Thoughts on iPhone OS 4.0

As most people reading this site know, Apple held an event last Thursday to announce iPhone OS 4.0 and preview some of it’s features. Now that I’ve had some time to digest the announcement I’ll relay my thoughts. Keeping in mind that the message being delivered last Thursday was meant as much for developers as it was for end users; I thought that, overall, iPhone OS 4.0 looks like a solid release. Much like OS 3.0 before it, iPhone OS 4.0 contains few, if any, groundbreaking new interface metaphors or user features. Most of the new features will really only make their mark in the form of the applications that make use of them, but they will have a large impact on the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad experience.

During the event Apple introduced seven “tent-pole” features, Multitasking, Folders, Enhanced Mail, iBooks, Enhanced Enterprise Support, Game Center and iAds. I’ll run though each feature and give my thoughts on it.

Multitasking

People have been whining about this from day one. It’s probably the single most cited “criticism” of the iDevices. The marketing for the Motorola Droid hammers on it. The iDevices, so they say, cannot multitask. Of course that statement always was utter bullshit. The iPhone has been able to multitask from day one. What the iPhone didn’t do before was allow arbitrary 3rd party applications to run in the background in the same way that desktop applications can.

What has been missing from the calls for Apple to allow arbitrary background applications is any sort of reason why Apple should allow that. Every justification that I’ve read has used examples that, while they make sense on a desktop operating system, make no sense at all for a windowless single-task-focused device like an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.

Fortunately Apple ignored the idiots and took their time in delivering multitasking to the iPhone OS. Instead of allowing apps to waste resources running in the background where the user has no way of interacting with them Apple has introduced a new set of APIs to allow apps to freeze their state when the user shifts to a new app and to hand off processes to a handful of APIs designed to handle the most common “background” needs.

Sadly, I failed to document this, but I have long suspected that this was the path that Apple would take with multitasking in the iPhone OS. From the standpoint of an end user, I think that this is precisely how multitasking should have been handled. Contrary to popular conception, humans aren’t actually very good at multitasking. What we’re good at is serially unitasking with extremely fast context switching. I know, that’s an extreme simplification, but it’s close enough to reality for our purposes. The new multitasking model introduced with iPhone OS 4.0 fits neatly in that model, and can be expanded in the future to handle additional “background” tasks.

Folders

With the vast number of available apps in the App Store, app management has essentially become untenable. Folders is Apple’s answer to that problem. Stated simply, a “folder” in iPhone OS 4.0 is an icon on the iDevice home screen that itself holds up to 12 app icons. There’s nothing fancy here, but those of us with large app collections will welcome the feature.

Enhanced Mail

Enhancements to Mail in iPhone OS 4.0 include the ability for 3rd party apps to open attachments, threading and a unified Inbox. Yay, I suppose. These all sound nice, but I believe that there is a fundamental limitation to how email can be handled on an iPhone/iPod Touch sized screen. I’ll revisit my opinion when I see the changes in action.

iBooks for iPhone

I’m not sure why this needed to be rolled out with an OS update, but it was inevitable. Hopefully we won’t have to wait until MacOS X 10.7 LOLCat to see iBooks on the desktop.

Game Center

Oddly, this feature is not listed on Apple’s iPhone OS 4.0 preview page. Basically this is a set of social networking tools akin to the existing OpenFeint or Plus+ networks. I don’t do much gaming on my iPhone, and I really don’t like the social network gaming stuff, so I don’t have much to offer here. I’ll let people more in touch with the iDevice gaming markets comment here.

Enhanced Enterprise Support

This is another area where I’m just not qualified to comment. I will say, though, that it’s abundantly clear that Apple definitely want’s to see the iDevices embedded in every aspect of a user’s existence. Pundits claiming that the iDevices are just for “grandparents” just don’t get it.

iAd

Probably the least-well-received tent-pole was iAd; and Apple built and managed framework for mobile advertising on the iDevices. More than at any other point in Thursday’s announcement it was here where Apple made it utterly clear that the honeymoon with Google is over. Apple’s response to Google moving into their territory with Android and ChromeOS was blunt and to the point. Apple has every intention of owning ad revenue in the iDevice ecosystem.

Of course there was the inevitable howling from cheap cunts regarding iAd. To them I have only one response: fuck you, you cheap fuckers. You had a choice to pay app developers what their time was worth, but you insisted on “free.” Well, enjoy your emotion-laden cinematic advertisements you skin-flints.

The Rest

There were a few additional items that bear commentary but didn’t fall under Apple’s big circus tent.

The first is the issue of hardware support. The “full” compatibility list is present on the iPhone OS 4.0 preview page linked above (I put “full” in quotes because it’s actually delightfully vague), but the bottom line is pretty simple. If you have an iPhone 3g, 3Gs, 2nd generation or 3rd generation iPod Touch then iPhone OS 4.0 will install. The actual features that you will have access to depend on the particular hardware with the current generation devices supporting “almost everything” and the level of support dropping as you move farther into the past.

One interesting note is Steve’s comment that the iPhone 3Gs and 3rd generation iPod Touch would support “almost everything.” That implies that there are features that they won’t support. And that implies, to me at least, that there will almost certainly be a 4th generation iPhone announced in the same time-frame that iPhone OS 4.0 become available; which would be consistent with historical releases.

The other issue that has been raised is the fact that Apple is removing support for the first generation iPhone and iPod Touch hardware. Some have indicated that this is a bad move for Apple. My response is yet another “fuck you.” People seem to forget that, prior to the iPhone, you were lucky to get simple bug fixes for a cell phone or PDA, let alone two major operating system releases. Apple must eventually abandon support for older hardware in order to move forward.

Of course, no commentary on Thurday’s announcement would be complete without a comment on the related issues of the changes to the iPhone Developer Agreement Secion 3.3.1 and how it relates to development using non-Apple tools. This change has generated an ungodly amount of noise, including some extremely ill-advised comments from Adobe employees. Instead of adding my blather to the mix, I’ll just say that I agree with this almost entirely.

Well, there you have it kiddos. All in all, I’m looking forward iPhone OS 4.0.