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What makes a great phone is a combination of good hardware and software design. Apple certainly knows what how to do both well and has recently released iOS 4, available on their new iPhone 4, 3Gs, 3G and iPod Touches. The upgrade is available by updating your phone via iTunes.
The first notable change is the home screen wallpaper. This seems to add a fresh look to the operating system and definitely makes the phone feel more vibrant and alive again. Some application icons have also been updated which adds to the new look.
The most important addition and soon-to-be-most-used feature is multitasking. The lack of this feature in previous versions of the OS has arguably been the most criticised aspect of the iPhone’s software. Although from an underlying technical perspective it is not multitasking in the traditional sense, it definitely gives the appearance of full-blown multitasking, and the majority of users won’t be able to tell the difference. Most services that both developers and end-users would want to run in the background are supported.
Apps that currently support multitasking that we tested were Twitter for iPhone, Dropbox, Evernote, Linkedin and WordPress. Fast-switching was mostly supported in these apps. As a couple of examples of multitasking specific enhancements in these apps, Dropbox can complete file-syncing in the background and Evernote can record audio while outside the app.
The double-click home button gesture is reserved to view currently open applications, audio controls for audio applications as well as a screen lock function for those who use their phone while lying in the bed. To close an application, the tap-and-hold jiggle mode will expose a cancel icon to close the desired application.
Prior to iOS 4, the iPhone OS was iconic for having pages of screens with icons. Finding your apps was achieved by flicking through your pages and identifying the unique icon that represented the application you wished to open. Although this works in the same manner as how you know where things are on your desk, Apple has added folders to allow more organisation of your iPhone apps.
Creating folders is as simple as dragging two icons together and thereafter giving the resultant folder a name. Although this is a seemingly useful feature at first sight, I prefer the organised chaos of icons lying everywhere. It just seems slower finding applications as I actually have to read labels of folders rather than quickly skim for an icon. However, the use of folders is likely to come down to personal preference, with some users adopting it and others preferring their current arrangement.
Mail sees a couple of useful improvements. There is now a unified inbox that allows you to view all mails in one folder rather than having to view each mail account separately. Mail is also grouped into threads (like Gmail) which makes following a conversation far easier. Multiple exchange accounts are also enabled which allow you to sync calendars, contacts and accept and create meeting invites.
The photo application syncs nicely with iPhoto and adds more iPhoto-esque features. It now has tabs for events, faces and places and allows you to view photos in those categories. The calendar adds birthdays which syncs with your phonebook entries. The iPod app adds playlist creation. Safari adds Bing to the mix of default search engines and also adds suggestions while typing your search.
iBooks is a new application that is not shipped with iOS4, but is downloadable via the App store. It comes with a free Winnie the Pooh book as a sample. Although I wouldn’t want to read an entire book on my iPhone, this is a very useful tool for owners of an iPhone and iPad as you are able to sync books between the two devices.
If you are out and about, you could read a page or two on your iPhone from where you left off whilst reading it on your iPad. Apple’s attention to detail is what really impresses me. The page turning effect, which has no real practical function, is really cool to play with and if you don’t read books, downloading this app just too see that element in action is worth it.
Potential for third-party apps
With iOS 4 comes a number of additional APIs for third-party app developers. With multitasking, a number of additional capabilities can be added to your existing app, but there are a couple of other API enhancements/additions that I think we will find in upcoming apps and updates.
This is useful to notify users of task completions or making custom alarm applications.
Notifications can be scheduled to trigger at certain times even if the app is not running. For example, this could be useful to remind you to feed your virtual pets.
You can now also capture telephony events to handle what your application does during an incoming call. VoIP applications can use the carrier information to determine if the carrier allows VoIP calls or not as well as get your country code so that you won’t have to set it manually. This could be quite useful for dial-through telecommunication providers to automatically dial the correct local number to connect international calls.
Event Kit allows developers to access the phone’s calendar entries as well insert new entries. You can also access the alarms on the Clock app. These APIs can be used for syncing events/alarms with third-party applications/services and I think will prove to be very useful in upcoming apps.
Message UI Framework
The messaging API adds the ability to compose SMS messages within an application similar to how e-mails can currently be sent within third-party applications.
Quick Look Framework
The Quick Look framework adds the ability to view files that iOS4 can read, but your application does not natively support. Applications that allow users to download files and wish to display them can use this framework instead of writing their own document renderers.
Enhancements added to Map Kit include draggable map annotations and map overlays. Previously map overlays had to be drawn and handled manually. This resulted in a seemingly disconnected overlay that did not “glue” well with the visible map. These additions should give a less disconnected experience.
I’ve installed and tried iOS 4 on both a 3G and 3Gs. On occasion iOS4 seems faster than OS 3, but I have experienced a couple of freezes. Internet speeds also seem to be faster although I cannot confirm whether this is OS based or connection based. Multitasking is a feature you will definitely love. However, there are only a couple of multitasking capable apps out at the moment.
I’m still interested to see how other developers take advantage of the various multitasking services. Once you experience it, using apps that don’t support multitasking just seems frustrating. Unfortunately 3G users will be disappointed as multitasking and home screen wallpapers are not supported. For 3G owners, I don’t think this is a must-have update. For 3GS users, however, you should update as soon as possible.