iPhone OS 3.0: So Close and Yet...

On one level, it's hard for me to write anything critical about iPhone OS 3.0 (announced yesterday, but not publicly available until sometime this summer). After all, Apple has taken a device that is already perhaps the most essential piece of technology I own —and made it better, much better.

As it turned out, I had to be in San Francisco yesterday during Apple's media event. While there, and in a waiting room, I used Safari to follow live updates of the event, talked to colleagues via Twitter and made some notes about all the news. In between, I still had a few minutes to return to an ebook I'm reading. All of this was done with my iPhone. Even as recently as a year ago, I could hardly imagine being able to do all this. Just amazing.

And yet...my excitement over the iPhone OS 3.0 announcement was tinged with more than a bit of disappointment. What seemed especially perplexing was how close Apple came to hitting bulls-eyes, while managing to veer slightly off target at the last second.

Home screen. iPhone OS 3.0 adds a major enhancement to the iPhone's Home screen: a page from which you can search across most, if not all, of the content of an iPhone. For example, you can search for an app by its name. When it shows up in the results, you can apparently tap it to open it. This can help locate and launch a specific app, especially when you have a hundred or so apps spread out over multiple screens.

While this system-wide search is welcome and will have many additional uses, it is not the ideal solution for locating an app. As I have commented before, my number one request for the next generation iPhone was a better way to organize and access apps on the Home screen (nested folders was one specific suggestion). Yet this remains missing. Very disappointing.

Cut, Copy & Paste. Apple appears to have done a great job with its implementation of Cut, Copy & Paste (probably the #1 most requested new feature for the iPhone). However, again as I have covered before, I was just as interested in an Undo command.

True, Apple may have hit a bulls-eye here. With iPhone 3.0, you can "shake to undo." And I even saw an "Undo typing" button briefly flash across the screen during yesterday's event. However, it remains unclear whether you can effectively undo an unintentional deletion done by backspacing (as opposed to a cut or paste). We'll have to wait and see.

I also have some concern about how easy it may be to accidentally invoke these features when you don't want them.

Voice. iPhone 3.0 features a new Voice Memos app, doing exactly what its name says (and likely pushing a few similar third-party apps to an early retirement). But really, if you can do voice memos, why not voice dialing?

I have written about this before. With state laws requiring hands-free use of your phone in a car, voice dialing would be a great help. And almost every other mobile phone on the market (including the cheap dumb phone I used before my iPhone) has this feature. Yes, there are third-party apps that partially implement this feature on an iPhone. But I haven't found one that is completely up to the task of hands-free dialing.

Why is Apple leaving this no-brainer feature out of the iPhone? My guess is that it relates to Apple's reluctance to support background processing (as I describe in a bit). That is, the iPhone would have to be ready to shift automatically to the Phone app when you attempted a voice dial. Still, even the current iPhone can interrupt an app when a call comes in. Voice dialing doesn't seem significantly more difficult to do.

Video. iPhone 3.0 features an ability to view live streaming video, as was demonstrated with an ESPN app. Yet, there is still no mention of allowing the iPhone's camera to take video.

Again, this is a feature included in most competing phones. Granted, Apple did not announce any hardware upgrades yesterday. Perhaps, video will be included in the third-generation of iPhones (together with an overall improved camera). Yet, it is already possible to take video with the current iPhone (as apps for jailbroken iPhones can do), so its omission remains a mystery.

Push notifications and background processing. The long-promised Apple-based push notifications for third-party apps finally arrives in iPhone 3.0. In the event yesterday, Apple carefully explained why this server-based method is preferable to directly allowing background processing (which, Apple claimed, would require too much battery and processor power). Okay, I accept Apple's overall position here.

Still, I would have liked to see some limited way to keep more than one app active at a time. If you are in Safari, for example, and need to exit to go to Settings, it would be great if you could return to Safari and not have to reload the page you were reading. Actually, in some specific cases, there are better ways to implement this feature that I had hoped to see (as I described in "Unwanted Wi-Fi" at the end of a previous column).

Bluetooth and file transfers. Happily, iPhone 3.0 offers expanded options for what you can do with Bluetooth. For starters, it will support Bluetooth Stereo. The new peer-to-peer connectivity feature also uses Bluetooth.

Apple has stated that tethering (using your iPhone as a modem) is supported in iPhone 3.0, although it will require a third-party app to implement it. This too may work via Bluetooth (although I am not certain).

All of this is great. However, you still can't use Bluetooth to transfer files between your iPhone and your Mac. Again, this is a feature that most other mobile phones already do. Apple directly supports the option, on a Mac, via the Bluetooth System Preferences pane. Yet, Apple continues to keep the iPhone from joining this party.

What I'd at least like to see is a simple way for apps to create their own documents and transfer them to a Mac, where they can be viewed and further edited. iPhone OS 3.0 appears to allow this for the iPhone's Notes app (via a new Notes Sync option). And you can already do this for Notes via third-party apps. But a more general Apple-supported method, one that doesn't require syncing through iTunes, would be welcome.

Accessories. iPhone 3.0 offers the option for hardware accessories to communicate directly with a matching app on the iPhone. As one example, a developer could provide an equalizer app that controls its external speakers. This is definitely a great new feature, which I expect to see popping up in many places.

However, what this feature does not do is allow hardware accessories to communicate with the iPhone OS itself. In particular, a long-time item on my iPhone wish list has been a method to connect external keyboards, bypassing the iPhone's touchscreen when convenient. As far as I can tell (and I hope I am wrong here), this is still off-limits in iPhone OS 3.0.

Pluses with no minuses. Let me be clear: There are numerous new features in iPhone OS 3.0 that are entirely good news, with no qualifying "yes, but" attached. I'm talking about GPS-based turn-by-turn directions (expect TomTom and Garmin to be offering apps here soon), MMS support (allowing photos to be sent via "text" messaging), CalDAV support for sharing calendars, and more apps that can use landscape mode.

In my view, what may well turn out to be the most significant new feature in iPhone 3.0 is in-app purchase. WIth this option, a third-party developer can offer additional paid features, such as more levels in a game or an extension to a subscription, directly from within the app. Right now, such extensions require returning to the iTunes Store and purchasing an updated or separate app. In-app purchase greatly simplifies this process.

There is some risk here. This feature could lead to a reduction in the amount of free software in the App Store (as in-app purchasing is not permitted with free apps — which also means there is still no option for a free version of an app that is directly upgradable to a paid version). And users may get some unwelcome surprises if they find that a feature that they thought was included in an app is actually an added-cost extra.

Still, there is tremendous opportunity here for developers to expand what is possible with their apps. More than anything else, in-app purchases, together with all the new API features in iPhone OS 3.0, should help secure the iPhone as the most preferred platform for mobile phone apps. This, in turn, should lead to increased sales and market share for the iPhone. The possible end result? The iPhone becomes the dominant player in its market, the iPod of mobile phones. For Apple, as well as for all us who prefer Apple products, that may be the best new feature in iPhone OS 3.0.