iPhone OS 3.0 and 3GS: So Close...Now Even Closer

Last March, when the details of iPhone OS 3.0 were first revealed, I wrote a column titled "So Close and Yet..." — where I both lauded several of the new features of the OS and lamented what was still missing. With OS 3.0 now out, and the new iPhone 3GS shipping, the time seems right to take a look back at the list and compare it to how things now stand:

Home screen. Nothing's changed here from when I wrote the prior column. The search feature is as solid as it promised to be. And it serves as an adequate app launcher. But, more than ever, the iPhone needs a better way to organize the (now up to a maximum of 11) Home screens. Trying to keep the icons organized in a way that makes any sort of logical sense is nearly impossible.

Cut, Copy & Paste. No big changes here. One plus: I am no longer concerned about accidentally cutting or pasting. While a Cut/Paste balloon occasionally pops up unrequested, I have never unintentionally performed any of these actions.

"Shake to undo" remains a bit awkward, but it works. Third-party apps can implement an Undo button, if it fits within their overall interface. But I have not yet seen it anywhere.

Voice. Yea! Voice dialing wasn't included in the initial iPhone OS 3.0 announcement because it is only available with the iPhone 3GS. For those contemplating a 3GS purchase, I can report that Voice Control works spectacularly well. With no voice training whatsoever, it has been amazingly accurate, even prompting me as to which phone number I want, when there is more than one number for a given name.

As a bonus, you can use Voice Control to make iPod selections.

All that remains is for Bluetooth headsets to be able to access Voice Control (Apple confirms this is possible; it just remains for developers to make one).

My Garmin nuvi claims to be able to voice dial via Bluetooth simply by speaking the contact's name (no button press required) —if this feature is supported by the phone. I didn't really expect this to work with the new iPhone. And when I ran a test, it did not work. As far as I know, there is no way to use a Garmin for voice dialing to an iPhone.

Video. Another yea! Video is now included with the iPhone 3GS (but not older models). It works even better than I had hoped. You can trim a video right from the iPhone. And you can easily share a video via email, your MobileMe Gallery, or even MMS (although in the U.S., MMS won't be active until later this summer).

Push notifications and background processing. Push notifications are here and, so far, work pretty much as Apple had described. I am using them with the AP News app; it sends me breaking news updates without having to use SMS.

As for background processing or, more generally, the ability to have more than one app open at a time: this is still nowhere to be seen on the iPhone. It remains one of the few key features of the Palm Pre and Google Android, not yet matched by the iPhone.

Although I understand the problems Apple would have in implementing this feature, it would be great to be able to toggle between the Google app and Safari, for example, and not have to quit each app when you leave. This remains near the top of my iPhone 4.0 wish list.

Accessories. This feature turned out unchanged from the initial reports. Accessory support is here but has its limits. As Apple confirmed to me at the WWDC, you won't be seeing accessories, such as a keyboard or a game controller, that can work across all relevant apps. A peripheral must be linked to a single specific app. Too bad.

Bluetooth and file transfers. Apple has come through with support for stereo Bluetooth headsets, peer-to-peer connectivity, and tethering (although U.S. users, unless they do a hack, will have to wait awhile longer for this last option).

File transfers to your Mac over Bluetooth remain off-limits. Actually, you can't do transfers over USB either, except for very restricted exceptions such as the new support for syncing Notes or via third party apps such as FileMagnet. This is unlike the Palm Pre, for example, which can mount as an external drive on your Mac. I consider this to be such a big iPhone negative that I will be devoting a separate column to the matter in a few weeks.

The long view

With the 3GS, Apple came through with two of the biggest items on my March wish list: voice dialing and video. Beyond that, things remain about as they were.

My usual caveat applies. Despite the disappointments, the iPhone still gets my vote for the best technological innovation of the young 21st century. While I wish it could do more (why not?), I remain astounded at all it can do.

Just the other day, I used the voice feature of the Google app to ask a question. A link to a Web page with the answer popped up almost immediately (especially fast on the new 3GS!). A tap on the link and I had the information I wanted. If I could go back 25 years or so, with a working iPhone, and show off features like the Google app — people would probably think I came from some super-advanced alien civilization. It would be that astounding.

iPhone vs. iPod touch. One last item to throw in this grab bag. People sometimes describe the iPod touch as an "iPhone without a phone or camera." That does not do justice to the advantage of an iPhone.

The truly critical feature missing from the iPod touch is the EDGE/3G data network. It is this that allows the iPhone to be almost continually connected to the Internet. And it is this "constant on" that makes a world of difference. It's what allows you to use Maps while you're walking around a city. It's what allows you to use Yelp! to get a recommendation while in your car. It's what allows you to Twitter while you are at a concert. It's what allows you to send a photo over email while you are on hike. It's what allows Find My iPhone to work even when your iPhone is not on a WiFi network. And on and on.

The iPod touch has its value. No doubt. One big thing: it's the only iPod that can run iPhone apps. But it's not even close to being the same as an iPhone just missing a phone or camera. With the new features in iPhone OS 3.0 and 3GS, the advantages of the iPhone over the iPod touch are greater than ever. If you can afford the contract, and can deal with AT&T (here in the U.S), I highly recommend going with the iPhone.