iPhone OS 4.0: First Impressions

As you may remember, last week I spelled out my reasons for not getting an iPad yet. Some of them were based on hardware, some just on lack of need, but one of the key issues was that I felt the software wasn't mature enough for the device (that is, it was a modern device running an old operating system). Well, I watched the live updates from the iPhone OS 4.0 media event yesterday then watched the stream last night, and I have to say that Apple seems to have addressed those concerns, specifically in multitasking.

As Steve Jobs spelled out yesterday, there are seven tentpole features in iPhone 4.0. Of these, I don't really care much about three of them:

- iBooks for the iPhone
- Advanced Enterprise features
- iAd

Yes, the iAd mobile advertising platform is very impressive, and is pretty much a direct "fuck you" to Google, but it's much more of a developer thing than an end user thing (though, if developers use it right, in-app advertising shouldn't be as intrusive or as crappy, which is a good thing for end users).

As for the other four tentpole features, let me take a look at them from least important to most:

4. Game Center
Think of this as Apple's version of Xbox Live. You can earn achievements within games and be matched for online games with players of equal skill or even your friends. This is a big step in making the iPhone/iPod touch/iPad a serious competitor to Nintendo (despite Reggie Fils-Aime continuing to stick his fingers in his ears and say "la la la I'm not listening"). Most of the gaming I do on the iPhone right now is of the solo casual variety but a more advanced gaming system could bring more in-depth gaming to the platform, which could draw me in.

3. Improved Mail
Whereas Game Center is a cool new feature, improving the mail app on the iPhone was more a must-have. Right now the mail experience on the iPhone is somewhere between passable and dreadful. The new unified inbox and the ability to open attachments make the app more like its desktop counterpart (and that's about to become a real theme here).

2. Folders
This doesn't seem like a huge deal until you realize the greater implications. On the surface, though, it's still a pretty cool feature. By being able to group your apps into folders, you can either cut down on the number of home screens you need, or you can load up more apps on the phone. As device capacity grows in the future, the ability to have more apps will be nice.

1. Multitasking
Short of copy/paste (which was implemented with iPhone OS 3.0), this has probably been the most requested feature of the iPhone since it was launched. The way Apple implemented it on the phone is, not surprisingly, very clean looking. When you want to switch apps, a mini-dock with your running apps pops up from the bottom of the screen. Games will pause when you leave them, while audio apps will keep playing in the background. Apple demoed a GPS app that kept giving directions while running in the background, and Skype was able to receiving incoming calls even as a background app.

Now, the bigger deal is this: with the improved mail app, folders and multitasking, the iPhone OS is starting to more resemble a desktop OS. That's not surprising, considering the iPhone OS has always been a version of Mac OS X, but the way development is happening on the platform, I think we're moving toward a time when there aren't separate "mobile" and "desktop" operating systems, but just a single unified system. Eventually, your Mac will work just like your iPhone. In a way, it already did (remember Launcher?) and still does (assuming you still use Dashboard). Apps written for the iPhone or iPad will easily translate to the Mac platform (though technically "platforms" won't exist separately anymore, it'll just be a matter of screen sizes), just running in a windowed mode (or stretched to full screen, like the iPhone-to-iPad screen doubling works now).

Obviously this is years away, and requires touch input to be adopted on a wider scale on the desktop, but based on what I've seen from Apple, this is the future. And I think it's going to be pretty freakin' amazing.