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iPhone OS 4.0: Multi-tasking, Folder Support, iBooks & an Xbox Live Rival

Gordon Kelly


iPhone OS 4.0 Adds Multi-tasking, Folders, iBooks & an Xbox Live Rival

I've never been a particularly big fan of Apple, but while the company can drive you to despair at times they also have moments like this when the ill will fades away...

Today the company unveiled iPhone OS 4.0 to developers. Would we get multi-tasking? Perhaps Folders? Maybe iBooks? Even a mail experience that no longer resembles something out of the 1990s? For once, we got all of them - and more.

The big one: multi-tasking. With iPhone OS 4.0 you will be able to run multiple applications at the same time, including the likes of streaming music apps such as Spotify, VoIP such as Skype and sat nav programmes like TomTom and CoPilot. These can be switched between by double tapping the home button which brings up the icons of all the apps currently in use (above).

Importantly, multi-tasking also includes 'task completion' - in other words: actions can be left running in the background such as uploading a photo to Flickr, twitpic to Twitter, etc.

As you might expect Apple didn't delve into the technical details of how it has achieved multi-tasking having previously cited battery life and performance concerns, but it did say GPS in particular is power intensive so when running in the background a GPS icon will show up beside the battery life.

Next another biggie: folders. iPhone apps are getting out of control with pages and pages of them filling up most user's handsets, so now you can group them together. In iPhone OS 4.0 simply drag one app onto another and it automatically creates a folder. This folder can then be renamed: games, travel, gadgets, etc. How many apps can you put in one folder? This wasn't spelt out, but the example given was whereas you could currently fit 180 apps over 11 pages, with folders that can reach 2,160.You do the maths.

iBooks! Yep, these have been ported over from the iPad - same bookshelf style presentation and your progress can be synced over the Cloud between computer, iPad and iPhone. Important, simple - though questions remain about just how readable books are on that tiny, non-AMOLED display (expect this to be fixed by a 4th gen iPhone in June).

The last of the major features: 'Game Center'. No screenshots of this were shown off, but it is essentially Apple's counter strike to Xbox Live which will feature on Windows Phone 7. Consequently automatic opponent matchmaking, in game rewards and a profile to record achievements will all be in there. I'd expect Apple to expand this to Mac OS X in the future.

As for productivity, we at last get support for multiple Exchange accounts, SSL VPN, and a unified mail inbox which can sort mail by conversation thread (think Gmail). Fast switching between accounts will be introduced for those who wish to keep their different email addresses separate and attachments can be opened with apps. For corporations there will be enhanced email encryption options and the ability to distribution apps wireless over multiple devices.

Finally we get 'iAd' which a new form of in app advertising. Admitting that in its current state "most of this advertising sucks", iAd will enable dynamic, full screen ads with music, video and even rudimentary gaming integration which can be displayed within the app (the example of Toy Story is shown above and below). It works like an overlay and can be closed at any time. Will it work? It looks impressive, doesn't close your app as ads do now and (quite frankly) can't be any worse.

Interestingly, all iAd content is done using HTML5 with Jobs reiterating that Apple's position on both Flash and Java has not changed (ie: none).

So what are the caveats? iPhone OS 4.0 won't be available until 'the summer' which isn't a surprise and will likely be in June to tie-in with a new fourth generation iPhone. Amusingly, the iPad won't get iPhone OS 4.0 until "the Fall" (Autumn) - which means a comical period where it has even less functionality compared to an iPhone than it does now.

Additionally, there will be no multi-tasking in iPhone OS 4.0 for the iPhone 3G and second generation iPod touch with Jobs citing a fundamental lack of processing power. Sadly first generation iPhone and iPod touches won't be compatible at all which marks the first time Apple has cut off a generation of its hardware. Oh and we still didn't get that dynamic weather icon!

All in, however, given Apple's run of disappointing announcements iPhone OS 4.0 is a bold and important step in the right direction which once again brings it to the forefront of the industry's mobile operating systems.

Note: since Apple continues not to show its press conferences outside the US all images are courtesy of gdgt

Update: A number of other features are leaking out:

  • 5x digital zoom in the camera

  • touch to focus in video recording

  • the ability to gift apps from the phone

  • a spell checker (potentially incorrect words are underlined, tapping them will bring up a list of suggestions)

  • a birthday calendar

  • SMS text search

  • Web search suggestions as you type in Safari

  • the ability to check Wikipedia from Spolight

  • 'Places' and 'Faces' synchronisation from iPhoto in your Photos (like the iPad)

  • the option to enlarge fonts in mail, SMS & alerts

  • support for Bluetooth keyboards (the newest add-on craze for cases?)

  • playlist creation inside the iPod app

  • Custom homepage wallpapers
Apple has now made the full keynote available online here.

Update 2:

Let's clear up these multi-tasking queries from your comments:

In essence, what we have with iPhone OS 4.0 is indeed glorified task switching with apps such as games frozen in their current state when switching between one process and another. In a sense this is what we would want though, because open apps use resources and drain battery life.

Where the difference lies is in what functionality Apple allows to run in the background through its new API and these are divided into seven key areas: background audio (for Last.fm, Spotify, radio streaming etc), VoIP (Skype and others), background location (for GPS), push notifications (incoming information from online), local notifications (you're app wants to tell you something), task completion (web browser continues loading, pictures/videos uploading) and fast app switching (this continually monitors app states so users can quickly move between them).

Ultimately then no this isn't multitasking in the truest sense of the word, but these seven areas should cover 99 per cent of what people do want from multitasking and it means this can be pulled off with considerably less battery and performance impact than if the full app was running in the background.

I think it's a decent trade off, especially for the mobile sector.


iPhone OS 4.0

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