iPhone OS 4

Yesterday, Apple unveiled iPhone OS 4 and along with the rumored multitasking and unified email inbox, Apple had a slew of other features that will push the platform even closer to perfection.

Steve Jobs and Scott Forestall talked about their seven “tentpole” features in iPhone OS 4, but they also mentioned that there are over 100 new user features. Before I get into the big stuff I think there are a few smaller ones that deserve mentioning. Playlist creation, spell check, Bluetooth keyboard support, 5x digital zoom, and home screen wallpapers are some of the more interesting ones.

Apple has introduced folders for the iPhone, just drag and drop an app icon onto another one and a folder is created with a name automatically populated for you (although it can be edited). Folders is just a simple way of organizing your applications but I have a feeling it’s going to make it a lot easier for people to find their apps. I also think many will consider this a way to hide some of the default applications that they don’t ever use.

The rumored unified email inbox was there and with it came a threaded conversation view as well. I’ve been hoping for a unified email inbox since day one and I’m incredibly happy that it’s finally been implemented. Threaded view will be a boon for those of you who get a lot of email, but for people like me it’ll never get used. Apple has also announced the ability to open email attachments with applications from the App Store, so if you receive a photo you could choose what photo editor you’d like to open it in.

Apple has brought iBooks to the iPhone. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, Apple clearly has been working on this for a while but decided that the iPad announcement wasn’t the right time to talk about it. Buy a book once and read it on either the iPad or the iPhone. Current location and bookmarks will be wirelessly synced, so you’ll be able to read on your iPhone and pick up where you left off on your iPad.

Apple has made some enterprising enhancements, including: better data protection, mobile device management, wireless app distribution, support for multiple Exchange accounts, and SSL VPN support.

A new social gaming network has been announced called “Game Center.” In essence it is Xbox Live for the iPhone. You can challenge your friends to a game, it will do automatic matchmaking that will find you opponents of a similar ability to you, leaders boards, and achievements. Game Center is an obvious slap in the face of Sony and Nintendo who as of yet haven’t really been able to make online gaming work too well on handheld devices. I’m incredibly excited about this because two of my family members just recently purchased an iPhone and another one will be doing so in two months. I really like the idea challenging them to a game of Scrabble or checking their achievements in Ramp Champ.

Apple’s acquisition of Quattro Wireless has resulted in a new mobile advertising network for iPhone apps called “iAd.” This announcement appeared to be targeted directly at Google. Jobs made a point to mention that search on mobile devices just doesn’t happen like it does on the desktop, if you want to find a restaurant you open the Yelp app not Google, if you want to find a movie playing you open the Fandango app not Google. Apple is also attempting to increase the quality of ads by creating interactive and emotional experiences. What’s amazing about the implementation of the ads is that even before I saw them I imagined exactly what Apple displayed. A simple banner-style ad that expands to a full screen ad with a close button in the upper-corner. The ads keep you in your app instead of jumping you into Mobile Safari. The ads are built using HTML5 and can make use of audio, video, maps, etc. Apple will be selling and hosting the ads and 60% of the revenue will go to the developer. I think this is a great opportunity for developers and I can assure them that I for one will not hesitate to tap on these ads.

I’ve decided to leave the biggest announcement for last, as it deserves the most attention. Multitasking is finally coming to the iPhone. Apple claims to have implemented multitasking while avoiding battery life issues and performance degradation. Apple has made it easy for applications to save state so that when the app is opened again you are exactly where you left off the last time it was used. This is key to the way Apple has designed their multitasking experience because apps don’t actually run in the background. Instead, Apple has decided to implement the most common background services themselves and will be providing those services as APIs to developers (more on that below). The most striking part of multitasking on the iPhone is fast app switching. Rather than having to go to the home screen and choose your application you can double click the home button and a dock will pop up on the bottom of the screen showing you all of the applications that are “running” in the background. You can then choose one of those apps and jump right into them. This fast app switching seems daunting at first, at least currently I haven’t found any limit to the number of apps that can sit in that dock, I’ve had as many as 37 in it at a time. And people thought trying to find an app in a screen of 16 icons was hard, try swiping through screens with just 4 icons on each. Luckily, Apple makes it a little bit easier to deal with by letting you remove “close” those applications by tap and holding on the icon and tapping the minus button. Also, your most recently used applications always sit close to (or on) the first four spots.

But, let’s get back to those background services. Background audio was the first service mentioned in which Pandora was demoed playing audio in the background. The player controls that appear on the lock screen are also available to developers, so you can skip to the next or previous song or pause the audio. The next service is voice over IP. When developers implement it you’ll be able to stay on a VoIP call while using another application. Location services will also be able to run in the background. If you are using the TomTom application you’ll be able to open another app and continue to receive directions. Since GPS uses so much power, some applications that don’t need your exact location will be able to use information from the call towers to determine your location. They’ve also added app by app controls for location services and an icon to the status bar that let’s you know if any application is currently asking for your location.

Push notifications was Apple’s first background service and they’ve made sure you remind you that it’s around. But, they’ve also added local notifications which are exactly as the name suggests. The final background service is task completion, such as uploading photos to Flickr.

I have to admit that Apple seems to have hit a home run with iPhone OS 4. Multitasking alone would be a big step forward, but with all of the other announcements, 4.0 is a real leap. I’ve had a little bit of hands-on time with iPhone OS 4 and will be publishing more observations and screenshots over the next few days.

iPhone OS 4 will be released this summer for the iPhone 3G, 3GS, second, and third generation iPod touch. The second generation iPod touch and iPhone 3G will not support all of the new features (such as multitasking). iPhone OS 4 will come to the iPad this fall.