Inbox and navigate to another account’s Inbox. All of your messages appear in the same window.

If you want to focus on just one account, however, you can switch to just that account’s Inbox using a new fast Inbox switching feature. In all accounts, email is threaded: you can view a conversation over multiple messages without having to cherry-pick each one from the list of all messages.

Speaking of multiple accounts, iPhone OS 4 also supports multiple Microsoft Exchange accounts. Another welcome addition is better handling of mail attachments. If an app is present that can open the file type, you’re given the option of choosing that app.

Tentpole #4: iBooks on iPhone — Perhaps the least surprising of Apple’s iPhone OS 4 features is the addition of the iBooks app, which will make the iBookstore’s EPUB-based books available to the iPhone and iPod touch, along with the iPad. The interface of iBooks looks nearly identical to the iPad version with the same bookshelf metaphor and iBookstore. It will even come with the same free copy of “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

New will be a “buy once, read anywhere” feature that lets you purchase a book on your iPhone, for instance, and read it on any of your devices. Additionally, the app will offer wireless syncing of position and bookmarks between devices, presumably via either the iBookstore or MobileMe.

The “anywhere” is still limited to iPhone OS 4 devices and iPads, but it’s possible Apple was signaling that “anywhere” might include a Mac OS X reader as well, or support within Preview. While that’s not the ideal experience, it would provide a bit more oomph to the “anywhere” statement.

Tentpole #5: Enterprise Enhancements — Apple took a lot of heat in its first iPhone OS release back in 2007 for failing to take into account a host of large-scale corporate – so-called enterprise – requirements. That has improved through the iPhone OS 2 and 3 releases, but in iPhone OS 4 Apple adds a number of missing pieces and enhancements.

  • Data protection: Apple finally appears to be closing a major hole in the iPhone OS that allowed a jailbroken iPhone to reveal all the device’s data, even if hardware encryption was enabled. In iPhone OS 4 email messages and attachments (the primary enterprise concern) will be encrypted using the PIN code of the device as an element in constructing the encryption key, which means the data should still be protected even if someone gains physical control of the device and hacks the operating system. Combined with the capability for enterprises (or anyone) to use the iPhone Configuration Utility to support long passcodes or even full passwords, this significantly improves the security of email data on the device. Apple also announced
    that they would open up data protection APIs so other applications can also build this extra security into their code for internally stored data.
  • Mobile device management: IT managers have few tools today for configuring iPhones en masse. iPhone OS 4 will offer hooks to allow third-party management software that enterprises use for monitoring, pushing out updates, and configuring hardware to tie in iPhones as well. These hooks extend to remote locking and remote wiping, so we’ll undoubtedly see significant extensions to existing tools and potentially new tools focused just on iPhones.
  • Wireless app distribution: While enterprises can pay $299 per year for a special developer’s license to create and distribute apps for company use on iPhone OS devices, those apps could be loaded only over USB via iTunes. iPhone OS 4 lets these apps be pushed out over Wi-Fi or 3G networks, which will make it easier to release interim versions and bug fixes without requiring company-wide plug-fests. For an enterprise user, this could mean they will only need to connect to iTunes to synchronize media (music/video/photos), to apply firmware updates, or to generate device backups.
  • Multiple Exchange accounts on single phone: It isn’t unusual for an enterprise user to connect to multiple Microsoft Exchange email accounts, or to a mix of corporate Exchange and personal email services. Now those users will have full support to mix and match accounts, rather than being limited to a single server. The unified mailbox will let all of those accounts (if desired) appear alongside other email accounts, too.
  • Exchange Server 2010 support: This feature will allow the iPhone to connect with Microsoft’s latest version of their popular collaboration server, enabling enterprises to update to the latest versions of both platforms without worrying about compatibility issues and enabling the iPhone to make use of the new features offered by Exchange 2010.
  • SSL VPN support. Virtual private networks come in three primary flavors: L2TP over IPsec, PPTP, and SSL. Apple provided reasonable support from the start for the first two kinds, and added more options for authentication (using, for instance, token generators or secure cards) in subsequent releases. iPhone OS 4 finally adds SSL-based VPN support, which is in wide use and which requires low-level system hooks to work. SSL VPNs come in a huge variety, and Apple is adding underlying support to allow third-party apps from Juniper and Cisco to enable SSL-based VPN connections.

Tentpole #6: Game Center — It’s no secret that the iPhone OS has become a huge gaming platform, with 50,700 game and entertainment apps currently available in the App Store. That number blows Apple’s competitors out of the water: the Nintendo DS reportedly has 4,321 titles, while the Sony PSP boasts only 2,477.

A big part of gaming is the social aspect, comparing scores and achievements with friends and strangers across the Internet. To enrich its gaming environment, Apple is creating its own social gaming network, called Game Center.

While the details remain murky, Game Center sounds not unlike the wildly popular Xbox Live network. Apple’s Scott Forstall said we could expect features such as friend invites, leaderboards, achievements, and matchmaking (which enables users to seek out and match up against opponents at a similar skill level).

At a more basic level, as Forstall noted during the Q&A session, Game Center is intended to help the viral spread of entertainment apps by enabling users to be clued in on what their friends are playing. Game Center will ship in preview mode for iPhone OS 4 and will be available to all iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad users later this year.

While it may appear that Apple is hijacking a feature developers would want to build themselves, by building a baseline for the entire platform, larger numbers of people will likely participate than if they were stuck in a single developer-specific network.

Tentpole #7: iAd Mobile Advertising — Apple’s new ad service, iAd, seeks to help developers who make free apps earn some income via advertising dollars. Jobs said, “Our developers are putting ads into apps, and for lack of a better way to say it, we think most of this kind of advertising sucks.” iAd is Apple’s solution to this problem, a way to insert advertising into apps without compromising the quality of the iPhone OS experience.

Since iPhone OS users spend most of their time in apps and not on search engines (where most advertising dollars go), this is where the mobile advertising opportunities exist. Apple calculates that the average user spends 30 minutes per day using apps. Were Apple to present these users with an ad every 3 minutes, that would equal 10 ads per device per day. With nearly 86 million iPhone OS users (and rising) Apple puts its advertising potential at 1 billion ad impressions per day.

But it’s not just the market Apple is after. The company also wants to increase the quality of mobile ads. Jobs sees iAd as the way to bring new levels of interactivity and emotion to mobile advertising. By “emotion,” Jobs seemed to mean “video content that really connects with users” (he pointed to the fact that most advertising dollars remain in television because of the medium’s emotional dimension). The other difference with iAds will be where users view them. Most people don’t tap on ads in part because doing so will take them out of their app and onto an company’s Web page. In contrast, iAd will be able to offer interaction and video within the app.

The demonstration included ads for Toy Story 3, Nike (Air Jordan), and Target. Each seemed almost like its own app – including games, videos, wallpaper, and interactive maps – existing within the app from which it originated; a truly different kind of advertisement and one that will undoubtedly interest advertising agencies.

Rich iAds will rely on HMTL5 for video and interactivity. Jobs went on to note that ad agencies are excited at the prospect of creating interactive advertisements, saying, “For the first time, you can really start to take advantage of the great pool of skills an ad agency has.” In the Q&A session, Jobs also said that there will be some boundaries for ads – that advertisers won’t be able to run just anything. It will be curious to see how this plays out given the various struggles the App Store approval process has faced in the last year.

Apple plans to sell and host the ads, while providing developers with 60 percent of the resulting ad revenues.

Smaller Features — Not everything in iPhone OS 4 received “tentpole” status – an armful of smaller features were instead splashed across a couple of slides at the beginning of the presentation.

We have to admit that one feature jumped out: Bluetooth keyboard support, something we’ve wanted since the first iPhone was introduced. The iPad shipped with support for Bluetooth wireless keyboards, and now iPhone OS 4 brings Bluetooth keyboard support to all devices that can handle the system upgrade. There are times when all you need to make an iPhone or iPod touch into a mobile email device for serious work is a keyboard. Apple may have wanted to wait until it had the iPad out before making this an option, to provide a choice among a range of device sizes.

Another feature likely to be popular with users is the option to change the Home screen wallpaper, just as on the iPad. That said, the feature makes less sense on the iPhone and iPod touch, since there isn’t as much empty space between icons and it could cause the home screens to appear cluttered.

The iPhone OS 4 SDK will offer over 1,500 new APIs and developer features such as calendar access, address and date data detectors, iPod remote control accessories, in-app SMS, regular expression matching, date formatters, photo library access, image I/O, half-curl page transition, Quick Look, call event notification, full access to still and video camera data, ICC profiles, carrier information, power analysis tools, full map overlays, draggable map annotations, performance profiling tools, automated testing, and a new framework for hardware-accelerated math functions called Accelerate. Phew!

On the user end, some of the new 100 features that were not explicitly addressed include playlist creation, birthday calendars, 5x digital zoom, IMAP note syncing, CardDAV, nested playlists, tap-to-focus video, workout uploading to Nike+, Places in Photos, iPod out (we don’t know what that is, either), SMS/MMS message searching, persistent Wi-Fi, wake-on-wireless, the capability to file and delete Mail search results, Web search suggestions, editing of Mail messages in the Outbox, image size selection in Mail messages, CalDAV invitations, spell check, app gifting, easy access to recent Web searches, and larger fonts for Mail, SMS, and alerts.

With the iPhone OS 4 announcement and the wealth of detail offered, it’s clear that Apple is pushing to address many of the shortcomings of the iPhone OS and stay ahead of the competition. If you weren’t sure whether Apple was serious about wanting to dominate the mobile market, this presentation made it clear that Apple doesn’t plan to cede any territory to competitors.

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