iPhone OS: 25 Things It Really Needs (Even Now)

When Apple started inviting journalists to a press event this Thursday to discuss the future of the iPhone OS, I made a mental note to publish a list of features I’d like to see. Then I remembered: I already composed a wish list back in June of last year, on the day iPhone OS 3.0 was released. It’s not precisely the inventory of desires I’d come up with today, after spending many months with an iPhone 3GS and trying out competitors such as the Droid. And if I were asking for new iPhone OS features today, I’d be just as likely to request ones that were iPad-related.

Overall, though, my iPhone OS requests from last June are a lot like the ones I still have. So (after the jump) here’s my original story, with “2010 thoughts” embedded where appropriate. After Thursday’s news, I’ll take a look at how closely Apple’s list of Necessary iPhone OS Improvements mirrored mine.

What would you like to see in iPhone OS 4.0 and beyond?

iPhone OS: 25 Things It Really Needs (Even Now)

I’m not sure how operating-system version numbers translate into human years, but this I know: 3.0 is still well short of adulthood. Windows 3.0 was the first version that was recognizable as Windows at all; Mac OS 3.0 came along so long ago that I don’t remember anything about it.

So it’s no knock on version 3.0 of the iPhone software to say that even though it contains 100 new features–some of which are a big deal–there are plenty more it could benefit from. What follows is a highly personal list of stuff I think this OS needs–and as far as I know, none of it is in OS 3.0. If we see some of it in OS 3.1, and more in 4.0, and a sizable chunk by 5.0, I’ll be a contented man.

I said the list is personal, but I tried to be realistic. It contains nothing that I can’t see Apple enabling, or which would require new hardware. I also didn’t include multitasking or Flash support on this list. They’ve been covered to death, and my gut tells me neither is coming to the iPhone soon. Consider them features #26 and #27 if you like, though–and I do suggest some things that might lessen the need for them.

Ready to celebrate the release of OS 3.0 (which is due later today) by being dissatisfied, nitpicky, and generally unreasonable? Here we go.

iPhone OS still needs…

1. Home screen folders. The iPhone desktop is made up of a super-wide, horizontally-scrolling workspace, so it’s possible to sort different sorts of apps into their own screens. But moving them around is a hassle, and you can’t jump directly from any screen to any other one. I want something that the old Palm OS had eons ago: The ability to easily organize apps into folders. [2010 thought: The iPad really needs this.]

2. A Home screen that flips into landscape mode. Most of OS 3.0’s apps now let you work with the nice, wide keyboard enabled by rotating the phone 90 degrees. I’d like to be able to use the phone almost continuously in landscape format if I felt like it–which I guess means that the settings screens and App Store should flip as well as the desktop. [2010 thought: the iPad already has this]

3. A roomier dock. Quick access to four apps isn’t enough. If the OS let you optionally turn on a second row of icons (or even a third or fourth one) we could get to more of our most-used programs without having to slip-slide our way around the Home screen.

4. Help for third-party apps that want to support landscape mode. I’m not an expert on what Apple’s SDK does to assist programmers create apps that work in both portrait and landscape form, but I take the fact that relatively few do as a sign that it’s not a cakewalk. My old AT&T Tilt phone ran Windows Mobile, and just about every application that should have supported both orientations did. I’m assuming that Apple’s OS will need to go resolution-independent at some point to support new devices with different screens, so the time to make it easy is now. [2010 thought: I think the OS actually does assist with this, though I wish more developers took advantage of it.]

5. A more programmable Home button. In iPhone 3.0, double-clicking it can reportedly launch Search, your phone’s Favorites, the camera application, or the iPod features. Shouldn’t it be able to launch any app on the phone–Apple or third party? [2010 thought: Supposedly, the rumored new multitasking feature in iPhone OS 4.0 lets you tap the Home button repeatedly to cycle through apps.]

6. The ability to delay Slide to Unlock. Whenever the iPhone is shut off–either because you turned it off yourself or it timed out–you must Slide to Unlock to get back to the Home screen. That makes it hard to pocket dial the phone, but it’s annoying if the phone just turned itself off right before you wanted to do something. I’d like to see the ability to delay the autolocking by a user-specified amount of time. And hey, why not let us disable it altogether if we feel like it?

7. Access to attachments by third-party applications. No iPhone office suite will be truly satisfying until it’s possible for it to open, edit, and save attachments directly from the Mail app. The OS still sandboxes all data so apps can only touch their own files, but Apple can and should make an exception in this case. [2010 thought: It does for photos, but I'd like to see it open up a lot more broadly. The iPad has a similar, useful feature: third-party apps can sync files via iTunes.]

8. A better Notes application. iPhone 3.0 gives Notes the ability to sync with Macs and Windows PCs. It still features a lined-paper-and-marker interface that embarrasses me slightly every time I use it, though–at the very least, you should be able to switch to something more mundane and professional. I’d also like to see the ability to attach photos to a note. Maybe Apple thinks the existence of powerful third-party note-takers like Evernote eliminates the need for it to beef up Notes, but I’d still like to see something more substantial. [2010 thought: The iPad has the same wacky Notes app.]

9. A to-do list. It startles me that Apple has done ambitious, enterprisey things like make the iPhone work with Microsoft’s Exchange server, but that the phone still doesn’t ship with a task manager. I use and like Remember the Milk, but still find it odd that OS X’s iCal has a to-do list that doesn’t talk to the iPhone at all.

10. Human Interface Device support. The OS now lets third-party applications talk to peripherals through the dock connector–such as Johnson & Johnson’s glucose meter–but as far as I know, there’s still no way to create the one iPhone add-on I most want to buy. Which is a folding keyboard along the lines of the lovable and useful Stowaway. If Apple baked support for the Human Interface Device (HID) standard into the OS, you’d be able to use a physical keyboard anywhere where the on-screen one was available. [2010 thought: The iPad supports keyboards, so I assume/hope there's an excellent chance that the iPhone will, too.]

11. A useful Slide to Unlock screen. You can choose an image to show up when you turn on your phone but haven’t slide to unlock yet, and that’s very pleasant. But how about providing the option of putting information there that might help us avoid having to unlock the phone at all? It would be a nifty place to put appointment details, headers for recently-received e-mails, and the like. Bonus points if there’s an API that lets third-party apps funnel information to the display, too. [2010 thought: The iPad has feature sort of along these lines--you can peek at whatever app is open without unlocking the device.]

12. Background music for third-party apps. Once you’ve used the Palm Pre version of Pandora and streamed music in the background while doing something else useful or entertaining in the foreground, it’s hard to go back to the iPhone–where every music app except for Apple’s own iPod stops playing the moment you launch a different application. If Apple doesn’t want to offer full-blown multitasking, how about providing hooks that let any audio app–Pandora, Last.FM, Slacker, AOL Radio–keep playing music in the background even after you close them? Seems pretty simple to me, and it wouldn’t cause stability problems. [2010 thought: Of course, full-blown multitasking--which is rumored to be in OS 4.0--would be better still.]

13. The ability to subscribe to podcasts and sync them directly on the phone. As far as I can figure, you can snag individual episodes of podcasts you originally subscribed to via iTunes on a Mac or PC. But you can’t subscribe to them so they arrive on your phone whether or not you’ve synced with a computer. I’m in favor of the notion of iPhones being as autonomous as possible, and this would be a significant step in that direction. [2010 thought: This is available through third-party apps.]

14. Window-spawning control in Safari. Safari’s ability to keep up to eight pages open at once is mighty handy–but it becomes a hassle when your capacity is maxed out, and a link is trying to spawn a new window and can’t until you close an existing one. Given a choice, I might tell the browser to always open a new page in the same window unless I specify otherwise–possibly by tapping the link and holding.

15. Hooks to allow the embedding of additional video players in Safari. Apple’s deal with YouTube means that you can play YouTube videos that show up on pages in Safari. Sites such as Joost and TV.com already have iPhone apps. How about letting them (and other sites such as Viddler and Vimeo) them enable Safari integration through some sort of API that permits their embedded videos to launch their apps for playback?

16. A Genius feature for the App Store. I’m shamelessly swiping this from TechCrunch’s MG Siegler–the App Store should analyze the programs you’ve installed and kept, and recommend others you might like. It might be tough to implement well (the fact you’ve downloaded one Twitter client doesn’t mean you’ll want half a dozen more), but it would be a boon for games, productivity apps, and other general categories where many of the store’s 50,000 apps languish in undeserved obscurity. [2010 thought: Apple added this last September.]

17. The ability to use any song as a ringtone. I guess Apple is still hoping we’ll repurchase all our music from the iTunes Store in ringtone form–although for reasons unknown, it does offer the ability to create custom ringtones from any track in Garage Band. Me, I sometimes want my phone to ring to a song that Apple won’t sell me at any price–like Don Ho’s version of “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”

18. Automatic backup to the cloud. Which is something the Palm Pre does, helping to eliminate the need to connect the phone to a computer; if you ever need to recover an old version of your phone’s data, it can grab your backup across the Net and restore itself. Again, I’m in favor of anything that helps the iPhone behave like a stand-alone computer, not a computer perihperal.

19. Syncing plug-ins for third-party apps. As long as the iPhone does assume that you’ll frequently connect it to your computer and shuttle data back and forth, how about allowing any application to move data during the sync, as Palm’s old desktop software has done for ages? DataViz had to go as far as to write its own Mac and Windows document-syncing utility for Documents to Go, which is kind of silly. [2010 update: The iPad can do this, at least in a limited form--you can choose files to copy to a third-party app. I'm not sure if it's available for the iPhone yet.]

20. Energy Saver. On OS X, you can quickly adjust settings for longer battery life or better performance. How about an iPhone equivalent that lets you choose a low-power mode (dim screen, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi shut off, fast power off) or a more power-hungr, less restrictive one with a single click?

21. 2G phone mode. I’m not sure if OS 3.0 solves this, but there are places where my iPhone 3G is unusable as a phone in 3G mode, and just fine in 2G mode–yes, I’m looking at you, Courtyard Marriott on Second St. in San Francisco. I’m still unclear on the virtue of making voice calls in 3G mode, so I’d like to have the opportunity to put the phone in 2G mode for voice while leaving it in 3G mode for data.

22. Information on how much memory stuff takes up. If you try to download a piece of software from the App Store and don’t have enough space, your iPhone will politely tell you to delete some items to make room. What it won’t do is tell you how much space you need to clear, or how much your songs, videos, and programs eat up. Maybe it can display this information when you press and hold an application’s icon on the Home screen to go into delete/rearrange mode?

23. Sensible settings. There’s no consistency among third-party apps as to whether they put their settings in the app itself, or tuck them away in the phone’s Settings screen. And even Apple’s own settings are a bit of a jumble, with some options sitting behind a “General” menu item and others out in the open. Which means I never remember where to look for what. It’s an odd aberration in an OS that’s wonderfully logical and consistent. I’d like to see Apple clarify how settings should be handled–I’m okay with almost any scenario as well as most applications do it the same way.

24. iChat. At this point, I’m assuming that Apple is happy with third-party instant messaging clients–it’s invited both AOL and Meebo on stage at events to demo their wares–but it would still be good news if an iPhone version of OS X’s iChat showed up. Especially if it were integrated with the Messages application and offered (on the iPhone 3G S, at least) some form of video chat.

25. GPS-based Wi-Fi. Okay, maybe this one is idiosyncratic. Maybe I’m the only one who wants it. But I like to use my iPhone’s Wi-Fi whnen I’m at home and within easy access to my recharging cable and to shut it off when I’m out and about and concerned about battery drain. My iPhone can use GPS to determine when I’m hanging around the house. Why not let it use that knowledge to turn Wi-Fi on when I’m there, and then shut it off when I hit the road?

At a Glance

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