The continued evolution of the iPhone operating system has been rather like completing a puzzle. In its original form, the puzzle lacked important pieces like multimedia messaging and a landscape keyboard, but with each subsequent update, Apple filled those gaps.
For screenshots of OS 4 in action, see our slideshow.
Thursday, the company added more missing pieces when it introduced the fourth generation of the iPhone operating system at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. After a wait of almost three years, we finally get multitasking--though not for everyone--and other sorely needed features like home screen folders and a unified e-mail in-box. The update is available for developers now with the general release for the iPhone and iPod Touch coming this summer and the iPad in the fall.
It doesn't deliver quite the changes that we got from the iPhone 3.0 release last year (at least for now), but rest assured that OS 4 is a major update that checks off more boxes from our standing iPhone wish list. Though OS 4 is set to bring 100 new features, CEO Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iPhone software, focused on the seven biggest changes, or "tent poles," during the course of Thursday's event.
Multitasking In our review of the iPhone 3GS, multitasking led our list of common cell phone features that were lacking. Granted, that list was shorter than it had been with previous iPhone versions, but multitasking remained a major omission in light of Android and the Palm Web OS.
Apple, however, has a special talent for making us forget such things by packaging an existing feature in a flashy new way. As Jobs said, Apple isn't about being first, but rather about "being the best." We'll have to get our hands on the update before we fully agree, but Apple appears to have hit the mark. During the demo, Jobs showed how you'll be able to tap the Home button twice to get a pop-up menu of running apps at the bottom of the display. As you switch back and forth, you'll return to the exact point you left, even if you're in the middle of a game. There's no task manager of any kind and Jobs dismissed competitor devices that have one. As he put it, "If you see a task manager, they blew it."
Though the pop-up menu only shows four apps at a time (you can swipe sideways through the full list), you'll be able to run at least 12 apps simultaneously. Jobs did not say if that number is a hard limit, but we'll confirm that one exists when we get to play with the OS ourselves. Forstall insisted that multitasking would not affect performance because Apple distilled background processes into seven API services. They include audio from apps like Pandora Radio (yay!), VoIP (for Skype calls), push notifications, and task completion. Multitasking also will support local notifications and related security setting enhancements.
There is bad news with multitasking, though. The feature is compatible only with the iPhone 3GS and the third generation of the iPod Touch. Owners of other iPhone and iPod Touch models still get other OS 4 benefits, but you'll need to upgrade if you want the full package. Before you run to the store, however, keep in mind that OS 4 probably won't appear until after the Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June. At that event--we're still waiting for firm dates--we should get new hardware, so make your upgrade decision then.