Apple's iPhone OS 4.0: Afterthoughts
Product mentioned in this article
Thursday's iPhone OS 4.0 press event brought no earthshaking news -- most of what we learned was either stuff that anyone who was paying attention was already pretty much expecting. After the jump, a few of my initial thoughts.
Apple continues to practice a Benjamin Button approach to operating-system development. iPhone OS got the single most important thing -- its user interface -- right from the start. Subsequent upgrades, including 4.0, have been mostly about adding stuff you'd have assumed would be there from the start-such as multitasking, the ability to organize apps into folders, and file attachments you can open in third-party apps. But when Apple gets around to implementing these features, it tends to get them right. And after spending time with Verizon's more-flexible-but-far-less-polished Droid, I'm not going to mock Apple's unusual strategy. In fact, I wish other companies would imitate it.
We don't know what 4.0 multitasking will do to iPhone battery life. We heard yesterday that Apple's carefully-controlled multitasking options won't kill battery life, but didn't get any benchmark numbers. Of course, the OS is still in beta, and third-party apps haven't been written with multitasking in mind, so useful data may not be available yet.
iPhones (and iPads) don't seem to be getting more autonomous. They're still very dependent on iTunes for syncing, document transfer, and other essential functions -- and you can't even sync over your Wi-Fi network. My biggest disappointment with the 4.0 news so far is that none of it involved giving iPhone OS 4.0 devices more standalone capabilities. I'd like to see backup to the cloud (like Palm's WebOS offers) and the ability to subscribe to podcasts directly from iTunes on the iPhone and iPad, for instance.
Apple hasn't told us everything yet. In fact, Steve Jobs began his presentation by saying that the new OS had a hundred new features, but that he'd only discuss a small percentage of them. Most of the unmentioned ones, presumably, aren't huge -- although tiny changes can sometimes make you a lot more productive. But chances are that there will be a new iPhone this summer, and that it'll have hardware-related improvements that involve software changes that Apple didn't bring up today. (At last year's iPhone OS 3.0 event, we didn't hear about the video-recording capability that debuted in the iPhone 3GS, for instance.) And with the iPad not getting OS 4.0 until the fall, there's a good chance its version will have some particularly iPaddish features that the iPhone doesn't need.
We need a new signature missing feature to grumble about. Until now, if you wanted to knock iPhone OS -- and weren't ranting about Flash -- you probably brought up multitasking. What will we reflexively complain about once 4.0 is out? Maybe the lack of printing.
Apple didn't mention one of 4.0's biggest changes. As John Gruber of Daring Fireball noticed first, the update makes third-party developers agree that they'll write apps using Apple's own programming tools, not ones provided by other companies -- apparently including Adobe's upcoming Packager for iPhone, which converts Flash applications into iPhone programs. If I were a developer, I'd bristle at this. Heck, as a consumer of apps, I bristle at it -- I think smart developers should be allowed to write software using the tools of their choice. But Gruber says that it's not clear it's bad news for iPhone owners, since apps that aren't truly native to a platform from the ground up are rarely as satisfying as ones that are. He's right. In any event, this remains a developing story.