With iPhone OS 4 Update, Apple Responds to Competitors

When Apple's innovative iPhone debuted almost three years ago, it was a tour-de-force of technology and design, and far ahead of the competition in many areas. And although it took a while for those competitors to catch up with the iPhone, catch up they have. So it shouldn't be any surprise that when Apple announced seven major new features for its next iPhone OS version, every one of them appeared to have been cribbed from the competition.

"iPhone OS 4 is the fourth major release of the world's most advanced mobile operating system," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs, in a characteristic bit of hyperbole. "We're delivering over 100 new features, including multitasking, folders, a unified inbox, deeper enterprise support, and an iPhone version of our iBooks reader and online iBookstore."

While Apple's feature count for new products is always suspect, the seven core—or "tent pole"—features the company showed off late last week are emblematic of where the company appears to be heading with iPhone OS 4, which will ship for iPhone and iPod touch devices in mid-2010 and for the iPad later "this fall." Here are the new features Apple touted at the announcement event:

Multitasking—All of Apple's smart phone competitors offer some form of multitasking, and when you consider that this was easily the number-one request from iPhone users, adding it was sort of a no-brainer. Apple's implementation of multitasking appears to be based on how this functionality will work in Windows Phone, where apps that the user switches away from essentially go to sleep and then jumpstart back to life, state intact, when needed. And the method for invoking another app—double-tapping the home button to bring up a list of running apps—is roughly analogous to how Alt+Tab works on desktop versions of Windows. Verdict: This appears to be mobile device multitasking done right.

Folders—One area in which Apple has been fairly dinged by critics is on-device app management and customization. Currently, the iPhone offers little in the way of device customization, but iPhone OS 4 will add a neat Folders feature that lets you gather related apps into sub-pages that work like folders in desktop OSs such as Windows or Mac OS X. Apple is also adding a dual wallpaper scheme (which doesn't go far enough, in my opinion): You can set up separate wallpapers for the lock screen and various home screens, but not different wallpapers for each home screen or folder, which would have been better. Still, any nod toward customization is a good one: Competitors such as Android offer far more malleable customization features.

Unified inbox—Palm has offered a single, unified email inbox view in its WebOS since last year, but Apple has stubbornly stuck with its antiquated mail approach, in which each email account has a separate inbox. With iPhone OS 4, this changes, and iPhone users will finally get a single inbox view across multiple accounts. Also, like Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry and Google Android, iPhone OS 4 is adding support for multiple Exchange Server accounts, which is actually huge (even for consumers) since Google uses Exchange ActiveSync functionality to publish Gmail, Google Contacts, and Google Calendar data to mobile devices. Apple is also adding some other features that competitors have had for a while, including threaded email message support and the ability to open email attachments with third-party apps.

iBooks—It's unclear why this is a feature of iPhone OS 4, since it ships with the iPhone OS 3-based iPad, but Apple is porting its eBook reader, iBooks, to the iPhone. Which makes plenty of sense, since stranding it on the iPad would relegate this software to just a single device. Copying similar functionality from market leader Amazon.com's best-selling Kindle platform, iBooks will wirelessly sync the current page and bookmarks to the cloud so that users can pick up where they left off, no matter which device they're using.

Enterprise features—Because of its popularity with individuals, the iPhone has made steady progress in the enterprise, but it has also lacked some key enterprise features that competitors such as BlackBerry and Windows Mobile have offered for years. With iPhone OS 4, Apple closes this gap somewhat, adding email (and attachment) encryption, mobile device management, wireless app distribution (allowing companies to distribute custom applications without needing iTunes), multiple Exchange accounts (as mentioned previously), support for Exchange 2010, and support for SSL VPN from both Juniper and Cisco. Anything that brings the iPhone up to speed with its less interesting rivals is good news, and I expect this to further speed corporate adoption of the iPhone.

Game Center—In what can only be called a direct copy of Microsoft's Xbox Live service, Game Center is Apple's take on a social gaming network. And like Xbox Live, which is supported on the upcoming Windows Phone platform as well as the Xbox 360 and Windows-based PCs, Game Center will provide a familiar set of services, like a friends list, game invitations, automatic matchmaking, leaderboards, and even achievements. Unlike the other features mentioned above, however, Game Center won't be available in final form in iPhone OS 4. It will instead ship as a preview at that time, with the final release expected "later this year."

iAd—Aimed at developers who create free apps, and a clear shot across the bow of one-time partner Google, iAd is Apple's take on mobile advertising. According to the company, iAd will help developers monetize free apps with in-app advertising that is both "interactive and emotional." But what iAd really is, of course, is an attempt by Apple to capitalize on the success of the iPhone (and iPod touch) and steal some advertising revenue away from Google, now its biggest competitor. And it's perhaps telling that Apple's take of iAd-based ad revenue is, in fact, significantly higher than its take of paid app revenue on the iPhone. This is clearly the payment model that Apple would like to see take off.

Although it's easy to see the various major new features in iPhone OS 4 as me-too enhancements that help Apple keep its smart phone platform in front of the competition, the less cynical view is perhaps more accurate. With iPhone OS 4, Apple is evolving its dominant smart phone platform in ways that make sense for users. And regardless of the inspiration for these features, the platform is clearly maturing at a rapid rate. So it shouldn't be surprising that Apple is evolving the system rather than offering a major, revolutionary change, as is Microsoft later this year with Windows Phone. When you're on top, there's little reason to rock the boat.

One negative aspect of iPhone OS 4 relates to compatibility. While this upgrade will be made available to all users of modern iPhone and iPod touch versions (and, eventually, to iPad users), only those users with the very latest hardware will gain access to all of the system's functionality. The most important feature, for example—multitasking—will work only with the iPhone 3GS and the so-called third-generation iPod touch (which shipped in late 2009 and was configured with 32GB or 64GB of storage) and up. For users of older devices—such as the iPhone 3G and second-generation iPod touch—some features will be missing. Apple has yet to clarify which features will work on which devices. (And it's possible that first-generation iPhone and iPod touch customers are completely out of luck. Such is the fate of the early adopter.)

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