In what has become a familiar September media event (though one that Apple provided via live streaming for the first time, reducing the need to read the numerous liveblogs), Apple CEO Steve Jobs gave a preview of iOS 4.1, due this week for the iOS 4-capable models of the iPhone and iPod touch, and iOS 4.2, which will finally provide a single operating system for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch (again, only for those iPhone and iPod touch models that already support iOS 4). Both iOS 4.1 and 4.2 will be free updates.
iOS 4.1 -- Perhaps most notably, Apple is promising three high-profile bug fixes in iOS 4.1. The iPhone 4 has suffered two notable troubles (beyond the widely publicized antenna issues, which are hardware-related), one with Bluetooth and another with its proximity sensor. Jobs said that iOS 4.1 fixes the Bluetooth troubles with dropped connections to headsets and in-car systems, as well as proximity sensor problems resulting in accidental hangups and FaceTime activations when the sensor failed to detect that the phone was next to the user's head. Also extremely welcome is the third fix, a promised solution for the performance problems suffered by iPhone 3G users who have upgraded to iOS 4 (see "Speed Up Your iOS 4-Based iPhone 3G ," 27 August 2010).
For those with an iPhone or a new camera-equipped iPod touch, iOS 4.1 makes it possible to take high dynamic range (HDR) photos that can significantly improve the quality of a photo. HDR photos use a technique called "bracketing," in which three photos are taken in quick succession, one exposed at the camera's best guess, one underexposed, and one overexposed. The three photos are then combined algorithmically, which can often provide noticeably better results, as details and colors that are visible only under different exposures are merged. For example, a blue sky that gets blown out to white under normal circumstances would appear blue in the underexposed photo (leaving foreground elements nearly black); when merged, the sky and foreground are properly exposed. The original photos remain available in the Camera Roll too, so you can compare to see if the HDR version is better or not.
Also new is Game Center, which Apple previewed a few months ago, but which didn't ship with iOS 4.0 (see "Apple Previews Major New Features in iPhone OS 4," 8 April 2010). Game Center comprises a set of APIs for game developers to build into their apps and an iOS app that provides an interface for inviting friends to play multiplayer games, for auto-matching with other online players, and scoreboards.
We're not major game players, but apparently we're unusual in that respect: according to Apple, the iPod touch is the top portable gaming device in the world, with over 50 percent of the U.S. and worldwide markets, and higher sales than the portable gaming devices of Nintendo and Sony combined. Steve Jobs said that 1.5 billion games and entertainment apps have been downloaded for the iPod touch so far. And it's hard to imagine that iPhone and iPad users aren't also playing games, so it seems likely that Game Center will be big, and will make iOS gaming even more compelling.
Also coming to iOS 4.1 is support for full HD video upload over Wi-Fi. Currently, although the iPhone 4 can capture HD video, the Photos app compresses video content and resizes it to a maximum resolution of 568 by 320 pixels when sharing via email, to MobileMe, or to YouTube. TV show rentals also join the mix at the same $0.99-per-show price as is being charged for TV show rentals in iTunes and on the new Apple TV.
iOS 4.2 -- The presentation offered a quick look at iOS 4.2, which Jobs said would be available in November of this year. Unlike iOS 4.1, which is for only the iPhone and iPod touch, iOS 4.2 will run on the iPad as well as on any iOS 4-capable iPhone or iPod touch. New features promised for iOS 4.2 include built-in Wi-Fi printing and AirPlay.
Several third-party printing apps are already available for the iPad, including ePrint, PrintCentral, and AirSharing HD (the latter does much more than just print). iPhone printing apps are also available. These apps have all had to devise a way of accessing a document in order to print it, and there are a variety of techniques. These apps have also suffered from having to run in the foreground. The new wireless printing option in iOS 4.2 runs in the background, and we presume that third-party printing apps will be able to add background capabilities, should they wish to try to compete with Apple's built-in printing. From the looks of the demo, to use built-in printing, each app must offer a print feature, so it may take some time before apps that ought to support printing actually do.
AirPlay is a new name for an older technology, AirTunes, which lets you stream music from iTunes through an AirPort Express base station to a stereo system. AirPlay now supports video and photos, and works with the second-generation Apple TV, enabling you to stream audio, video, and photos from any iOS device running iOS 4.2 to an AirPort Express-connected stereo or new Apple TV.
iOS Continues Apace -- Although much is being made of the increasing number of Android-based smartphones and tablets, Apple doesn't seem particularly worried. Jobs said that Apple has sold 120 million iOS devices so far, and is activating 230,000 new iOS devices per day. There have been 6.5 billion downloads from the App Store so far, a rate of 200 apps per second, and the App Store now contains 250,000 apps, 25,000 of which are native to the iPad.
Some have suggested that Apple is recapitulating the history of the Mac by keeping iOS and iOS devices entirely proprietary, much as it did with the Mac OS and Macintosh hardware. There's no question that approach limited the market share of the Mac in comparison to Windows-based PCs from numerous manufacturers, but today's situation feels different. That's largely because Apple is not only the first mover in the market, introducing features that make other manufacturers play catch-up, but Apple's huge success with the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad mean that it has far more market penetration than the Mac was ever able to achieve. Certainly, Apple would prefer to see the smartphone and tablet markets work more like the portable music player market, where Apple entered a weak field, set the standard with the iPod, and then maintained market dominance through innovation and excellent design.
One thing is clear, though - Apple won't be slowing the pace of significant updates to iOS and the increasing number of iOS devices. We'll all just have to hang on for the ride.