iPhone 3.0 still falls short in functionality, flexibility

On Tuesday Apple announced its latest update to the iPhone OS, which adds over 100 new features to the iPhone. While some of these features, such as cut-and-paste, were desperately needed. But the iPhone 3.0 software update still lacks the functionality and flexibility of its competitors such as Android phones and the BlackBerry.

The Apple iPhone 3.0 software is available to members of the iPhone Developer Program. The software will ship this summer free to iPhone owners and iPod Touch customers who will have to shell out US$10.

A year ago, Apple announced its native software developer kit, which gave developers the same APIs (application program interface) and tools Apple itself uses. The next generation of the native SDK has 1000 more APIs to make iPhone 3.0 apps even easier to create; this, in turn, should give developers more creative freedom.

Push, But No Multitasking

One of the new APIs is push notification–something iPhone users were promised last year, but it never materialized. Apple said that a large number of developers came to them and presented ideas of how to build the push notification API. The response was so overwhelmingly great that Apple realized it had to completely re-architect what it planned for push notification, and make it scalable to work with many other applications.

Unfortunately, iPhone 3.0 software will not support background processing — a big disappointment. The reason? It decreases battery life and performance, Apple said today. Apple stated that background processing doesn’t let the iPhone go to sleep and doesn’t let it operate at lowest power. They also said that background processing chews up CPU cycles, so it’s slowing down the foreground app. Apple is already working with third party developers, like Meebo, ESPN and Oracle, to incorporate push notifications into their apps.

One of the biggest draws of Palm’s webOS and the Android OS is its ability to multitask via background processing. Push notification isn’t enough and won’t allow the flexibility and functionality that webOS and Android allow. Some applications need some sort of awareness when they’re not running, like IM or e-mail, for example.

Apple points to its own testing to back up its claims of why its approach is better. The company says it tested background processing on BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Android handsets and found that standby battery life dropped by 80 per cent or more by having the background process on. On the iPhone, standby battery life decreased only by 23 per cent with push notification. But Apple needs to conserve battery life because heavy users will blow through battery life faster with background processing–and they won’t be able to have an extra battery in their pocket, like with the Pre or other handsets that have removable batteries.

Copy Paste–Finally

The long-awaited announcement of copy and paste functionality was received with loud applause. The function is fairly straightforward: Double tap on some text and it will automatically select it. Grab points appear at the end of the selection and a cut/copy/paste button appears at the top. You double tap where you’d like to paste the text and a paste option bubble come up. Select paste and you’re done–easy. The cut/copy/paste function works across all applications, including the Web browser.

The shake control, as seen on the newest generation of iPod Nanos, is now available on the iPhone, and in the context of copy and paste, no less. To undo or redo something you accidentally cut or pasted, you just shake the iPhone. Apple said that although it is a simple feature, they wanted the touch usability to be perfect, which is why it took until the third generation of software to add it.

All of the brouhaha over copy and paste feels somewhat silly: After all, this functionality is core to computing, and it’s long been available on Palm and Windows Mobile devices, and will be coming soon to Android. T-Mobile will push out a major firmware update (codenamed “Cupcake) to users of the G1 Android handset in April, the mobile operator has said. T-Mobile’s update will also introduce virtual keyboards and stereo Bluetooth support, which Apple says will be in iPhone 3.0. The landscape keyboard is a welcome feature for the iPhone, especially for e-mail and notes, where this feature is currently lacking.

The Palm Pre does not have a native landscape keyboard, but that isn’t a problem since there’s a full QWERTY keyboard in its hardware.

Search Within iPhone

Search within the iPhone 3.0 operating system gets a boost through the addition of Spotlight, an iPhone-wide search tool. Spotlight has its own homescreen in 3.0, which will make it really easy to find and launch an application. For example, if you search for “TIM,” the song “Time Out” by Dave Brubeck Quartet comes up. If you click on the song, it will automatically start playing in iTunes. While this is a handy feature, the search is limited to only the iPhone. The universal search tool on the Pre, however, will go on and search the Web if it doesn’t find what you are looking for on the device.

Apple added multimedia messaging support for the iPhone. Now iPhone users can send pictures, audio files, contacts, and locations (from Maps)-all in one seamless application. And users will also be able forward and delete individual and multiple messages. Even low-end cell phones have MMS support, so this is a great, if not a bit delayed, addition.

Tethering, the ability to use your phone as a modem for your computer, is not currently available for iPhone 3.0. Apple did say, however, that this function is available on the client-side. It is currently working with carriers to develop this support, so stay tuned. The Palm Pre will have this capability when it debuts later this year.

None of iPhone OS 3.0’s additions are groundbreaking, but most were desperately needed for the iPhone to remain a worthy contender in the race for the most user-friendly and functional smart phone. However, with its continuing lack of multitasking and background processing support, iPhone 3.0 may not be strong enough to compete with the Pre and webOS and the new generation of Android.

Only time-and the devices that come out in the next six months–will tell that story. Apple’s one clear advantage-and a huge advantage at that-is the huge ecosystem of accessories and applications for the iPhone.

And with the 1000 additional APIs added to this generation’s SDK, the iPhone apps will be primed, for now, to triumph over anything available for web OS or Android (or Windows Mobile or BlackBerry, for that matter).

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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