One of the biggest criticisms leveled at the iPhone and the iPad — that it can't run third-party apps in the background — will be fixed at last (partially, anyway), with a little help from iPhone software 4.0, Steve Jobs announced Thursday. The major OS revision will arrive this summer for the iPhone, while iPad users will have to wait until the fall.
The new iPhone software will pack in more than 100 new features, Jobs promised, including (besides multitasking) a unified email inbox, support for Apple's new iBookstore, a social gaming network, a series of interface enhancements (such as app folders and wallpapers for the home screen) and — yep, it was bound to happen — a new, Apple-controlled mobile ad framework, with Apple set to keep a generous 40 percent of future ad revenue for itself.
Without further ado, then, let's get down to the nitty-gritty:
Here's how it'll work: If you're running an app on the iPhone — anything from the core Mail app to, say, a game like Tap Tap Revenge — you just double-click the Home key to pull up a small window shade at the bottom of the screen, which can show four apps at a time (just swipe to scroll through more running apps). Tap an app in the new multitasking "dock" and you'll switch to the app, with the first app's state saved in the background.
So, will all these apps actually be running in the background? Well, no (if they did, they'd slow iPhone performance to a crawl and eat up battery life, Jobs said). That said, Apple will be allowing a few selected processes to run in the background, including music, VOIP, and location-based apps.
For example, Pandora will still play music while you're browsing on Safari (you can even pause Pandora or skip tracks using the iPhone's "lock" control bar), you'll be able to answer and maintain VOIP calls (think Skype and the like) while you're working in other apps, and location-aware apps like Loopt will be able to track your location in the background via cell-tower triangulation. (An icon will appear in the iPhone's top status bar to warn you if a background app is tracking your location; you'll also get to tweak a series of new location-based privacy settings).
Universal e-mail inbox
Here's a feature that's been a long time in coming. Currently, iPhone users checking multiple email accounts have had to switch back and forth between those accounts to see their respective in boxes (a process that takes several more clicks than it should). With iPhone OS 4.0, however, users will at last get a single, unified in box, just like BlackBerry users have enjoyed since ... well, forever. You'll also be able to "fast switch" between accounts, sort messages by thread, and open attachments with a third-part app (nice). Also, good news for Exchange users: No longer will you be restricted to a single Exchange account.
Home screen enhancements
You know how the iPhone won't allow you to select wallpaper for the home screen? (That's the home screen with all your app icons, not the lock screen with the digital clock and the "slide to unlock" thingy). That's all set to change once iPhone OS 4.0 comes out. You'll also be able to create "folder" icons that contain a series of apps — say, for all your games — effectively boosting the number of apps that can be displayed on the iPhone's home screen from 180 to more than 2,100.
Social gaming network
The Xbox 360 has Xbox Live, the PS3 has the PlayStation Network, and now the iPhone will have Game Center, a new social gaming system that'll let you earn achievements, invite pals to your personal gaming network, compare top scores on leaderboards, and square off with other players via matchmaking. Third-party developers who've already set up their own social gaming networks for the iPhone (such as Gameloft and OpenFeint) aren't gonna like this one bit.
A word from our sponsors
Plenty of iPhone apps already feature in-app advertisements, but Steve Jobs (unsurprisingly) thinks Apple can do it better — thus, iAd, a framework for dynamic new in-app, HTML5-powered ads that "deliver interaction and emotion" (I know, I know). Jobs showed off a series of demos, including a full-motion app for Pixar's "Toy Story 3" (shocker!), a Nike ad that lets you design your own shoe, and a Target ad that lets you set up your dorm room. Ads won't pull users out of a running app, Jobs promised, and you'll also be able to play videos, games, download wallpaper, and view maps from within the ad itself. Last but not least: Apple says it'll split ad revenue with advertisers 60-40, with Apple keeping the 40-percent cut. Look who just got into the advertising business.
Expect the iBookstore to come to the iPhone with OS 4.0, along with a series of enterprise enhancements (in-app encryption, wireless app deployment for an entire workforce, etc.) and support for Bluetooth keyboards.
Which iPhones/the iPad will be compatible with OS 4.0?
The iPhone 3GS and the third-generation iPod Touch will be fully compatible with the new OS, multitasking and all, Jobs said. If you have the iPhone 3G or the second-gen iPod Touch, they will run "many things" in OS 4.0, but multitasking won't be one of them. Finally, the iPad will also be getting all the new OS 4.0 features — including multitasking — but not until this fall. Jobs didn't mention the original iPhone or iPod Touch, nor did he mention a fee for iPod Touch users wishing to upgrade (as we've seen in the past).
What we didn't get
No Flash support (just "no," Jobs reportedly said). No status-bar notifications for new email or SMS messages (which already exist on WebOS and Android phones). And no mention at all of an iPhone for Verizon.
So, what do you think: Happy with the new features? Has Apple fixed the iPhone's/iPad's multitasking problem at last, or think there's still work to be done?
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