5 ways Apple's iPhone OS 4 is a game changer

Developers get their hands on a slew of new features, users benefit, too

Less than a week after launching the iPad, Apple teased iPhone users -- as well as iPod Touch and iPad users -- on Thursday by previewing some of the features in the next iteration of the iPhone operating system. The update, due out this summer for the iPhone and iPod Touch and in the fall for the iPad, packs a lot of punch for developers, who get access to 1,500 new APIs and iPhone/iPad features previously accessible only by Apple itself.

For users, Apple promises more than 100 new features, several of which the company showed off at its iPhone OS 4.0 event.

While CEO Steve Jobs chose to highlight seven features -- he called them the "tent poles" for the upcoming update -- I want to focus on the five new features that will be game changers for Apple and for the mobile industry as a whole.

1. Multitasking and other developer enhancements

The single most-requested iPhone feature since Apple opened the platform to third-party developers two years ago has been the ability to run multiple apps at once and to allow apps running in the background to continue to access network and Internet resources. For two years, Apple has stuck to its no-multitasking and no-background-apps stance, with the exception of some of the company's own built-in iPhone apps. The mantra from Apple has been simple: Multitasking and background apps slow the overall performance of the device and drain the battery faster.

In delivering multitasking to the masses of iPhone developers, Apple didn't simply decide to let all apps run and perform all their functions simultaneously, which is what most other platforms do. Instead, the company looked at the types of functions background apps need and created services that give multitasking apps access to those core needs. This allows basic processes like playing music, updating your location and completing tasks to work when a user switches apps.

This tack is smart because when most apps are running in the background, you rarely interact with most of their features -- so why take up resources that can be allocated elsewhere? To that end, Apple offers developers seven services: playing audio; access to VoIP features (so you can talk while using other apps); updating location data (where Apple cleverly relies on GPS -- a resource and battery hog -- only when the device switches between cell towers); enhanced push notifications.; app-generated notifications (such as a to-do list from a project management app); autocompletion of in-process tasks like uploading or downloading data after a user switches apps; and fast switching between applications.

That last one allows the device to automatically save an app's current state and any open data when switching -- via a dock-like list of running apps -- to another task.

The lack of multitasking has been one of the big stumbling blocks for mobile power-users accustomed to running multiple apps at once on other mobile platforms. This makes it a huge step forward in unlocking the development potential for almost any app while at the same time breaking down one of the few barriers holding back some would-be iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad buyers.

Although multitasking might be the most obvious change coming for iPhone owners, Apple is also delivering good news to developers by opening up hundreds of new APIs that will give them direct access to many core iPhone OS features. This includes access to the calendar store (a major coup for task, event and project management apps), SMS directly in apps, and advanced camera functionality. Combined with the move toward intelligent multitasking, these additions give developers more flexibility in creating powerful and more tightly integrated apps.

2. Enterprise features

The iPhone has never been easily accepted in enterprise environments, despite a vast array of business and productivity apps that are useful across industries and professions. Truth be told, IT shops have had valid reasons for minimizing the adoption of the iPhone.

For some companies, device security has been a big issue. For others, it's the need to support iTunes for syncing. And for almost every company, there's been the question of how to manage mass deployments of iPhones because of the somewhat limited device management and deployment options. There's not really a viable option for mass deployment of applications to dozens or hundreds of devices. Although Apple has generally improved its enterprise scorecard with each iPhone OS release, it has never fully addressed these core issues.

Although Jobs didn't offer a lot of information about enterprise support during the iPhone OS 4 announcement, he did list several areas in which Apple is taking steps to offer real solutions to enterprise issues.

On the security front, the iPhone will support forthcoming SSL VPN solutions from Juniper and Cisco (in addition to its existing PPTP, L2TP and Cisco IPSec VPN support). More important, it will now offer the ability to encrypt all e-mails and e-mail attachments. Seeing as e-mail represents some of the most common confidential data on a smartphone, this is a major step forward and it follows the option for whole-device encryption on the iPhone 3GS that Apple introduced last year.

The new iPhone OS will also provide developers with encryption APIs so they can ensure all data security. Some iPhone apps already offer encryption solutions created by their developers (Agile's 1Password, the MacPractice medical suite and Good's server/app suite, which secures e-mail, calendar and contacts). But giving all developers an easy-to-integrate encryption option makes the iPhone a more enterprise-ready mobile platform.

Apple will also provide more-advanced device management features. Although it offered few details, Apple claims that a new Mobile Device Management service will offer integration with third-party servers to configure devices over the air as well as to query company-owned iPhones for status and to initiate a remote wipe of device data. It's likely that device management options will build on the certificate provisioning and configuration profile architecture that Apple released with the first major iPhone OS update two years ago (and expanded with last year's iPhone OS 3 release). I'm hoping it will provide a flexible way to manage each built-in feature and, perhaps, features related to third-party apps.

Until now, remote wipe has been available only when using Exchange or Mobile Me. What will also be interesting to see is what will host this new management server; Apple may be creating its own version of RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server.

Apple will also be giving administrators the ability to deploy apps without using iTunes. The company didn't provide details during its Thursday demo but did say that enterprises will be able to distribute custom in-house apps over the air to devices. Left unanswered: What about third-party apps available through the App Store?

All of these enterprise features represent a big shift for Apple because they address the core concerns most IT managers and systems/network administrators have about the iPhone. By finally providing enterprise security, deployment and management solutions, Apple is finally positioning the iPhone as a serious mobile business device while simultaneously expanding the reach of the platform and tapping a very large potential market.

3. Revamped Mail

Another common complaint about the iPhone has been Apple's Mail app, which has always had some distinct limitations that Apple is finally addressing. The biggest of these is a unified in-box that will allow you to see all incoming messages in a single view rather than having to switch from one account's in-box to another. For those who like separate in-boxes, Apple will speed up the process with fast in-box switching.

The iPhone will also gain support for multiple Exchange accounts -- a major boon for business users who have access to or need to check more than one Exchange account as part of their jobs. This also allows accounts with multiple Exchange servers such as one for their primary job, one for client or parent companies, one for home or school, and even access to Google's Gmail calendar and contacts features.

Apple is also offering the option to view messages as threads or conversations, something already common in many e-mail tools. Although this view depends on personal preference, it has become more common in recent years and is the default view for GMail. Viewing messages as threads or conversations lets you easily see replies related to specific messages rather than having to hunt through a date-based list.

These new Mail features should put the application on par with those used on other business-oriented smartphone platforms, including the BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Palm's classic and webOS devices. They help make the iPhone more attractive to business users and, of course, they make e-mail management easier for everyone.

Along the way, Apple is going to allow users to open e-mail attachments with both Apple and third-party apps on the iPhone. Given the range of applications that work with varying types of data on the iPhone -- everything from text to office documents, PDFs, graphics and video files -- this is a major advance because it allows each user to choose the best application for the job. Since the iPhone doesn't include a traditional file system for sharing documents between apps, this feature is needed.

4. iAd

iAd is the new mobile advertising network being developed by Apple and Quattro, a mobile ad company Apple recently acquired. The goal of this platform is to create an ad-based revenue stream for developers. Many developers of games and other free apps have experimented with serving ads to reduce the need to charge for their offerings. However, when clicked, those ads connect to a Web site, thus launching the Safari browser and quitting the app that served the ad.

The iAd platform will allow dynamic ads that can include text, images, animations, audio/video, and even games written in HTML 5 -- proof that these features can be implemented without Flash -- and that can be viewed without leaving the app. This offers advertisers an attractive way to engage users, promote one or more products/services, and offer users more information about something without forcing them to leave the app. It also allows users to easily buy something from the App Store (if the ad is promoting an app) or simply return to the app they were using.

iAd will be a game changer in many ways. It will revolutionize the concept of mobile ads, even on devices and networks beyond Apple and its mobile devices. Ads won't take the user away from the current experience and will, in fact, essentially work as small apps in their own right (albeit inside other apps). This should result in more user interaction and awareness of what's being advertised. And it offers a single platform for all iPhone/iPad developers, who get 60% of the revenue generated by the ads; Apple gets the remaining 40%.

5. Bluetooth keyboard support

Since the introduction of the iPhone in January 2007, one of the most common criticisms has been about its on-screen keyboard and the utter lack of support for any input other than touch. Although Apple did a remarkable job with the virtual keyboard and its autocomplete and autocorrect features, which learn your particular vocabulary and typing styles, it will never provide the same ease of use of a real, standard-size keyboard.

Supporting Bluetooth keyboards has long seemed like a pipe dream on the iPhone. However, with the iPad's Bluetooth keyboard support, it makes perfect sense to extend that option to the iPhone and iPod Touch. This may not sound like a major shift at first. After all, carrying a full-size desktop keyboard around for use with an iPhone does seem absurd.

But what about a smaller, more portable option, or even a collapsible keyboard that could be easy put in a messenger bag or purse? (Even Apple's current Bluetooth keyboard is smaller and lighter than most desktop models.) Other mobile device and smartphone platforms have offered a collapsible keyboard with device stands for over a decade. If Apple or a third-party firm offered a similar product, it would make the iPhone (as well as the iPad) an alternative to a netbook. A Bluetooth keyboard would also let you type larger notes, e-mails or other documents easily while relying on the on-screen keyboard for quick, on-the-go typing.

What about Game Center?

The planned Game Center will allow iPhone gamers to challenge friends and to locate and compete with other players of similar skill levels, and offer leader boards and achievement rankings. This has the potential to be a major deal for iPhone gamers and game developers. I've omitted it from my top-five list because, as of yet, there are few details about how it will function or when it will be released. In fact, answers to some of the questions posed about Game Center during the Q&A following Apple's announcement indicate that even Apple hasn't yet fully refined how it will handle some features, such as achievement rankings and rewards.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. His most recent book is The iPhone for Work, published by Apress. You can find more information at www.ryanfaas.com and can e-mail Ryan at ryan@ryanfaas.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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