iPhone OS 4: A sneak Peek Into What I Think About It, Part 1


As anyone who has stumbled onto my humble little blog surly knows, Apple has announced several of the big features in the upcoming iPhone OS 4. This has, of course, generated a lot of buzz good and bad. In chatting with my Twitter and Facebook friends, it does not seem that the announcement has changed any minds; those who didn’t like Apple’s iThings before still don’t like them, and those who did still do. I had a few thoughts on the announcements, and thought I’d share. Since details are available everywhere, I’ll mostly stick to commentary. In no particular order, here are the seven features they covered:

1) iBooks — Unless the iBooks app is now part of the iPhone OS, this had no place in today’s presentation. (It is not clear to me whether iBooks will be built-in or downloaded). Even if it is built-in, I don’t think it merits ‘tent-pole’ status. It was expected. In fact, I expected Apple to make iBooks a “Universal” app sooner. The only question here is what is Apple going to do for iBooks on the desktop?

2) Improved Mail — My mail needs are very minimal, the Mail app in the very first iPod touch actually fills my modest needs very well. But I understand the new features — unified in-box and fast inbox switching — are popular requests. Long time coming? Perhaps. Any time the feature someone wants is not in the first version, it becomes the most important missing feature; the “why wasn’t it there to start with?” feature.

3) Folders — By all accounts, Apple was absolutely blown away by the popularity of the App store. The Springboard interface works well for a few dozen apps, but does not scale well beyond that. With the low-cost and high numbers of apps available, it is not uncommon to have a lot more. Apple’s implementation of Folders look like a good solution. As with many of these “easy” features, it looks like Apple put a lot of thought into exactly how to implement them. (Steve also did a quick demo of Springboard wallpaper. Yes, obvious. Yes, highly demanded. Yes, could’ve been there from day one.)

4) Enterprise Features — Until I get an iPhone from where I work, I could give a hoot about these, as they are meaningless for my iPod touches. Apple as a company is not focused on the enterprise market (long history of the enterprise scorning Apple’s products does not help), and were again surprised by the iPhone’s popularity amongst corporate executives. Every iteration brings more enterprise features for those who need them.

5) iAd — Users are a funny lot. They demand the highest quality apps, but they demand the lowest prices, even free. There’s not a lot of ways for a developer, especially an independent developer, to live creating high-quality software for free. Ads can help (of course, many users despise ads). Apple is giving developers an easy way to monetize free apps. I do not have a problem with ads in free apps, as long as there’s a paid version (or, better, an in-app purchase to remove ads). Developer’s who charge for an app AND have ads will get fried. Badly.

The ads themselves can be highly interactive, practically mini-apps within an app. They are presented unobtrusively, but once a user selects them they can be brought into the products world, in a manner of speaking. The user can also dismiss the ad at any time and go right back to where they were. Much like entertaining commercials, iAds can be potentially engaging to consumers, rather then annoying. It even looks like real-world goods can be ordered from right inside the ad. This can be a great boon for developers if they can control the contents of an ad. Imagine an artist’s fan app which allows the user to order prints, something which can not currently be done with in-app purchasing.

Though this seems like a great way to help developer’s pay their bills, I’m sure Apple is going to take a lot of heat. Please people, we’re not entitled to awesome, ad-free, $0 apps.

6) Game Center — This, as they say, has the potential to be a ‘game changer.’ There are several popular social gaming networks on iThings now: OpenFeint and Plus+ being two of my favorites. For better or for worse, Game Center kills them all. I don’t see how a game developer would choose a third party solution, nor would the iThing gaming community benefit from multiple social gaming networks. A single, strong network will be a boon for players and developers alike.

A quick shout out to Internet land asking about other gaming networks pulled up Xbox Live numbers in the mid-20 million range, PlayStationNetwork in the 40 millions (though likely a lot of multiple accounts per person) and somewhere between 10 – 25 million for Steam. Between iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads, iPhone OS 4 will likely be on well over 70 million devices by the end of the year (also with a possibility for a lot of overlap–I’ll discuss this number in a later post). Practically overnight Apple could have one of the largest–if not the largest–social gaming network. Apple would be foolish not to leverage that on their other platforms (primarily Mac OS X, but also a possible new AppleTV and the web in general).

7) Multitasking — Sigh. Let me set a few things straight: the iPhone OS has been a UNIX based, fully multitasking OS from day one. Apple had very good, solid reasons for not allowing third party apps to multitask from day one. Do try to remember all the way back to 2007, before the fist iPhone. Not a single smartphone which could multitask did it well. For the non-geek set, it was a miserable experience at best. The moment a “task manager” is required, the design fails for a very large portion of the population. Also, the hardware really was not robust enough to support multitasking. A phones battery and performance quickly disappear when multiple tasks are thrown at it. A friend of mine once mocked me that his Blackberry could play Pandora while he did other stuff, I asked him about battery life, he told me he kept it plugged in. A plugged in cell phone is not very mobile.

But what, really, does multitasking on a 3-inch screen mean? Having a Word document side-by-side with a spreadsheet and Doom? No, the interface is not windowed, it is single tasking by nature. A windowed environment at this size makes absolutely zero sense. Even at larger sizes, like the iPad, it is better in many cases to focus on one thing at a time.

So Apple very purposely gave a pass on allowing third party multitasking with OS 2. But they did not sit there and ignore it, they gathered usage data. Reams and reams of it. And, despite what many think, they listened to what users and developers were looking for. This gave raise to push notification in OS 3, which addressed some of the needs. They again observed and collected usage data on how people used their devices, and what they wanted multitasking for.

Now, in OS 4, rather then provide free-reign for developers to multitask willy-nilly, they’ve provided a set of API’s to specifically address the tasks people want done simultaneously. Want to run music? Hand your stream to the OS. Supporting VOIP? Tell the OS what you’re listening for. Need to be constantly aware of location? There’s API for that. And another one to pass off things users don’t want to wait for, like file transfers, so they can be done in the background. “Local push” is the only ‘multitasking’ API which I am puzzled by, as it sounds like little more then adding reminders to an OS level calendar.

For all other programs, the OS now freezes them in place on exit, allowing users to pick up right from where they left off. Previously, some developers were able to save and restore state for their app, but this OS level support, cupeled with newer hardware, makes it both easier and quicker. All of this is pretty much the way I had thought Apple would handle the “multitasking issue.”

In most cases, does this accomplish what the user wants in terms of multitasking? Yes. Is it “real” multitasking? Arguably, no. Do most users care? Absolutely not. By having OS level API’s for background process like these, Apple can concentrate on optimizing them for speed and power usage, which in the end will benefit all programs. As long as the user can listen to Pandora while surfing the web, and receive Skype calls at any time, the user won’t care if there’s a horde of magical pixies inside the phone taking care of it all. But if all that activity makes their phone unresponsive, or kills the battery in half the time they are used to, they’re going to be quite irate.

Finally, if you’ve made it this far, thank you very much. That about sums thoughts directly related to today’s announcement, but I do have more to say, in response to this, last weekends iPad release, and a lot of trash talk/fanboy talk that’s been floating around the ‘Net, and through my various info streams. But that’ll have to wait for part two.


One Response to “iPhone OS 4: A sneak Peek Into What I Think About It, Part 1”

  1. Good thoughts and points. Non of the fanatics from your feeds earlier so I guess you’ve calmed down ;).

    I have read a couple of things, one you linked through, talking about the direction that Apple versus Google versus M$ are taking with their platforms. While M$ is not “out in the wild” leaving it somewhat open yet it seems many are seeing the latter two heading to the cloud and a service architecture. Apple on the other hand seems to be clinging to the single app model a little more tightly. The advantage of this would seem to be local app interoperability, but (in the mobile space anyhow) this is not being taken advantage of. It would be interesting to hear your observations/take on some of that info as it floats around. It is early for me to say anything as I am distanced from Apple and Google and their plans and people seem to just now be starting to look more closely at the differences in respect to these ideas.

    Oh, and just a thought on #5. Cable TV was supposed to be a paid service so you didn’t need to watch commercials, same with satellite. Developers/publishers have figured out how to add ads to games on the PC/XBox/PS3/Wii(?). People buy them. Point being, I wouldn’t count on all paid-for apps being ad free for very long. Tis the nature of the beast in this day and age it seems. Marketing is almost as good of a career choice as being a lawyer.

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