What iPhone OS 4 means for you

Upgrade packs limited multitasking, adds ads, makes iPad owners wait ... and more

Maybe the hoopla over the iPad put a crimp in the schedule, but Apple finally got around to begin pounding the iPhone drum.

In this case, that means Apple's iPhone OS 4, the next version of the company's mobile operating system, which was previewed yesterday to reporters, bloggers, analysts and industry watchers.

Apple's a few weeks late -- the last two years it's touted the new iPhone OS in mid-March -- but it's not so late that it puts a mid-summer release at risk. The company's vast network of developers still has plenty of time to start building apps that will take advantage of the new before Apple does its usual unveiling of a revamped iPhone.

So, what's in iPhone OS 4? A lot of catch-up, say some, a whole lot of goodness, say most. That's the quick analysis, anyway, of the next generation software that will add a bunch of features, including a few, like multitasking, that users have been yapping about for years, to the growing collection of Apple's mobile devices.

iPhone OS 4, like its last two predecessors, has more than a single FAQ can cover; this will play out from now until June, the presumed ship date for the next iPhone, and long after. But we wanted answers to the off-the-bat questions right away.

When do I get iPhone OS 4? True to form, Apple was no more specific than "this summer" for the upgrade's release, although developers got their hands on a beta and the SDK (software developers kit) yesterday.

But only iPhone and iPod Touch users get the new OS this summer. iPad owners have to wait.

Wait? Wait until when? iPhone OS 4 won't reach the iPad until "fall," said Jobs today. But he didn't say why.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, wondered whether the delay was to give Apple time to set some hardware ducks in a row. "I'd like to be able to scan [photos] into the iPad," he said, and noted that others have asked for direct printing from the iPad, rather than requiring users to e-mail files to or sync files with a PC or Mac.

In fact, Apple may already be vetting hardware vendors, said Aaron Vronko, CEO of Rapid Repair, an iPhone repair firm and experienced teardown expert. There's a USB controller inside the iPad, says Vrnoko, who disassembled an iPad last Saturday. The evidence is Apple's online store, where the company's selling a kit that connects s camera's USB port to the iPad's sync and charging port.

Vronko's bet? Apple will allow select hardware manufacturers to access the controller -- again the Apple's control of the iPhone/iPad ecosystem -- for, say, printing.

If these experts are right, maybe Apple requires time to line up those vendors, who need to write drivers, and will add those drivers to iPhone OS 4 between its release for the iPhone and iPad.

Or Apple's just jerking the chain of every iPad owner. Hard to tell.

How much will I pay for the update? Apple didn't say today, but in the past it gave away upgrades to iPhone owners and charged iPod Touch users $10.

However, there's a good chance that the upgrade will be free to everyone. Last year, Apple received approval to change its accounting practices so that it could recognize iPhone revenue immediately, rather than spread the income over 24 months. That older accounting method was what Apple used to justify the upgrade charge to iPod Touch owners. With that now moot, Apple's in a position, accounting-wise, to provide free upgrades.

We'll see.

What's in iPhone OS 4? Not surprisingly, Apple said the upgrade is a big deal.

Yesterday, the company boasted that iPhone OS 4 includes over 100 new end-user features, although it described only a handful. It also claimed that the OS offers developers more than 1,500 new APIs that can be used to add limited multitasking, open e-mail attachments, access the iPhone's calendar and more.

What's the most important, or at least most impressive, new feature? As always, your mileage may vary, but multitasking would be our pick.

With iPhone OS 4, some apps will be able to offer multitasking for specific purposes. The Skype VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol), for example, can use one of seven new APIs to craft a new version that receives calls while other apps are in use, and lets users put callers on hold while they check something out in another app. The Pandora and Rhapsody music-streaming services, on the other hand, will be able to play tunes in the background, just like the native iPod app does.

How will I switch between apps that multitask? Double-tapping the home button brings up an app-switching tray that shows the active programs. Think of it as a dock for multitasking apps that slides up from the bottom of the screen.

While analyst Gottheil drew comparisons to Windows' task manager, Jobs disagreed. In a Q&A session after the preview presentation, the Apple CEO denied any similarities. "In multitasking, if you see a task manager...[Apple's designers] blew it. Users shouldn't ever have to think about it."

So I can finally switch between apps without closing the first, pressing the home button, then launching the second? Yes, you can.

Apple, in fact, called its "fast app switching" the biggest news within the big news of multitasking. "This is probably the easiest for developers to adopt, and probably the most important," said Forestall.

Software that uses Apple's fast app switching API can be put into what Forestall called a "quiescent state" in the background. We'd call it what it is ... suspended. The app is frozen in place -- "It's not using any CPU at all," Forestall said -- and then resumes when you return.

"Most people don't need multitasking," said Gottheil of Technology Business Research. "They just want a way to quickly switch between programs."

Will my instant messaging app use multitasking? What about Tweetdeck? Not really.

Apple is still, pardon the phrasing, pushing push notifications, the feature that debuted with iPhone 3.0 last summer. Push, sort of a poor man's background processing, has the iPhone pinging Apple's servers to see if there are, for example, new messages waiting for your instant message client. The upside? Push consumes less battery power than true multitasking.

Apple did add what it called "local notification" to iPhone OS 4. By using a new API, app developers can push notices from within the device, from their own apps. Until now, all push has come from Apple's servers, sent to the iPhone. Scott Forestall, Apple's senior vice president of iPhone software, showed how a television programming guide could ping you when "The Colbert Report" was about to begin.

But that won't really help out the Tweetdecks of the world.

Why is Apple doing multitasking this way? Why not just do it full bore? Battery and performance, said Scott Forestall, Apple's senior vice president of iPhone software.

"How are we adding multitasking while preserving battery life and performance?" Forestall asked, then naturally answered his own question.

Apple has long cited battery drain and processor strain as the reasons why it didn't implement multitasking on the iPhone, a feature familiar not only to computer users, but to smartphone owners. Google's Android operating system, offered multitasking from the get-go.

Concern about the battery was also the reason why Apple went with the "multitasking lite" push notification last year.

But I've heard only some people get multitasking in iPhone OS 4. What's up with that? You heard right.

iPhone OS 4 brings Apple's form of multitasking to the iPad, iPhone 3GS and the third-generation iPod Touch, which first went on sale in early September 2009.

Have an iPhone 3G or iPod Touch from the line that debuted in 2008? Sorry, Charlie. You can upgrade to iPhone OS 4, and according to Jobs, "run many things" with the older hardware, but not multitasking.

Apple said nothing about the original iPhone, the one that doesn't do 3G, or the first-generation iPod Touch. Here, the expression, "No news is good news" probably doesn't apply. Don't expect to run the new OS on the oldest devices.

This isn't the first time that first-in-line customers have been stiffed. Last year, for example, iPhone 3.0's new MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) support wouldn't work on the 2007 iPhone hardware.

I want more than multitasking. What else does iPhone OS 4 have?

  • Folders, finally, to organize apps into some semblance of order. You can drag-and-drop apps to and from folders.
  • Universal inbox that drops messages from Web mail, MobileMe accounts and multiple Exchange accounts (that last also a first) into one place.
  • Support for BlueTooth keyboards. The iPad has this now; iPhone and iPod Touch get it this summer.
  • iBook. Apple's bringing its iPad online bookstore and e-reader app to the iPhone and iPod Touch, albeit scaled to fit the smaller screens. It offers Kindle-esque features, including bookmark and last-page-read synchronization between devices.

Is there a list somewhere of the 100+ new features? No, that would make it too easy, wouldn't it?

As is Apple's wont, it only touched on what it considers the highlights of the upgrade, but didn't recite, or provide, a full catalog of changes. Apple hits those same notes on its Web site, and gave a bird's-eye-view of some of the new APIs on the iPhone developer site.

And I'll be seeing ads in my apps, is that right? Yes, indeed.

Jobs talked for quite some time yesterday about the new iAd mobile ad service that Apple's kicking off with iPhone OS 4.

He took a swipe at now-fierce-rival Google when he got started. "On a desktop, search is where it's at," he said. "But on mobile devices, that hasn't happened. Search is not happening on phones. People are using apps. And this is where the opportunity is to deliver advertising is."

Apple's plan: Ads run within apps -- that's where the eyeballs are, Jobs essentially said -- and those ads can be interactive and include video. Apple will sell and host the ads, then drop them into cooperating apps. Developers, said Jobs, can add iAd capability to their software in "an afternoon," and get the big end of the 60%-40% split with Apple of the advertising proceeds.

From the demonstrations that Jobs gave yesterday, many of the ads will resemble, if not apps exactly, then apps within an app.

Will you see ads? You bet you will. Yesterday, Jobs claimed that the iPhone-iPod touch-iPad universe could provide as many as 1 billion ad impressions -- one impression is one person seeing an advertisement one time -- each day. Say that again: 1 billion ads each day.

How come we didn't hear about a new iPhone? Not the time, wouldn't be prudent.

The last two years, Apple has trotted out a preview of the next version of the iPhone OS in March, but waited until June to announce new hardware, then three to five weeks later, put the brand spankin' new handset in stores.

So Apple's just following iPhone protocol.

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 gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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