iPhone 4.0 OS event in review: Tent poles, OS holes, and people are disappointed

| April 8, 2010

The latest iPhone OS 4.0 announcements may have had a lot of Apple haters sitting back, smiling at their computer screens and feeling validated. But over at Today’s iPhone, the general mood in the comments of our event page has been downright glum. Despite the announcement of 4.0’s upcoming support for multitasking — iPhone users’ most-wanted feature — the rest just seemed disappointing.

Not that iPhone owners would complain about getting stuff like a unified email inbox, changeable wallpapers, app folders, iBooks on the iPhone or social networking for gaming. Much of these “tent poles,” as Apple referred to them, are indeed features that have been sorely lacking in the OS. And so this will make some users happy. But others are frustrated. They see these offerings merely as Apple plugging up holes in its existing software. Instead of watching the company play “catch up,” they wanted to see new and exciting features and genuinely forward-thinking functionality. And this just wasn’t it.

As if to rub salt in the wounds, it was announced that older iPhone 2G and 3G models, not to mention pre-iPod Touch 3rd generation devices, won’t be able to handle multitasking, and so therefore won’t be getting the new functionality, even if they upgrade to 4.0 (Remember the huge number of sales last year on iPhone 3G phones? The ones that were selling them for sub-$100 pricing? That means there’s a fairly big iPhone OS userbase out there who are now pretty ticked off.)

At first, I was wondering the same thing as everyone else, “What was Apple thinking??” First, to hold the 4.0 preview event mere days after the iPad debuted risked overexposure in the media. Second, if they were willing to do that, then the details unveiled would have seriously needed to be spectacular to keep excitement alive. And it wasn’t. In fact, the preview event today may have actually angered more users than given them something to look forward to.

The only rationale I can think of for this has everything to do with the iPad. Even though tablet owners aren’t scheduled to receive this update until the fall (after everyone else gets theirs in the summer), something needed to go out soon — not just to get new owners to hang in there, but also to tip the fence sitters over to the Cupertino side.

The iPad’s impact on today's announcement

First, the presentation started off with iPad statistics, then segued into an announcement that more than a hundred new features were coming. And yet, they only touched on 7 key areas today:

  • Multitasking
  • Folder management for apps
  • Social gaming
  • iBooks support for iPhone
  • Enhanced email
  • Enterprise uses and security
  • Apple's own in-app advertising model (iAd)

Like the iPhone, one of the major criticisms of the tablet was its inability to multitask. I’m wondering if Apple wanted to get word out as fast as possible that the device — along with its “Mini Me” smartphone counterpart — would be getting this, so as not to impact critical Stage One tablet sales. And with all these new iPad owners, app management was going to take on a heightened priority. Gaming, email, enterprise uses — all these have been hyped a lot on the iPad. As for iBooks, well that was important to the tablet too, and now owners know that iBook purchases will be available on their iPhones as well.

As for advertising, this is pretty much a no-brainer. With a windfall of iPad apps that will likely rain down upon the App Store, to join the hundreds of thousands of iPhone apps that are currently in there, of course Cupertino was going to place a big emphasis on new ways to monetize that and attract developers and partners. (The fact that it could take a potshot at AdMob in the process was probably just icing on the cake for them.)

A look ahead

There was a lot that was missing today, undoubtedly. But after a little time has passed, to let the facts sink in a little, I’m not as disappointed in the event as I was earlier on. Here’s why:

I could be wrong, but if today’s announcements were really more about the iPad, then there are several iPhone-specific details that have yet to emerge. So that has me wondering about what might be addressed at the Worldwide Developers Conference. Every June/July, Apple uses the event to unveil its next smartphone and full SDK. And that’s when we’re likely to know some of the answers to questions like these:

  • Will it have a 1GHz A4 processor chipset, like the iPad?
  • Will it feature a front-facing camera?
  • Is there a new iteration that comes with a higher resolution display?
  • Is there a new form factor on tap? Finally?
  • What about different versions of the iPhone?
  • Will there be new carrier partnerships? (Like Verizon?)

At this point, everyone knows that Apple’s dominance in smartphones is more precarious than ever — and no one knows that more than Cupertino. It's a crucial year for its smartphone. But I do think it’s possible that the company might have some cards up its sleeves it hasn’t played yet. One thing's for sure: It’s going to be a long wait these next couple of months to know if that’s true.

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