Apple's iPhone (And iPod Touch) 3.0: Some Things I Suspect You'd Like To Know
Only Apple could generate the degree of fervor both leading up to and subsequent to yesterday morning’s unveiling of the developer beta for v3 of the upcoming iPhone and iPod touch firmware (which, to keep things simple, I’ll refer to as iPhone v3 through the remainder of this writeup). Like Joel, I didn’t attend the event (which was at Apple’s campus, Joel, not Moscone Center); why bother wasting the time (8+ hour roundtrip commute) and money when dozens of other folks are already liveblogging it, and when a video stream was posted a few hours afterward? Nonetheless, I thought I’d pass along my perspectives based in part on my past device critiques, and after trolling through dozens of online writeups on what transpired yesterday (see, for example, Ars Technica, Gizmodo, Macworld, and TUAW):
- Apple must be at least a bit worried about the Palm Pre: Apple says that the update is coming ‘this summer’, which my calendar says could strictly speaking be as late as September 21. Why, then, did the company coordinate such a large, noisy public event in mid-March? Perhaps it’s because the Palm Pre, the initial hardware offering based on Palm’s modern (finally!) webOS, launched at January’s CES and is scheduled to begin shipping before the end of June. I’d also postulate that Apple’s concerned about competing against upcoming Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5, due out in the 2nd half of the year, but…naaah…
- Sometimes the simplest things are the most impactful: Copy, cut and paste support? Check. MMS (for the 2nd-generation iPhone only)? Check. Landscape-orientation capabilities in the email client? Check. Welcome to the 21st century, Apple. Why are you charging me $9.95 for the privilege on my 2nd-generation iPod touch? Now all we need is better app organization (says the man with 8 full screens’ worth of icons)…and Adobe Flash support…and to-do synchronization…and…
- Clever engineering and marketing counterbalances, but doesn’t cancel out, competitive shortcomings: Multitasking. It’s what, for example, lets you listen to streaming music through your media app in the background while you’re doing something else in the foreground. Or what enables your widget to constantly run virus and spyware scans while you play (err…work…); a critical requirement for enterprise embrace. Android has it. BlackBerry OS has it. Symbian has it. Windows Mobile has it. With webOS, Palm finally has it. But for unknown reasons, iPhone v3 still won’t have it, although the operating system’s OS X foundation certainly is capable of it. Apple’s claims of notable battery life and performance degradation due to multitasking ring hollow, both absolutely and from a competitive standpoint. And ‘push’ notifications, originally promised for last September at last June’s Worldwide Developer Conference and maybe really coming this time, are an incomplete and kludgy substitute. Apple originally claimed that 3G data services were a battery killer, thereby justifying EDGE-only capabilities in the 1st-generation iPhone. Lo and behold, though, the 2nd-generation iPhone introduced 1.5 years later added UMTS 3G capabilities. Similarly, I suspect true multitasking support will show up sooner or later…and until then, we’ll continue to hear about what a bad idea it supposedly is. After all, that’s the Apple Way.
- Bluetooth PAN is finally in hand, even with the 2nd-generation iPod touch: Back in late January, I grumbled about the broken Broadcom Bluetooth drivers in my MacBook Air. And late last September, I pointed out that the Broadcom transceiver in the 2nd-generation iPod touch included Bluetooth capabilities, seemingly un-enabled by firmware at the time save potentially for implementing the device’s Nike+ protocol support. Both shortcomings, it seems, are on the way to being resolved. Apple admitted yesterday that iPhone v3 will include phone-as-modem tethering capabilities (presumably Bluetooth-based…but then again maybe not), subject to a cellular carrier embrace of the concept, which will obviously require corresponding robust support in Apple laptops. And while such tethering could be DUN-only in form, I suspect PAN will also (and may exclusively) be implemented, since Bonjour-based inter-handheld ad hoc (i.e. peer-to-peer) communications capabilities over both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (the latter after initial discovery and connection establishment over Bluetooth, and on an as-needed basis that trades off incremental bandwidth versus incremental power consumption requirements) are also included in this summer’s update. The 2nd-generation iPhone and iPod touch also gain A2DP wireless two-channel audio streaming capabilities; the Bluetooth transceiver in the 1st-generation iPhone is unfortunately not capable of this particular protocol profile.
- Apple’s handheld gaming ambitions are coming to fruition: Speaking of inter-handheld ad hoc communications capabilities…with their beefy CPU(s), GPU and abundant in-system memory, the iPhone and iPod touch have always been ripe with handheld gaming potential, as I pointed out last June and revisited in September. More recent gaming-themed TV commercials from the company confirm that the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP are in Apple’s gunsights, and yesterday’s enhancements will further whet developers’ appetites. Not only do the iPhone and iPod touch gain Zune-ish ’social’ gaming (and other) direct interactivity features, developers are able to cultivate sustained revenue streams by means of subscriptions and in-application purchases (to, for example, acquire additional game levels, accessories, etc). Disaster? Gimme a break.
- Do developers dream of an income heap (with apologies to Philip K. Dick)?: The statistics touted at yesterday’s briefing are, I’ve gotta say, mighty impressive. Firmware v3 will deliver more than 100 new features (only about a third of which, judging from past experience with Apple’s ‘reality distortion field’, will be meaningful), and the updated SDK includes more than 1,000 new APIs. Approximately 17 million iPhones and 13 million iPod touch units have been sold in the past two years. There are more than 50,000 registered developers, 60 percent of which are supposedly first-timers to any handheld platform. The Apple App Store has seen more than 800 million downloads to date, and more than 25,000 applications are currently available there. Granted, a notable percentage of those downloads and applications are of the ‘freebie’ variety, and only a small percentage of the revenue-generating titles are turning their creators into millionaires (sigh). Still, in my opinion Apple’s doing a much better job at cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with developers than are its competitors Google (i.e. Android), Microsoft, Nokia, Palm, and RIM.
- Find My iPhone?: Finally, a feature not mentioned at yesterday’s event, but one which developers that downloaded the beta have subsequently reported. In the MobileMe settings there’s an option to enable the ‘Find My iPhone’ feature. Minimally, I suspect this’ll allow friends (boyfriends, girlfriends…ahem), family members (parents, spouses…ahem), anonymous stalkers, and Black Helicoper pilots to dynamically monitor your whereabouts, as your location is pinpointed by a combination of GPS and cellular base station triangulation techniques. But should someone steal your phone (or, from a less confrontational standpoint, you misplace it), such a feature would be equally useful in enabling you and/or the authorities to track it down.
Followup: Ross Rubin makes an excellent point, regarding my earlier comments on multitasking. Multitasking on the iPhone and iPod touch is supported…for Apple’s own applications, that is. Apple would probably position this disparity as being a quality control issue; the company can’t guarantee that third-party programs won’t adversely impact battery life or steal away excess CPU cycles (either or which would degrade the overall platform ‘experience’). Conversely, Apple’s developer ‘partners’ would probably have a different interpretation of the stance…competition-squelching favoritism. Apple’s acting more and more like Microsoft all the time.