Apple iOS 4

Apple's fourth generation mobile operating system, renamed just before launch from iPhone OS 4 to iOS 4, is the standard by which all other mobile systems must be judged. And it's a high bar: The iOS has matured from an amazing but deeply flawed platform to one that is both easy to use and achingly powerful. It's so good, in fact, that's it's taken the rest of the mobile device industry years to catch up. (Only Google's Android seems to have surpassed iOS in any meaningful way so far.)

With iOS 4, Apple of course hopes to extend its lead and raise the bar yet again. Not to pull a Walt Mossberg here, but I've been using near-final versions of iOS for several weeks now on various Apple devices, including an iPhone 3GS (before it was stolen), an iPhone 3G, and a 3rd generation iPod touch. And while I'm still looking forward to getting an iPhone 4 as soon as possible, and to the eventual iOS 4 version for the iPad, it's already clear that Apple has a hit on its hands.

That said, if iOS falls short in any one area, it's the in-out-in-out usage model that's dictated by the system's heavy emphasis on discrete apps. Apple has somewhat mitigated the navigational issues caused by this limited system by adding multitasking support as described below. But this is one area--perhaps the only area--where Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 system has the edge. For now, however, smart phone and device users are comfortable with the app-based usage model, and iOS 4 likely represents the high water market for such systems. Certainly, years of experience have given Apple an advantage with honing and fine-tuning how the user interface looks and works.

Here's what's new in iOS 4.


Multitasking

Apple was justifiably lambasted for introducing an otherwise innovative smart phone OS without multitasking in 2007 and then upgrading it over three years but not adding this obviously necessary feature. Now, finally, they've done so, and I have to say, it was worth the wait, with one major caveat. It doesn't work with almost any of the 225,000 apps that are currently available for the iPhone and iPod touch. And yes, they will all need to be updated before they are compatible with iOS 4 multitasking. Every single one of them. (Built-in iOS 4 apps multitask just fine, of course.)

This is hugely important, and I'm a bit surprised Apple wasn't more upfront about this major limitation. If you're playing a game and switch to another app, and then back to the game, it starts over, losing your place. If you're playing music via Pandora and try to switch apps, Pandora stops playing music. And so on. My guess is that app makers are going to race to add explicit support for multitasking and other iOS features quickly. But that means we're all going to face massive, time-consuming app upgrades as well. (And if you use an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad today, you know exactly what I mean.) It's going to be a busy couple of months, at least.

Complaints aside, as Apple has explained again and again, multitasking on a mobile device is easy if you're not concerned about performance and battery life. But getting it right--supplying a good app switching experience while conserving both performance and battery life--is the Holy Grail. Both Windows Mobile and Android offer multitasking, for example, but both also suffer from some unfriendly issues around memory overuse as apps pile up in the background. (In both cases, the system is supposed to seamlessly shut down the oldest running app, but this doesn't always work.)

Apple's approach to multitasking is similar to what Microsoft plans to offer in Windows Phone 7, but is more complete in that it offers an actual app switching UI, one that will make plenty of sense to current iPhone and iPod touch users. Here's how it works. When you're using an app, just hit the Home button to return to the home screen. Then launch another app. Instead of quitting, the first app goes into suspended animation and waits to be relaunched. To access the app switching UI, double-tap the Home button. This brings up the new multitasking interface, where an icon for each running app sits in the bottom of the screen. This list can extend over several screens, so you can scroll left and right. And whatever was running--an app, the home screen--visually slides up above this list. To exit the multitasking interface, just tap anywhere in the app UI, or tap the Home button.

Apple iOS 4
When you double-click on the Home button, a list of running apps appears on the bottom of the device. (Well, on the right in this shot, since it's in landscape mode for game play.)

If you choose another app in the list, it will pick up where it left off (assuming it's compatible with multitasking; otherwise, it restarts). This UI works amazingly well, and the suddenly canonical example of when you'd use it the most often--you click on a web link in Mail, browse it in Safari, and then wish to return to Mail--illustrates this most obviously. Pre-multitasking, this series of steps could be dogged by many additional taps and swipes, depending on which screen your Mail and Safari icons were found. In iOS 4, it's a simple process: Read an email. Click a link. Read that page in Safari. Then, double-tap Home. In the apps list at the bottom, tap Mail. You're back.

Multitasking offers other unique capabilities. For audio apps--iPod now, but Pandora and others at launch and beyond--playback can now continue in the background. The iPod app offered this in all previous iOS releases, of course. But there's a new pop-up player control, since the old shortcut--double-tapping the Home button--is usurped by multitasking. So this control is located to the leftmost part of the multitasking interface. As you slide all the way over, you'll see these controls, along with two new icons. The first, on the left, is an orientation lock, a software version of the screen rotation lock on the iPad, and can be locked (or unlocked) when the iPhone/iPod is in either orientation. The second is an iPod icon, so you can jump right into the built-in media player.

Apple iOS 4
Swipe all the way over to the left and you'll find the new iPod mini-player controls and the screen orientation lock.

Apple is also allowing other activities to occur via the new multitasking interface, and I'm guessing more capabilities will appear over time. You can now receive VoIP calls while the app (Skype, etc.) is running in the background, and these apps can work like the built-in Phone app, where you can browse the web or run other apps while talking. GPS apps can also keep running, though Apple expects most people to use such things while the device is in a car and plugged in, and thus not killing the battery. Applications that download content--like iTunes Store or App Store--can continue working in the background while you do other things. And of course, the notification system allows apps of all kinds of provide live updates via app icon badges and pop-up messages, all without needing to manually enter the app.

Overall, this appears to be mobile multitasking done right. Obviously, it would have been easier on users if existing apps could somehow be made to just work properly with this feature, but I'm guessing that most apps will be updated quickly. Certainly, within a few months, this one complaint will simply disappear. For now, it's something to be aware of.

Folders

Just when the iOS icon management system, which basically just consists of a grid of icons that can extend to multiple screens, was bursting at the seams, Apple provides a more elegant way to organize multiple icons. It's called folders after the filing structure that's common on PCs and Macs, and it provides a way to collect multiple app icons--up to 12--into a single location, which can elegantly and obviously be accessed. This system doesn't necessarily address my number one concern about iOS icon management, which is that it's not customizable enough (on Android, for example, icons can be positioned anywhere on a screen and are not auto-placed in order, left to right and top to bottom). But when you combine it with the new wallpaper capabilities (described below), it's close enough.

If you're familiar with how Apple does things, folders will make sense to you immediately. To create a folder, simple put the iPhone (or iPod touch) into customize mode by pressing and holding on any icon (this creates that icon shaking effect, which indicates you can now move the icons around or delete them), then slide one icon into another. When you do so, an outline appears around the target icon, indicating that you're about to create a folder. Let go, and the folder is created.

In a nice touch, Apple intelligently names the folder, based on the types of apps you're combining. This makes sense, since most people will want to group games together, or travel apps, or whatever. And of course you can change the name if you'd like as well. It's all very civil.

Folders appear as normal icons with a small grid of mini-icons on them. When you tap such an icon, the folder expands into view, covering the underlying screen. To run an app, just tap it. To close the folder, tap anywhere outside the "linen" folder display area. Simple.

Apple iOS 4
Organize up to 12 apps in each folder.

You can also remove apps from folders very easily. Just open the folder, press and hold down on an icon, and then drag it outside of the folder. Brilliant and obvious.

Overall, this is just good stuff, and it may actually cause me (and others) to load more apps on my devices, which has to delight Apple. Up to now, I'd found multi-screen navigation and customization to be tedious, but with folders, I can use far fewer screens and always have the apps I want right at the ready. This is nicely done.

Continue to Part 2...