iPhone OS 4.0 Initial analysis and Developers perspective

The next major iteration of Apple’s strongest facet in it’s increasing domination of the mobile marketplace is upon us, in the form of iPhone OS 4.0

Of course this is just a “sneak peak” of an OS which Apple promises boasts more than 100 new user features, and over 1500 new APIs for developers…

Let’s take a look at the seven main features of the announcement. Most of this is from my perspective as a developer and industry watcher. Obviously some of the features are pretty self explanatory and don’t really fall under my purview. For those I’ll give you my personal reaction and thoughts as an iPhone OS user.

I am playing with iPhone OS 4.0 on my iPod right now. It’s a bit buggy, and obviously until I or someone else writes apps that take advantage of some of these new features (like “multitasking”) I can only speculate about what is in the public domain, and what is blatantly obvious.

If you want to try out iPhone OS 4.0 be aware that it is not 100% stable yet. Nor is it feature complete either. You will need to pay $99 to Apple and register as a developer, and it’s not that easy to downgrade reliably once you’ve upgraded your device. Not in my experience so far anyway. This should be something you should be particularly careful about if you are putting it on your day to day iPhone. You have been warned.

Also remember that these are the “7 Tentpoles” of the new OS. By that I assume that Apple mean that, apart from minor usability changes, all the 100+ features and 1500+ APIs that Apple tout will fall broadly under these categories as the OS matures towards it’s Gold Master release.

Multitasking

Everyone was excited about the possibility of this. But I had my apprehensions. We will have to see how it all pans out. One thing we now know for sure is that only devices from the third generation upwards will support multitasking. i.e. iPhone 3GS, iPod 3G and the iPad.

Apple are explaining that away with a glib statement about “hardware capabilities”. Translated this means that basically they are saying that the 3G iPhone, 2G iPod Touch and original iPhone do not have a powerful enough processor, or enough RAM. Whilst those comments are reasonable, they don’t convey the whole truth.

To put that in perspective think back a few years to the oldest machine you had with multitasking and how powerful it’s processor was, and how capacious it’s RAM was, when compared to any iPhone of any generation.

I’ll let the marinade in your mind for a while. Answers on a postcard, or in the comments please.

Apple wants to sell more devices, and this is a good way to drive upgrades. Steve Jobs said as much himself in the iPhone OS 4.0 presentation when he let slip that “if this drives sales” then that would be a bonus from his point of view.
The other issue some may have with iPhone OS 4.0 “multitasking” is that it’s not really multitasking as we understand it. It’s a very neat technical solution for running multiple apps on a mobile device. But it’s effectively a way that apps are put to sleep, and then their core can then respond to certain callbacks that a developer registers with the iPhone OS. At the moment this is focussed on Music Playback, Location Awareness, and other common iPhone app requirements. What it does not allow us to do is have two or more apps running full bore on our devices. With the possible exception of the “Lengthy Task” feature of multitasking, which I will have to investigate further. So in effect a better name for iPhone multitasking would be “hot-switching” with notifications for “active but paused” apps.

That in itself begs the question again, “Why did Apple restrict it to newer devices”. Even the original iPhone can run music in the background without degrading app performance. One of the new feature’s primary boasts, alongside location based services. We already had that level of “multi-tasking” to some measurable degree, on the iPhone out of the box, with earlier OS incarnations: We can play music from iTunes, while we are playing games, and take calls while running other apps today. All Apple has really done is expose this existing functionality to all apps, albeit with some new bells and whistles.

Some bloggers are saying the reason earlier devices won’t support multi-tasking is down to limited memory. Those of us that have had more than one page open in Mobile Safari on an iPad know that when we switch between things the iPad can get short on memory with it’s 256MB. Anyone had Mobile Safari “forget” what we were doing on one page when we swapped to another yet? Currently the iPad has double the memory of the original iPhone, and the same as the 3G iPod Touch and 3GS iPhone. So Apple will need to address this with some kind of caching or paging on those devices anyway. Why not do it across the board?

All in all iPhone “multitasking” is nice, but it’s not multitasking as people who use Android and Palm know it. And certainly not desktop style multitasking. That is not necessarily a bad thing on mobile devices with memory and power management challenges, because of ever more complex apps and Operating System features. So all in all a good call, but nonetheless frustrating and inconsistent.

Having said that all that, the way it is implemented, will make for a better user experience overall, which is what Apple is all about. It not being available on earlier iDevices was to be expected to be honest. But I think Apple is being disingenuous about the reasons why. That’s what niggles me.

To Summarise : Apple are already going to have to do some clever memory management on more recent iDevices, as I have just explained. Scott Forstall a;sp said as much when pushed at the presentation on memory and multitasking. So why not on earlier iPhones and iPods?

To drive sales and simplify OS development for Apple! They are the simple reasons.

Folders

This is something that a lot of people have been hoping for. Our devices are becoming increasingly cluttered with each of our own subsections of the gazillions of apps available to us from the App Store. And app management has become a bit of a drag. Not to mention some of us have simply run out of effective space in the current Springboard implementation. From a developers perspective there is not a lot I can say other than it does what it says on the box. And it is a welcome addition to the OS. Although why it got such high billing in the announcement I am not sure. Perhaps because Apple realised it was a problem which needed addressing publically, and a headline grabber at the same time.

Enhanced Mail

Mail has been long overdue for an overhaul on the iPhone and iPod Touch. People whipped themselves into a frenzy when the iPad was launched, and even emailed Steve Jobs begging for a Unified Email inbox across all iDevices. He replied affirmatively. They got their wish. I suspect that Steve already had it on his todo list anyway.

I don’t use Mail on my iPhone much. Most of the time I use IMAP enabled accounts, and use it for quick checks, and firing off short replies to urgent emails. So I would work around many of the limitations that the app has by limiting how much I use it.

But features such as being able to organise messages by threads and open emails in third party apps. i.e. The apps I make. Well, that’s a very welcome addition too. And I do plan to use mail more comprehensively on my iPad so all this is welcome news.

iBooks for iPhone

Again, not much I can add here to the announcement. It’s certainly something that many people, myself included, expected. I for one have been considering writing my own book on the iPad (partially as an experiment), and then trying my hand at getting it published in the iBookStore. Knowing that I now have 50 million iPhones and 35 million iPod Touches making a total of 85 million out there as a market, ontop of the half a million or so (and counting) iPads in the wild, certainly makes that idea more appealing.

I also use my iPhone for most of my reading when travelling so this is good news for me personally on that front too. There are certainly some competent eBook readers for the iPhone and iPod already out there. But it’s nice to have an iTunes like eco-system, and Apples software to do my reading on. The main attraction for me there is the ability to read sample pages before I buy.

Enterprise

iPhone OS 4.0 will bring a number of enhancements relevant to Enterprise users. They include increased data protection, mobile device management, wireless app distribution, multiple Exchange accounts, Exchange Server 2010 support and SSL VPN support. Ooo.. Feeling a bit sleepy there.

For those that are interested in that kind of thing (yawn, sorry!) Apple have it covered here : [apple.com]

I suppose the Wireless App Distribution of in-house apps is quite cool when allied with Mobile Device Management. But do be aware that Apple are not allowing anyone to distribute paid for commercial apps outside of the App Store with this.

Almost dropped off to sleep again there.

Onwards and upwards.

Game Center

This is the most surprising and confusing announcement of the entire iPhone OS 4.0 event.

It certainly shows, finally, that Apple is taking gaming on it’s various mobile devices pretty seriously. Not something Apple have been known for in the past. Cue light applause for Apple.

It’s also unclear exactly how Apple will provide services like matchmaking and leader-boards to developers. Nothing was discussed at the presentation, which leads me to believe that certain aspects of Game Center are still in flux. Will there still be room for SDK developers like GameSpy in all this? Networking perhaps building off the back of existing parts of the SDK for multiplayer gaming? Certainly hope so. But only time will tell.

I think that Game Center will only succeed if Apple can get Ngmoco, Scoreloop and OpenFeint on board as community members. Fragmentation is bad for Apple, and bad for existing Social Gaming Network providers. I presume there are negotiations going on behind the scenes now, frankly. Apple would not have announced this if they didn’t have some plan going forward.

Scott Forstall also himself said that ideally everyone would come together under one roof. I wonder what concessions Apple will have to make, and how willing the existing networks will be to work with them?

The generally fairly positive feedback coming out of the likes of Ngmoco and OpenFeint lead me to believe that negotiations are fairly well advanced already. Scoreloop seems a little more bullish in articles I have read. But these articles are speculative. I wonder where they are at?

iAd

I idly wondered aloud earlier in the week if this would be the only announcement at the iPhone OS 4.0 event. I was of course wrong. But it was certainly the one that Steve was most excited about. The audience didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm though. Perhaps we all feel a little jaded with advertising these days!

What is appealing about this addition to the SDK is that devs. can put their advertising revenue, and their app revenue, under one roof with Apple. But more importantly than that the way that ads are displayed is tightly woven into the iPhone SDK. I have to admit to being enthused about that from a purely academic stand point. I am not a huge fan of ads in any medium.

The integration into the SDK means that working with ads will be even more seamless than it already is when using modules like AdMob, and that we can display movies and other rich media as part of the ad experience for users.
What I would like to see is the possibility of sponsorship in apps. For example, say in a skateboarding or racing game to have images or movies pasted onto billboards along the road or racetrack. If this came to fruition then I would see adds as contributing to the in game experience without detracting form it with immersion breaking popups.

I also think that if Apple are the gatekeeper to what is advertised on iPhones, iPods and iPads then we can expect higher overall revenues as advertisers will pay more, and we’ll also potentially get a higher quality of advertiser and consequently advert content.

What concerns me is that some developers may go mad with this, seeing it as an easy and more legitimate revenue stream now it has tacit Apple endorsement. I hope I am wrong. And I hope that we don’t see ads in paid apps. That would be bad.

One thing I can say for absolutely certain. If I do any work on apps with ads I will be dropping AdMob and moving to iAds. I wonder how many other iPhone Devs are thinking the same thing, and how worried AdMob are?

Well that’s my initial thoughts on the iPhone OS 4.0 sneak peak.

I’ll try to come back with more specifics on each facet of the “7 Tentpoles” as I learn more, In the meantime feel free to give us your views, and feelings, good or bad, on what iPhone OS 4.0 means for you, in the comments.

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Stephen NorthcottiPhone OS 4.0 Initial analysis and Developers perspective

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