There are some reasonable certainties in the Apple universe, and one is that there will be an iPhone OS 4.0 release some time later this year, probably in July. That is, if the expected timeframe for Apple’s WWDC remains in late June.
For now, I’ll stay away from other possible product revelations, such as the prospects for an early demonstration of Snow Leopard’s successor. Instead, let’s look at the hardware Apple is using for its mobile devices and how that might impact what comes next.
In the scheme of things, today’s iPhone and the iPad might be compared in terms of processor speed and other specs to a typical 2002 Mac. That’s not a bad thing, as those computers, still tethered to the PowerPC, were actually regarded as pretty powerful for their time. On the other hand, Apple is seriously constrained in building tiny handheld personal computers. You can’t, for example, just add RAM or replace the hard drive as your needs expand. I suppose it’s possible to swap out the Flash memory if more storage is needed, but the process would not be pleasant nor make sense from a cash standpoint even if you could find someone capable of performing such a component swap.
So the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad are computing gadgets that are meant to remain from birth to death in their stock hardware configuration, minus what might have to be replaced as the result of a repair.
This state of affairs seriously constrained Apple in building an app SDK for the developer community, and it has clearly forced programmers to build fast, efficient apps that are kind to the limited available resources. No single app can clog your system as it can on a regular personal computer. The scourge of software bloat that’s affected traditional PC operating systems won’t infect Apple’s mobile platforms for a long, long time.
What this means is that Apple must be extremely careful about which features to add and which to avoid. If there isn’t sufficient RAM available, or the processor will spend too much time under heavy load, the capability in question won’t be considered. That is one key reason why multitasking has, up till now, been limited to Apple’s own apps and only within certain limitations, such as being able to make a call on a 3G network — or if Wi-Fi is present — and check your email or surf Safari at the same time. Those sandboxed third-party apps can send Push Notifications and that’s it.
Also bear in mind that most iPhone apps, other than games of course, are single-purpose utilities, perhaps somewhat in the fashion of the original Mac OS desk accessory or Dashboard widget. The iPad will attract more full-featured software, such as Apple’s own iWork and perhaps a special edition of Microsoft Office. But even here, such “frills” as multitasking will likely have to be starkly controlled so that precious battery life and system resources aren’t negatively impacted.
Now as the iPhone becomes more powerful, and more power saving features or more efficient batteries are used, you might see an expansion of the ability to run more than a single app at a time. There are predictions you might see some of this debut with iPhone 4.0, assuming Apple can get past the tradeoffs. They are extremely focused on the user experience, and I don’t think too many of you are suffering needlessly because of the lack of across-the-board multitasking.
Now one key feature lacking is a native printing app, although there are a handful of third-party alternatives. Printing also presents a difficult situation, since the typical inkjet printer, except for the ones with costly built-in PostScript interpretors, use the Mac to process jobs and manage print queues. The existing third-party print apps simply network to your Mac or PC and let them do the heavy lifting. With the iPad, that may no longer be necessary, because of its more powerful CPU, so I rather expect to see an enhanced print capability. Maybe not at the starting gate, but in iPhone 4.0.
Apple might also take the opportunity to fix a few things.
So, in earlier versions of the iPhone OS, you could navigate through your Safari bookmarks, access a site, and when you returned to the bookmarks, you would be right where you left off. With the past two major iPhone OS upgrades, you have to scroll through the entire list to return to that spot, and the list can be extremely big for some of you. Am I the only one complaining?
I also think that the cut, copy and paste feature, while welcomed, needs a bit more work. It’s too easy to just click on a page and have the copy feature enabled, rather than simply move the text entry cursor to the selected position, which may be what you really wanted to do. Such interface legerdemain is not easily handled, but I hope Apple is looking for better ways to manage the situation.
One thing I don’t expect to see in iPhone 4.0 is Flash support. I think that ship has sailed.
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