iPhone OS 4.0 finally brings multitasking and six friends

By Matthew Bolton,

Apple has unleashed an enormous update for the iPhone and iPad with its 4.0 software. Boasting 100 new user features and 1500 APIs for developers, the new software will be made available as a preview to developers today, with a launch this summer for the iPhone. iPad users will have to wait until the autumn for their update.

Apple OS 4

Some new user features include a 5x digital zoom, Bluetooth keyboard support, Home screen wallpapers, SMS/MMS search, playlist creation and too many others to count (well, about 95 others, I suppose).

I almost daren’t begin mentioning the developer APIs, but geotagging and calendar, photo library and camera access stick out as having potential, along with a hardware acceleration feature for math functions.

However, Steve Jobs and his boys did go into detail on the the following seven “tentpoles” of iPhone OS 4.0:

Multitasking

All the information about this feature alone could take up an entire article, so we’ll keep it brief. Multitasking is coming, and you’ll do it by tapping the Home button twice. This will bring up a dock like the one on the Home screen, but it shows all open apps.

Apple is releasing a load of multitasking-related APIs to developers that will allow them to keep battery usage to a minimum. For example, a radio app only needs to play audio in the background rather than run the full app. A game can simply freeze instantly, store itself in the background where it won’t use any CPU cycles, and then you can pick up where it left off.

There’s more tinkering that can be done with notifications, and location services can run in the background too.

Folders

Apparently in by popular demand, you can now have folders for apps. Just drop apps on top of one another on the home page and they’ll form a folder. It’ll even name itself based on the type of app in there, or you can rename. The icon changes to mini images of the apps in the folder. This is a simple concept, but it’s got that software shine Apple does so well.

Improved Mail

The unified inbox is here, with fast inbox switching to help it out. There’s also support for more than one Exchange account and viewing messages in a threaded view. Perhaps most interesting is the ability to open attachments with third party apps – the lack of this is one of my biggest gripes with the iPad currently.

iBooks

It’s iBooks for the iPhone. Not an awful lot to see here, but there is wireless syncing between this and the iBooks app for iPad (so no buying books twice, I guess).

Game Center

Well, what have we here? Xbox Live for iPhone? Yes, indeed. Lots of games already have their own system for online gaming, but it looks like Apple’s stepping in to unify them. Achievements, leaderboards, automatic matchmaking and invitations to play games via push notifications are all coming. Maybe Apple’s serious about this gaming thing after all (I’d still like some buttons though…)

Enterprise

iPhone OS 4.0 offers better data protection and encryption possibilities, multiple Exchange accounts, Exchange server 2010 support, wireless app distribution for private apps, mobile device management, and SSL VPN support.

iAds

The desktop ad environment is based on search, but that obviously isn’t appropriate for app-based phones. Apple is offering a way to serve rich ad content without users having to leave an app. Video and interactivity are all possible, and no special SDK required – it all just runs in HTML. Ads aren’t very interesting, but if it can keep developers making good, free apps then it’s a major bonus.

I have to say, I’m massively impressed with this update. It’s pretty extensive, and, yes, has its share of boring and overhyped bits, but some of the features seem perfectly calculated to keep ahead of the curve.

It’s interesting that the iPad version is due so much later, as some of these updates seem obviously geared towards bringing the iPad feature list closer to desktop functionality in some areas. Strange that the iPhone should get them first, but then it is the big brother, so maybe it’s a chance for an extended test.

Steve Jobs was asked about unsigned apps in the Q&A afterwards. His response that there’s an ‘porn store’ on Android that anyone (including kids, in his example) can use, and that that wasn’t a place Apple wanted to go probably won’t help the recent views of the company as becoming slightly puritanical. However, if his point is that Apple’s profile means they’ll get blamed for anything unsavoury/offensive seen on the fruit-branded phone, then he’s probably right. It’s just not a business view that jibes well with a lot of customers.

The bad news about the update? Not all of these features will come to the iPhone 3G , including multitasking (original flavour iPhone users seem to be completely left in the cold). 3GS owners will get pretty much the full OS 4.0 experience, but Jobs says the 3G hardware is just incapable of performing some functions, including multitasking.

Apple also beat its chest in the usual way, with slides claiming 50 million iPhones sold to date, and a cool 450,000 iPads sold over the last five days in the US. The rest of the world can still look forward a ‘late April’ release, although that’s getting close, so some specifics wouldn’t go astray.