Apple unveils iPhone OS 4.0, adds multitasking

Earlier today, Apple unveiled its new iPhone OS, version 4.0.  The new software will power the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad and adds a variety of new features to the mix.  Chief among these is a form of multitasking, and other “tentpoles” include an Xbox Live replica called “Gaming Center,” enhanced email support, and more:

  • Multitasking on iPhone 3GS
  • User-changeable wallpaper (something jailbroken users have enjoyed for years)
  • Bluetooth keyboard support (from iPad)
  • Spell check (also from iPad)
  • Tap-based autofocus for video (not just photos) on 3GS
  • 5x digital zoom for camera (why?)
  • Enhanced playlist support (on-device playlist creation, nested lists)
  • iBooks (from iPad)
  • App folders (another jailbreak favorite- you can finally sort multiple apps into folders)
  • New mail features (unified inbox for multiple accounts, threaded email, in-app attachment viewing, support for multiple MS Exchange accounts)
  • Enterprise enhancements (remote device management, wireless app distribution)
  • iAd (Apple’s new mobile advertising system, promising more interactive ads than ever before, 60:40 revenue split with Apple)
  • Game Center (Apple’s mobile replica of Xbox Live for iPhone games, including matchmaking, achievements, and leaderboards; will launch sometime later this year (after OS 4 launch))

More details after the break.

Multitasking

Apple says its implementation of multitasking in iPhone OS 4.0 is going to be the “best” on the market.  Double-tapping the home button brings up a “dock” that shows icons for each currently-active application.  Tapping on an icon switches the phone to the selected app.

However, this is not the kind of “real” multitasking found on Windows Mobile, Android, or Palm WebOS phones, which let full applications switch into the background, just like your desktop PC.  Nor is it like the current iPhone OS, which completely shuts down apps (except Apple’s own Mail, iPod, and Safari apps) upon returning to the home screen (some apps save some data upon exit to be able to return to where the user was, but most don’t).

Instead, iPhone OS 4.0 borrows a page from Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Phone 7 OS and can “suspend” certain applications in their current state when the user switches to something else.  Then when the user switches back to the app, it can be restored to the foreground exactly as it was before.  What makes Apple’s system worthy of being called “multitasking” is that it allows apps that are about to be suspended to request up to 5 minutes of time to continue running as-is.

This would allow, for instance, a Flickr app to finish uploading photos before it gets suspended.  Apps can also request the OS to run seven different types of services for them in the background:

  • Background audio – allows apps like Pandora to use the standard pop-over iPod controls for background playback
  • Voice over IP – allows apps like Skype to receive calls in the background
  • Location services – GPS and social networking apps can continue to provide location-based updates (like TomTom driving directions)
  • Local notifications – background apps can notify you (currently, the iPhone only supports server-hosted remote notifications)
  • Task completion – apps can finish tasks like file uploads in the background
  • Fast app switching – apps can be suspended/resumed (as described above)

Apple claims that its implementation of multitasking avoids the pitfalls of “real” multitasking- namely that running background apps causes higher power consumption and negatively affects the performance of the foreground application.  We doubt the OS can completely alleviate these (after all, it will still be running extra services in the background, even if not full apps, so it’ll have to use additional CPU power), but it will indeed probably save a bit of battery life.

Instant messaging clients like Beejive will be left out of the iPhone OS 4.0 multitasking party

Limitations

The vast majority of iPhone users have been living happily for years without any form of multitasking for third-party apps, so iPhone OS 4.0 will definitely be an upgrade.  Unlike Windows Mobile, Android, or WebOS, which provide task managers to let users manually close applications, the iPhone implementation has no such feature, preferring to manage app closing only by itself.

We see some issues in Apple’s approach– primarily that some types of applications, like instant messaging (IM / IRC) clients, will not be supported for background usage.  IM apps require little more than a constant network connection, which the OS’ background VoIP services can provide, but IM apps likely won’t fit into that category in the app store.

Further, the multitasking pop-up display, showing little more than application icons, is more reminiscent of the classic Windows Mobile Task Manager, which Apple has often ridiculed, than the current state of the art, namely Palm WebOS’ task switcher.  WebOS provides live snapshots of apps (“cards”) that the user can then switch between or close.  This is something jailbroken iPhone users have enjoyed for a while, through apps like ProSwitcher:

Apple probably can’t provide this kind of multitasking UI because unlike “real” multitasking systems, full apps aren’t actually running in the background in iPhone OS 4.0 (so what would it show a screenshot from?).

Apple claimed the iPhone 2G's chipset was physically incapable of supporting Stereo Bluetooth, yet a simple jailbroken patch enables it

The Usual Apple Upsell

Unfortunately, iPhone OS 4.0 continues an Apple tradition of artificially restricting features on its older devices in order to promote new hardware upgrades.  OS 4.0 will not enable multitasking on any device released before the iPhone 3GS and the latest iPod touch.  This is unfortunate because even the first-generation iPhone is completely capable of “real” multitasking (through jailbreaking), so it would definitely have no problem with OS 4.0’s “lighter” implementation.

However, this is nothing new– when Apple released iPhone OS 3.0, it finally added MMS (picture messaging) support for 3G and 3GS iPhones, but not the original one, citing technical reasons (when in fact jailbroken apps could provide full MMS support on the 2G model).  Similarly, Apple added A2DP Stereo Bluetooth support (for wireless headphones) but left out the iPhone 2G, saying its Bluetooth chipset lacked the necessary features.  This, too, was false, and a simple patch can enable A2DP in 2G iPhones.

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