Apple today previewed the next generation of its iPhone software, which will add over 100 new features, including the long-awaited multitasking, to the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.
CEO Steve Jobs took the stage at the company's Cupertino, Calif. headquarters to announce a developer preview and SDK (software development kit) for iPhone OS 4.0, both available immediately to application developers. The public will receive the update later this year.
iPhone and iPod Touch users will see iPhone OS 4 first -- this summer, said Jobs without naming a date -- but iPad users won't get it until this fall.
And not all iPhone owners will be able to access all the iPhone OS 4 features, he warned. Only the iPhone 3GS and the 32GB and 64GB models of the latest iPod Touch -- the latter was released last September -- will get multitasking, for example. Owners of earlier iPhones and iPod Touches, including 2008's iPhone 3G , will be left out in the multitasking cold. The iPhone 3G and second-gen iPod Touch, however, will be able to use other features of the update, although Jobs did not specify which ones.
During the 60-minute presentation, Jobs, Scott Forestall, Apple's senior vice president of iPhone software, and several iPhone developers touted the additions to the mobile operating system.
The star of today's preview was clearly multitasking, the ability to run multiple programs simultaneously. That functionality, missing from the current iPhone and iPad, has been at the top of users' wish lists for years, and the subject of intense speculation in the weeks leading up to today's event.
"Now, we weren't the first to this party, but we're going to be the best," said Jobs of multitasking." Just like cut and paste," he added, referring to the feature Apple added last year to the iPhone's operating system.
What took so long? "It's easy to do this in a way that drains battery life, and a way that reduces performance of the foreground app," Jobs argued. "If you don't do it right, your phone will feel sluggish. We figured out how to implement multitasking for third party apps and avoid those things. So that's what took so long."
As experts expected, Apple did not throw open the multitasking doors, letting just any developer add full-function multitasking to their applications. Instead, Apple added seven multitasking-specific APIs (application programming interfaces) to the iPhone OS 4 SDK.
Among the tasks that will be allowed to multitask, said Forestall, are audio play, voice over IP (VoIP), location services, task completion and what Apple called "fast application switching," which suspends an application, then lets a user resume at the point he or she left off.
Pandora, the free music-streaming service, will now be able to play tunes in the background -- just as can the iPhone's native iPod application -- using the audio API. "It took us just one day to make Pandora fully background aware on the iPhone," said Tim Westergren, the service's founder and current chief strategy officer, in his brief time on stage.
Skype, which will use the VoIP multitasking API, will be able to receive calls in the background, added David Ponsford, Skype's product manager for mobile.
Location-aware applications can use an API to keep track of users or others, said Apple. GPS mapping applications such as TomTom will be able to provide turn-by-turn directions while the iPhone is busy with another task, while social network software such as Loopt can track friends' locations.
Task completion -- letting an upload to Flickr, for instance, finish in the background -- and fast app switching are also supported by the new APIs. The latter allows software to go into suspended animation when the user switches to another program, then resume at that point later.
Apple will also offer new push-notification APIs, including one that lets third-party developers push notification to their own software from their own servers. Previously, push notification was handled exclusively by Apple using its own servers.
Active applications can be accessed by double-tapping the devices' single Home button, which will bring up a dock-like "tray" showing all currently-working programs. Jobs trumpeted the feature. "It's like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it. In multitasking, if you see a task manager, they blew it," he said during a question-and-answer segment after the preview. "Users shouldn't ever have to think about it."
"This sounds like a good compromise," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, and one who predicted that Apple would offer a limited form of multitasking. "Most people want multitasking so that they can switch applications. Those apps don't need to be actually working, but if the iPhone saves the state of an active app, that makes sense."
But Gottheil had one big question related to multitasking. "Does this burden the AT&T network even more? AT&T has already complained about the iPhone load on its network, and now you've made it much easier for the iPhone to be left on all day, maybe streaming music in the background."
AT&T has faced intense criticism over its inability to keep pace with mobile data demand, especially in larger cities such as San Francisco and New York. The provider, however, has said it's investing $2 billion to beef up its network.
In the Q&A session, Jobs did not seem concerned with multitasking's potential to add demand to AT&T's network, with the questioner citing Pandora specifically. "I'm not sure that's a correct assumption," he said. "[Pandora] doesn't use that much data."
Other new iPhone features that Apple strutted today ranged from folders for organizing apps and a unified inbox for its own Mail application to support for Microsoft's Exchange 2010 and a social gaming network, dubbed Game Center, that will compete with Microsoft's Xbox Live.
Jobs also outlined Apple's new mobile advertising platform, dubbed "iAd," based in part on its January 2010 acquisition of mobile advertising firm Quattro Wireless. Apple will sell, then host ads that will run within applications on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, giving developers another way to monetize their software, particularly those that decide to give away their programs.
At the start of the event, Jobs also updated iPad sales and download figures. "The first day we sold 300,000 iPads, and I want to update you," he said. "As of today we've sold about 450,000." iPad owners have also downloaded approximately 3.5 million applications from the App Store as of Thursday, Jobs said, and more than 600,000 titles from Apple's iBook e-book outlet.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.