Tuesday, April 20, 2010

iPhone OS 4.0 - A Whole Bunch of "Finally"

Apple finally gave us a teaser about what to expect in the next version of the iPhone OS and I'm already drooling over it. Its not so much that iPhone OS 4.0 will be give us a lot of Earth shattering features, but that it will refine the existing interface in ways users have been clamoring for since the iPhone went supernova with its introduction of 3rd party apps. In fact, a lot of these features have been present in the jailbreak community for some time. So now, Apple finally catches up and gives users these well-deserved features. So in my personal order of enthusiasm, here's what we're getting when we download iPhone OS 4.0 sometime in July.

  1. Folders

    I've been wanting folders on my iPhone almost as long as there has been an app store. It's not just that I keep filling my iPhone up with apps - my iPhone is filled right now and I've deleted several dozen apps off my iPhone in the past couple of years. It's about organization.

    I like to keep several different apps that present the same information in different ways. For example, for general news I usually use USA Today's very polished iPhone app. But sometimes I like to use Google News, and some other times AP News, and still other times the NY Times. I like the diversity and being able to try out different sources.

    I can easily dedicate separate screens for all my sports apps, weather apps, music apps, arcade games, brainteasers, etc. I have far more apps than Apple has screens for. While Apple tried to help by upping the number of home screens to 11 with iPhone OS 3.0, it was Pyrrhic victory. I don't even scroll past the 6th screen anymore, I hit the home button, scroll one screen left to the spotlight search, and start typing in the app name. It works really well and I have to say, maybe Apple did this on purpose to get me to use the spotlight search. OK, probably not, but it's worked out well for me.

    So thank you Apple for finally getting us folders on the iPhone. Hands-down my favorite new feature, even though it is long overdue.

  2. Multitasking

    This is the feature that everyone on the Internet seemed to be talking about. And almost every one of them said it was needed because they listen to Pandora and hated having to stop the music just to check their e-mail, send a text message, etc. Seriously, it really did seem like that. Then a few weeks ago I started to have the same problem - not with Pandora because I rarely listen to it but with several other radio apps I use (WunderRadio, KCRW, and my beloved but late WOXY).

    So finally Apple will give us multitasking. Actually, 7 different flavors of multitasking. Don't worry, for us they will all taste the same, the different varieties are for the developers to choose which option will work for them. One flavor is specifically aimed to keep music playing in the background when you switch to another app, just like the iPod app already enjoys. Another flavor will be aimed for applications like Skype that just need to sit in the background until summoned.

    This is seriously cool. Apple's reasons for withholding multitasking until now - fear of complicating the user experience, a lack of available RAM in earlier iPhones and the potential energy consumption from letting too many apps run around just to name a few - do make some sense. Without an elegant way to manage multiple running applications, the iPhone's trademark simplicity could be compromised and battery life could be severely reduced. In concept at least, it appears that Apple has found a balancing point between all these issues.

    Most importantly, if you have friends who are Droid fanatics like I do you can finally tell them to shut up already. And if they still give you flack, be sure to point out how many task manager apps there are in the Android app store. And how many of those sell like hotcakes. But only if they throw the first stone, don't be that guy who brags about all his phones' cool features. Not only is just the wrong thing to do, but also because in 6 months the Android will roll out some cool feature that the iPhone can't touch.

  3. Game Center

    I don't want to get to deep into this because I plan to blog about this separately. But here's a tale of two games. I downloaded a game, Words Free, based on reputation and it's reasonable, impulse shopping-friendly price (free!). This Scrabble knock-off was a winner simply because I was playing against real people and it was fascinating to me to build an impression of someone just because of the words they played. Similarly I downloaded Monopoly a couple of weeks later expecting the same experience. Sadly I was crushed when I fired up the game and saw that there was no playing other players beyond your living room or wi-fi network. It almost goes without saying that the computer AI was no match for a real person, and after about 5 games I gave up on this app.

    As inexcusable as it is to me to not incorporate Internet play on an iPhone board game, now Apple will truly make it inexcusable for all developers.

  4. Enterprise Features

    While I won't be using these directly, anything that brings me closer to my dream of accessing my work e-mail on my iPhone is a pretty big deal.

  5. iAd

    Unlike a lot of people, I have no problem with iAd (except for the name, anybody else getting tired of the i-names yet?). I accept that advertising, even in-app advertising, is necessary for many apps to survive. At least iAd gives advertisers a chance to make the typical in-app ad for more friendly. Being able to click on an ad and not have it open a Safari window is already a 1000% better than how it works today. If more ads were fun and tied in with the app you're using, everybody wins.

  6. Local Notifications

    To me this is part of multitasking. Apps that are in the background can notify you when they need attention. Uhm, yeah what else are they going to do, bounce up and down on a dock?

  7. Custom Backgrounds

    Another bragging point for Droid users and jailbreakers. Nice, especially in conjuction with folders, but nothing worth high-fiving about.

  8. Enhanced E-mail

    Probably will be useful, but it really doesn't stand out to me. Maybe I need more e-mail accounts?

  9. iBooks

    Well this just makes too much sense not to happen. Of course if you buy iBooks for your iPad you should be able to have them on your iPhone. And of course if you have an iPad you'll only read these iBooks on you iPhone only if your iPad is 1) out of battery life 2) left at home or 3) being used by another family member.

  10. Fast App Switching

    Also part of multitasking, when you switch back to an app that you had previously opened, it will reawaken in the same state as you left it. Well duh, that how it should work. This isn't a feature, it's a right.

  11. 5x Digital Zoom

    This is a joke, right? No "finally" here, the iPhone still doesn't get an optical zoom yet Apple is bragging about a built-in digital zoom?

  12. Other Stuff

    Gizmondo has a very good run down of at least a couple other dozen features that are too small to mention on their own, but they are almost all pretty good. In particular I'm interested in the ability to create your own playlists in the iPod app, which is an interesting change of pace from Apple's philosophy to do most if not all of your organizing on you hub Mac and not on your cloud devices (iPhones, iTouchs, iPads). Hmm, could an album creator be far behind for the iPhone's Photos app? Please Apple, please?

Finally, what other things should the next version of the iPhone have? While writing this article I came up with a few:

  • Add basic photo editing tools to the Photo app, much like Apple did for video in last iPhone software revision
  • Rename the photo app to iPhoto, then try adding more features from the desktop version to the iPhone version. At least let me sync my iPhoto slideshows to my iPhone through the Photo app, and not store them as movies in my desktop iTunes library.
  • Trimming video in the Camera app is great, but would it be too much to ask for some cropping tools too?
  • Optical zoom and better low-light photography for the phone. OK, the zoom is hardware and this was a software-only announcement, but it really is time for an optical zoom on the iPhone.

Have your own wishes? I'd love to hear them so please drop them off in a comment below.