Competition watch: iPhone OS 4.0

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.

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38 Responses to Competition watch: iPhone OS 4.0

  1. timshadler says:

    The new release now bans developers from using the upcoming Adobe to Iphone tech. to develop apps.

    • roteague says:

      Yeah, what is this war with Adobe that Apple seems to be waging? I wonder how Apple would react if Adobe retaliated; for example if they delayed the release of Photoshop for the Mac.

      • jameskatt says:

        Adobe has already delayed the release of Photoshop for Mac. Photoshop for Mac OS X is not fully native. It uses code from Mac OS 9. Adobe postponed the 64-bit version of Photoshop by 4 years. And it still has limitations compared to the Windows version.

        Adobe’s slowness and poor programming practices and treatment of Mac Users as 2nd class citizens compared to users of Windows is why Steve Jobs called Adobe LAZY.

        As John Gruber noted on

        Jean-Louis Gassée Gets It ★

        Jean-Louise Gassée, former executive at Apple and founder of Be, Inc. said:

        “Who, in his right mind, expects Steve Jobs to let Adobe (and other) cross-platform application development tools control his (I mean the iPhone OS) future? Cross-platform tools dangle the old “write once, run everywhere” promise. But, by being cross-platform, they don’t use, they erase “uncommon” features. To Apple, this is anathema as it wants apps developers to use, to promote its differentiation. It’s that simple. Losing differentiation is death by low margins. It’s that simple. It’s business. Apple is right to keep control of its platform’s future.”

        John noted: “It really is that simple. That’s a perfect one-paragraph summary of the situation. His detailed analysis (and historical perspective — much of it first-person) is spot-on.”

        Apple is right to limit its developers to using only C, C++, and Objective C in developing for the iPhone Platform. It doesn’t stop developers from using the other tools on other platforms. But those cross-platform tools are the kiss of death for those platforms – ultimately limiting the progress on those platforms. From a competitive point of view, Apple is happy to see those cross-platform tools polluting the apps of its competitors.

  2. roteague says:

    Scott Hanselman over at Microsoft is reporting that Apple also changed their developer agreement, to stop iPhone development using non-Apple tools like Adobe’s upcoming Flash Professional CS5 Flash to iPhone compiler and MonoTouch (.NET framework for iPhone). Just one more example of Apple locking things down even tighter.

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  4. brucealdridge says:

    so with this and the ipad, it sounds like iphone os is becoming fragmented just like android.
    Fragmentation is inevitable on any platform that is going to last. I don’t know why this was always reported as such a negative on android. True android got there a lot faster than others but as hardware improves, older hardware will always be left out.

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  6. interframe says:

    I can’t wait to see Windows Phone evolve just as fast as these other platforms. It’ll be exciting for sure. And to all of those who say WP7 isn’t/can’t stay competitive: sorry, because thats impossible, this is Microsoft were talking about, not Palm. And if theres anything Microsoft has its mountains of money and a whole lot of patience.

    If anyone payed attention to Windows Mobile 6.5.3, you could see that Microsoft was capable of rapidly and agressively updating each 6.5.x build, one after the other. But this time, with automatic over-the-air updates in WP7, i can only imagine how awesome it’ll be to get a new build almost every month (if theres a beta-type program, like what Apple is doing now with OS 4)

    • roteague says:

      Microsoft has a history of aggresively pursuing markets they are interested in – although it may not seem obvious at the time. Like the Zune … it looked like a half-baked attempt, but in retrospect, it seems the Zune was just a precursor – or learning experience – for the new WP7 platform.

  7. Tom Reestman says:

    Apple blocking LCD apps built from Flash is a Good Thing.

    As for “building advertising capabilities into applications”, this has been there since Day 1, or haven’t you noticed how many free apps are ad-supported? iAds is simply another avenue to purchase/display ads within apps. When you see an ad, do you know (or care) if it came from AdMob, Google, etc.? Of course not, so why get bent out of shape because there’s another supplier in town?

    • roteague says:

      Unfortunately, that simple addition to the developer agreement also rules out Silverlight, which is a great platform for these type of things. While I don’t care for Flash, Apple’s decision limits developer choice.

      • gpsarakis says:

        To be fair though, MS limits you to Silverlight and XNA, for now anyways. Which is part of the whole “native code” moaning you get from some devs. They could very well put out a native SDK at some point, but I figure MS will just keep opening up more APIs through SL/XNA so that the need for native code becomes even less with time.

  8. palavering2u says:

    I don’t mind ads as long as the app remains free. It’s simply insulting, though, when one buys an app and discovers it is also ad supported.

    Good review, Paul.

  9. claytontlewis says:

    Is it me or does their multitasking solution sound exactly like the one MS described for WP7? Game center is clearly a copy of X-Box Live. iAd isn’t doing anything flash hasn’t done on webpages for years. This is a giant “Me Too!” update. I’m certainly no Apple fan, but I at least expect more out of them.

    • gftw says:

      Ummm WP7 has little to NO multitasking. I would liken what will be WP7 multitasking to what the iPhone is now (Some MS apps on or some Apple apps only).

      This new iPhone multitasking allows third party apps to multitask. WP7 from what we know wont have that.

      Now that could change since we have so much time until WP7. iPhone OS 4.0 will actually be out before WP7.

      iAd and Flash should not even be compared really. iAd is a ad sdk really, a framework. Its meant to help developers code in Ads. Flash is a crappy plugin that can be used for Ads or for watching movies etc.

      Who is Apple “Me Tooing” with this update? The iPhone set the standard, WebOS surpassed it in some areas but had to get there from Palm OS, Android too, but they had to catch it. WinMO is a joke. WP7 cant be counted against anything until you can buy it, and then it will be compared to iPhone OS 4.0, Android 2.?, Web OS?. If anything WP7 is looking like the big “Me Too” or will when it gets copy and paste.

      At this point its leap frog right now with iPhone OS, Android and WebOS when it comes to features. All of them are maturing rapidly so there wont be any drastic changes unless one of them falls way behind. Sort of like WinMO to WP7 is a drastic change. Hopefully for MS its not to late.

      Step outside of the hardware/OS feature set and you get into the echo system. Companion software, apps, apps store, the process wrapped around all of that, how easy or difficult that is. Apple clearly is way out in the lead here. I think this matters more to customers.

      Just tonight watching a taped Lost episode I saw a ad for the iPhone, where the guy buys his wife some food processor or whatever as a gift. The ad showed how he did it all on his iPhone, reading reviews, sending pictures to his wifes sister for her opinion, scanning in the bar code and finding the best deal to include a map from where he was to that store…all on his iPhone. This type of marketing shows the echo system off. I have yet to see anything like that from RIM, Palm, Google or MS????? You can have all the features you want on a OS or hardware but you need to show people why they should buy it.

    • gpsarakis says:

      It does look like WP7s multitasking model almost exactly. iPhone OS4 gives you 7 specific background APIs that are always running (basically services would be a better way to think of them), and 3rd party app devs can use those to “multitask”.

      They’re all listed but I can’t remember all of them. Off the top of my head right now though there’s…

      Audio, VoIP, push notifications, task completion, local notifications, localisation (like GPS I’m guessing?) and one last one.

    • vangrieg says:

      Well, not really. It does sound like WP7 was supposed to have this kind of multitasking, and there were hints (like third-party applications playing music via a system service), but it was never definitive and complete. And obviously things said at MIX were quite straightforward in that no multitasking was allowed “in this release”. So Jobs seems to have stolen the show from MS.

      I am personally more upset seeing iPhone get APIs for calendar and mail (WM’s POOM) and “local notifications” (WM’s SNAPI). These two things missing are a worse omission than multitasking, I think.

    • jclopren says:

      That´s right! This is exactly what it is. Apple starts looking lazy and tired developing iPhone OS. And the Windows Phone 7 approach (user -and content- centric) looks fresh and innovative in opposite of Apple´s app centric UI.

      • Paul Thurrott says:

        I guess I’d call it not so much “lazy”as … it’s a mature platform now. So where do you go next? When you’re the market leader (and the thought leader), there’s little impetus/reason to think differently (as Microsoft did only after being forced to). So yes, the Windows Phone stuff is far more innovative, but out of necessity. Apple isn’t exactly running scared. So there is competition, and they respond. If they start to actually lose in the marketplace, things might get different. But them staying the course right now? It makes sense.

    • claytontlewis says:

      WP7 does do multitasking, but to get access to the APIs you have to make a case to MS why your app needs it and get it approved.

      Flash can more than do all of the things that iAd is doing and then some. No, it isn’t designed solely for ads, but it can do all of that. Entire websites are made out of Flash, and iAd is little more than a micro-site inside an app.

      I’m not comparing the update to WP7, as I’ve already stated I don’t want this blogs comments to turn into MS vs Apple like the supersite. However, I am pointing out that all of the things in this update were things that already existed somewhere else. It come from Android, MIX ’10, or Flash. Apple tends to take things and make them better, but here they have simply made copies of things.

    • Richard Hamilton says:

      It does mirror it in the way it “pauses” background applications, then returns them to where you left off when you launch the app again. The main difference is that OS 4 includes a task switcher, while WP7 relies on the back button to do this. It’s kinda odd in how it mixes two functions (canceling things and switching programs) into one button…I’d rather see the Apple approach and just choose.

      • Paul Thurrott says:

        I like the idea of a task switcher, especially one that works so simply. This is like the iPhone’s ALT + TAB shortcut. It’s the right way to do it.

        That said, the most frequent time you’ll need this is literally to go “back” to the app you were just in.

  10. tomasmcguinness says:

    yes claytonlewis, this isn’t real multitasking. Apps will be put to sleep by the OS unless they request something particular like time to complete a task (upload for example) or the ability to keep streaming audio. This is very similar to WP7 but probably more advanced.

    I think their implementation, whilst not true multi-tasking, will solve 99% of the issues developers need to solve. Why give full multi-tasking when it’s not really needed. I, for one, like Apple’s implentation and look forward to apps like TweetDeck taking advantage of the background APIs.

    • gpsarakis says:

      I dunno about more advanced or not. There was a good deal of stuff at MiX that devs asked and got the new MS reply of “wait till June.” iirc. Now that Apple has shown what it’s got in the works MS can go ahead and finalize their own APIs. And as said, if you have a app that needs access to multitasking they’ll probably give it to you. I think they’d rather have a good app than not.

      Silverlight 4.0 is going to be released on the 13th it sees as well, so that’s another sign that things are moving ahead on the WP7 side.

  11. jctierney says:

    I was a bit disappointed with this update, overall. Although most people who know me would realize I am no Apple fan, I do appreciate the quality products that they build and feel they have made some very decent products in the past. With that in mind, I don’t think Apple is truly the innovator that people always see it as. If anything, they are an improver, they take an idea and try to make it better. They did this with the iPod, the iPhone, and now the iPad, to some extent.

    I guess my biggest conundrum here is with iAd. This just seems way too into the “i” marketing campaign. Who was it that said that apparently Apple can put an “i” in front of anything and market it as an Apple product? To be honest here, what if Microsoft did something like this? I agree with Paul, this is a little crazy, even for Apple. Hopefully, though Paul’s probably right, this will only be for free apps, who knows though.

    I don’t want to sound too negative towards Apple, after-all, they have included some very nice features in this update, I really think the mail and multitasking features are a huge step forward for the iPhone. However, some new features just seem, as claytonlewis mentioned, Apple’s way of saying “We’re doing this too!”

    • gftw says:

      Indeed Apple is improver. Take that another step. They usually focus on the things the average consumer will use/want and improve those. Where competing product will have a longer feature list, Apple will improve/polish the most used ones with a consumer first focus, business if it makes sense later.

      At this point in the game there are only so many ideas to put into a device. We have five players, (RIM, Google, Apple, MS, Palm) each one of them contribute to what is the smartphone in their own unique way and then the others may copy/alter/improve upon popular features.

  12. drgreenberg says:

    If free apps are going to feature ads, as they already do, I actual welcome a unified approach to the way this is handled. I see iAds as that approach rather than as actually introducing ads where none had been. We go from ads that are all over the map in size (some large in order to attract enough attention, since there’s no other interactivity possible) and which take you out of the app to ads that can be smaller, made full-screen only on demand and which don’t cause the app to terminate. Seems like an overall tidying up. The web space took a long time to figure out how to employ ads while avoiding annoying the viewer excessively (and many still don’t succeed).

    Further, by not having to develop and maintain a mechanism for putting ads into their free apps, developers will have more time to put into development of the app functionality itself.

    Is it really necessary to use the word “disgusting” to describe a feature that allows developers of free apps to support their work? I am not such a developer, but do appreciate that many people put time into the free apps that I use.

    • Paul Thurrott says:

      Not “necessary,” just the way I see it. But I do routinely pay for the apps and services I use when that’s an option. I also routinely block ads when that’s possible (browser, etc.)

    • Paul Thurrott says:

      I’m going to edit that out.

      Having actually watched the iPhone OS 4 presentation (twice), I’m struck–for the upteenth time–by how poor the live blogs of these events are. It wasn’t clear what the point of iAd was having followed along with the live blogs. Watching the video now, it is clear: This is for free apps only. It makes sense. And while some may make a big deal about the “Apple vs. Google” implications of this, who cares? This isn’t what it was made to be. So I’m going to edit this post somewhat right now.



  13. roteague says:

    Apple has made a lot of enemies over this. From the Adobe Flash Blog:

    Apple Slaps Developers In The Face

    • gftw says:

      I am not so sure Apple did this just to hammer Adobe. Its sounds like the plan all along it force developers to use only Apple development tools so that when they finally did bring multitasking to the iPhone OS it could be closely controlled, in order to not ruin the end user experience.

      From another site I read this…

      “The primary reason for the change, say sources familiar with Apple’s plans, is to support sophisticated new multitasking APIs in iPhone 4.0. The system will now be evaluating apps as they run in order to implement smart multitasking. It can’t do this if apps are running within a runtime or are cross compiled with a foreign structure that doesn’t behave identically to a native C/C++/Obj-C app.

      [The operating system] can’t swap out resources, it can’t pause some threads while allowing others to run, it can’t selectively notify, etc. Apple needs full access to a properly-compiled app to do the pull off the tricks they are with this new OS”

      Not being a fan of Flash as it generally will spin up the fans on any laptop I have owned, with any OS, I am fine with this.

  14. mnjoe says:


    Do you have any thoughts on the changes in the Apple Developer agreement which forbids any development which is not _originally_ written in C, Objective C, or Javascript? I know this is primarily viewed as targeting Adobe, but this also has wider implications. ANY developer using MonoTouch, Unity, etc. will ultimately wind up in conflict with this new clause.

    It seems to me that Microsoft, if nothing else, understands the importance of not tying the hands of their developer community. Microsoft bends over backwards to ensure a great development experience on their platforms, and (with the possible exception of XBox development) is very permissive in the tools you can use to develop for their platforms. I think they understand that is a key advantage in achieving and preserving market share. In the long run, if Apple effectively bans tens of thousands of potential developers from writing for their platform, I think that will provide an opening for Android and WP7.

    It seems to me that Apple is repeating the mistakes of the 80’s and 90’s all over again. Closed systems – closed development environments – closed hardware. Doesn’t this strike anyone else as Apple cutting off their nose to spite their face?

    • Paul Thurrott says:

      This may not be as controversial as it seems but … Sure. It’s inconceivable that Microsoft would even try such a thing. And if they did, the press, the blogosphere, the dev community, and various legal entities would be all over them. Apple? As always, they get a free pass.

      • mnjoe says:

        I guess it seems controversial to me because as a .net developer, it’s my ox getting gored. But more than that, this seems very shortsighted on Apple’s part. I know they hate Adobe, and I know they want to control the user experience, but in the long run, making it difficult for developers to code for their platform can’t possibly be a good thing for them or their end users. It leaves an opening for more developer-friendly platforms like android and wp7. Microsoft has made developing for wp7 wicked easy. Apple, OTOH – is now actively making things more difficult.

        I know Apple gets a pass on stuff like this, and that’s fine, but even the most ardent fanboys should see this isn’t good for them or their beloved company.

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  16. tonymantrell316 says:

    Yes, iPhone OS 4, set to ship this summer, is a response to Windows Phone 7, set to ship after this summer.

    • Paul Thurrott says:

      Well, I’d say it’s a response to a number of competitors, including Google Android, Amazon Kindle, RIM Blackberry and even Windows Mobile, as well.

  17. tonymantrell316 says:

    and lacks multi-tasking.

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