Apple today unveiled its plans for iPhone OS 4.0, the next major OS for its iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad products. Based on the announcement, they’re making some obvious but important updates to the product and, perhaps for the first time ever, they are clearly responding to their increasingly aggressive competitors, especially Google (Android) and Microsoft (Windows Phone). This shouldn’t be seen as a negative so much as it is a reflection on how mature the iPhone OS has become. (And that it’s competition has finally caught up and in some cases surpassed it.)
Apple being Apple, the product page introducing the new OS exclaims that there are “over 100 new features.” But funky math aside, a more obvious way to examine the big bucket changes is to look at the 7 “tent pole” features (their term) that they called out as being the big deals in this release. They are:
Multitasking. Obvious and necessary, multitasking has been sorely lacking in the iPhone OS but Apple is finally adding it three years after the fact. The good news? They’re doing it right. It looks like the implementation is good, both for users and developers. This one warrants praise, though it’s unclear what took so long. From a competitive standpoint, Windows Phone may very well ship with no multitasking (beyond notifications), though of course Microsoft plans to add it over time, just like Apple is doing.
Folders (and wallpaper). Icon management on the iPhone is a disaster, and Apple doesn’t do enough to let users customize their phones. That’s changing in 4.0, but only a little bit, via “folders” (a way to organize multiple apps in a single place) and with different wallpaper for the lock screen (as with the iPad). That’s nice, but it doesn’t go far enough. Even within the constrained app-based model that the iPhone employs, there’s no way to arbitrarily place icons (or richer objects, like Android widgets or Windows Phone Live Tiles) in the UI. And if you’re going to force multiple pages of icons on people, why not allow each page to have its own wallpaper (or solid color)? That would be a great way to visually identify where you were in the UI. From a competitive standpoint, Windows Phone offers Live Tile customization, though I’m not sure that goes far enough either. And Windows Phone breaks away from the app-based model, which is superior.
Mail. Like Android, iPhone OS will now support multiple Exchange-type email accounts, which sounds like it is limited to just Exchange accounts, but that’s not the case. Increasingly, other email (and contacts and calendar) providers are using Exchange ActiveSync, like Google does, so support for multiple Exchange accounts is actually a big deal. So a nice bit of catchup there. Apple is also providing a single inbox view for multiple accounts (like WebOS does).
iBooks on iPhone. Apple is taking the very obvious step of porting its eBook reader to the iPhone. That’s nice, but the Kindle platform is superior. Hopefully–and I do expect this to happen–Amazon will make a Windows Phone client.
Enterprise features. Apple is supporting more enterprise-oriented Exchange features (that are already present in Windows Mobile/Phone and RIM Blackberry).
Game Center. In a bid to compete with Windows Phone’s integrated Xbox Live experience, Apple is creating a Game Center system–complete with Microsoft-like invitations, online matchmaking, achievements, and more–for the iPhone. But if I’m reading this right, it will not debut in iPhone OS 4.0, but will come sometime later in the year.
iAd. Apple is providing developers with a way to monetize their free apps using a formal advertising platform that is, in their words, both emotional and interactive.
According to Apple, iPhone OS 4 will work with iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, and the second- and third-generation iPod touch when it arrives “this summer.” The iPad update is happening later, for some reason, “in the fall.” And get this: “Not all features are compatible with all devices. For example, multitasking is available only with iPhone 3GS and the third-generation iPod touch (32GB and 64GB models from late 2009).”
Overall, this is a strong, if expected, update.