Apple hypes multitasking at iPhone 4.0 launch

Apple Inc. on Thursday gave a sneak peek at a developer preview of iPhone OS 4.0, the next major version of its operating system for mobile devices.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs boasted over 1500 new application programming interfaces (APIs) for developers in iPhone 4.0, letting them access features like the iPhone’s calendar, photo library, video-camera data, and more. App creators can also take advantage of OS X features like Quick Look, in-app SMS, and more. Plus, there are over 2000 APIs for hardware-accelerated math functions.

In addition, iPhone 4.0 boasts more than 100 new user features, such as playlist creation, 5x digital zoom in the camera app, tap-to-focus for video, auto photo-geotagging, the addition of Places functionality, the ability to change the Home screen wallpaper, improved spell-checking, and support for Bluetooth keyboards. Many of the features added are already available on the iPad, which currently runs iPhone OS 3.2.

Instead of running down the entire extensive list, Jobs focused on seven “tentpole” features that iPhone 4.0.

Perhaps the most long-awaited iPhone feature, iPhone 4.0 will bring multitasking capability to Apple’s devices. As with copy-and-paste, Jobs acknowledged that Apple wasn’t the first to implement multitasking, but he insisted that Apple would be the best, by coming up with a way that doesn’t degrade the performance of the app users run in the foreground and doesn’t drain battery life as significantly as it might.

In order to switch applications, users double-click the Home button which summons a dock-like window showing all running applications; tap on an app to switch to it. If you’re playing a game, it will pause when you switch, and you’ll be able to resume right where you left off when you switch back.

By default, that dock shows you four running applications, but if you have more running at one time, you can swipe left to see the rest of them.

Apple senior vice president of iPhone software Scott Forstall went into how Apple implemented multitasking while avoiding the potential pitfalls. Forstall said Apple looked at existing iPhone applications in the App Store and tried to identify what services are needed in the background–Apple then wrote their own code to implement those services, which it turn made available to third-party developers as APIs. That way, the system is responsible for maintaining battery life and performance, rather than having each additional app try and figure it out.

Forstall enumerated seven areas where it would be providing background APIs. The first was audio, for apps such as Pandora. Pandora founder Tim Westergren showed off how the app used Apple’s new technology, a change he said took only a few hours. In addition, controls are even available: by double-tapping the Home screen, you can summon the familiar floating iPod control window with controls for Pandora. You can even buy media from iTunes without interrupting the playback.

The second background task is Voice over IP (VoIP). Apple showed off the Skype app taking advantage of background processes. Users can be on Skype calls and do other tasks; in fact, users can even receive Skype calls while the iPhone is locked and Skype isn’t running. When users receive a Skype call, they are alerted via a pop-up notification with a custom sound, which allows them to answer the call. The iPhone also displays a red status bar to alert the user that they are still in Skype.

Location services are the third background API. You can continue to get directions from turn-by-turn GPS apps, even while performing other tasks such as listening to music in the iPod app.

The fourth background API is also location-based. Some applications use location information, such as Loopt, but they don’t require GPS to be always-on, so instead Apple uses cell phone location information. When a user switches cell phone towers, it can indicate to the service that location has changed.

Apple realizes that privacy is important when it comes to location information, so it’s adding an indicator in the menu bar, next to the battery icon, to let you know if an application has requested your location any time in the past 24 hours. And preferences will allow you to disable or enable location for each app.

The fifth background API is push notifications, to which Apple has added a new service called Local Notifications. This lets apps launch notifications without the need for an external server: so, as Forstall suggested, you can have a TV guide app that alerts you when a show is beginning.

Task completion is the sixth background API, and it’s designed for apps that can take a while to finish certain tasks: for example, uploading photographs to Flickr. Now you can switch to other apps and let Flickr finish its business.

Then there’s the seventh and final background API, Fast App Switching, which allows an app to dump all information related to its current state and then go into a sleep-like mode where it consumes no processor power. But, when you switch back to the app, everything returns to exactly the point where you left it.

Finally, an answer to the problem of having too many apps. Steve Jobs showed off a Folders feature for the iPhone’s Home screen, allowing users to group applications. When you’re editing your Home screen, you can drag one app on top of another app to automatically created a folder. The iPhone automatically names folders based on the categories of the apps.

So, for example, you can create a Games folder merely by dropping one game on top of another. The folder icon displays a small set of tiles showing you which apps are inside, and you can drag the folder anywhere on the Home screen, just like an app icon. There’s no limit to the number of the folders you can have, and it’s even possible to put one in the iPhone’s Dock. The addition of folders means the iPhone now lets you easily see up more than 2000 apps.

In a move borrowed from the iPad, iPhone 4.0 also lets you change the background wallpaper on your iPhone’s Home screen–this can either be the same as the lock screen’s wallpaper or an entirely different image.

Apple severely revamped the Mail application in iPhone 4.0, adding support for new features such as a unified inbox, that allows you to see all incoming mail from multiple accounts; you can also quickly jump between inboxes for multiple accounts. In addition, Mail also now supports more than one Exchange account at a time, and you can also organize by thread.

Attachments are enhanced as well: you can now tap files attached to e-mail messages to open them in a separate application, including third-party apps.

iBooks on iPhone
In another borrowed feature from the iPad, Apple will be making iBooks available to the iPhone in iPhone OS 4.0. It’s a smaller version of the iPad app, but allows the same features, including purchasing from the iBookstore. And you’ll be able to sync your place and bookmarks between multiple devices: leave off reading a book on your iPad, and you can start reading it in the same place on your iPhone.

Enterprise features
iPhone 4.0 has added new features for business users. At the top of the list is better data protection: all e-mail, including attachments, can be encrypted with your PIN code. And Apple will make encryption APIs available to third-party developers, allowing them to do the same with data stored in those apps.

Apple’s also rolling out improvements for mobile device management, for those companies that deploy large numbers of iPhones. Companies can now wirelessly distribute applications anywhere in the world from their own servers. In addition, there’s the aforementioned support for multiple Exchange accounts, and support for Exchange Server 2010. Plus, Apple is supporting SSL VPN for both Juniper and Cisco.

Game Center
Billed as a “developer preview” in iPhone OS 4, Apple announced a social-gaming network called Game Center, which seems poised to compete with services such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. You’ll be able to invite friends, participate in online matchmaking, compete in leaderboards, earn achievements, and more. While available first to developers–presumably so they can integrate the functionality in their apps–Game Center will roll out to end users later this year.

As was widely rumored, Apple announced its own built-in advertising system for the iPhone OS, iAd. Developers to incorporate ads into their application and use both video and interactive elements without taking users out of the current application. And the system is built entirely on HTML5.
“It’s all about helping our developers make money through advertising so they can keep their free apps free,” said Jobs.

Availability and compatibility
While Apple is releasing a developer preview of iPhone 4.0 on Thursday, it won’t be available to end users until this summer. And not all devices will be able to reap all the benefits. Owners of the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch should be able to run all the features, but iPhone 3G and second-generation iPod touch owners will only support some of the features–for instance, those devices will not be able to use the multitasking features.

As for Apple’s newest device, the iPad, Jobs said that iPhone 4.0 will arrive on the tablet device sometime this fall.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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