Like clockwork, Apple has once again offered up numerous improvements to the iPhone's software in a June release. Although all eyes were on the new iPhone 4 at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference two weeks ago, the new smartphone would be just a stylish chunk of stainless steel and glass without iOS 4, the new operating system that arrives today.
For the last couple of weeks, I've been running Apple's newly minted iOS 4 to find out whether it, like previous OS updates before it, breathes new life into the iPhone line-up.
While the overall look and feel of the iPhone's operating system remains unchanged, Apple has built in steady and solid improvements that add features users have asked for since the last big update a year ago. Instead of changing things for their own sake, Apple tends to focus each major iOS release on a few, well-implemented features. This year's release -- which iPad users will get this fall -- shows that the development teams at Apple have delivered, among other things, limited multitasking for third-party applications, better application sorting and management, and improved e-mail functions. The end result is an updated operating system that makes using the iPhone a much more polished experience, all without sacrificing battery life.
The fourth iteration of the iPhone's OS is supported by the iPhone 4 (which arrives on Thursday); last year's iPhone 3GS; and, to a lesser extent, the iPhone 3G that arrived in 2008. Recent iPod touch models are also supported. If you're still using the original iPhone from 2007, or the first iPod touch, you won't be able to run iOS 4
Although Apple likes to tout "100 new features" in iOS 4 on its Web site, only a handful of them will stand out for most users. It's great that you can change you home screen wallpaper, send gift apps to your friends and create custom playlists right on your phone, but those aren't the big improvements to arrive this year. (And while FaceTime video chat got a lot of attention two weeks ago, that's more about the new hardware than the iOS 4 software. I'll have more to say about that when I review the iPhone 4.)
With the focus now on iOS 4, here are the five changes that should persuade you to get the upgrade as soon as you can.
Finally, third-party multitasking has arrived for the iPhone -- at least for the owners of the iPhone 3GS and the new iPhone arriving this week. (iPhone 3G users won't be able to take advantage of the new multitasking services.) And you'll be happy to learn that Apple's implementation of the feature works pretty well.
True, it's not the full-on multitasking you get in Mac OS X. But Apple has smartly implemented seven separate services that allow applications to continue to perform tasks while the user switches to another application. The reason for the limit? To help keep battery life intact.
The multitasking services include: background audio, which means users can play music from Pandora in the background while using other apps; background voice-over-IP, so Skype users can remain on their call -- even if they switch to other apps; background location, which allows apps that use GPS to track where you are; push notifications, which were first introduced in last year's iPhone 3 OS; local notifications, a service that can track and alert application events without relying on Apple's push notification servers; task finishing, so uploading photos to Flickr isn't interrupted just because you switch to another app; and fast app switching, which quickly saves the app's current state when you switch away to something else -- and brings it right back to where you left off when the app is relaunched.
To aid in switching to other apps quickly, Apple adjusted the iPhone's functionality so that a double-tap of the Home button calls up an app switcher, featuring the four most recently used apps. A swipe on the touchscreen to the right right reveals audio controls and a screen rotation lock; a swipe to the left reveals more recently-used applications. Tapping and holding allows you to manually kill running apps, if you're so inclined.
With these seven services, Apple offers the multi-tasking basics iPhone users will want from third-party multitasking. Now it's up to developers to implement these changes in their apps.