With Apple expected to unveil its tablet computer next Wednesday, my Tech Files column on Monday will be about some of the features I hope the tablet will include.
But I’ve also been thinking a lot about something else that Apple might announce at its special event: iPhone 4.0, the latest version of the operating system that underlies its iPhone and iPod touch gadgets. Apple announced the last two major updates to the iPhone OS at March events, but recent rumors suggest that this update will be unveiled two months early.
The last two updates included significant new features for the iPhone. iPhone 2.0 opened the device to native third-party applications and paved the way for the company’s trend-setting and uber-successful App Store. iPhone 3.0 added long-awaited features, such as copy and paste, multi-media messaging and stereo Bluetooth. I’m hopeful that iPhone 4.0 will be just as significant a release.
Here are some of the things I’d like to see in it:Multi-tasking. This is perhaps the iPhone’s biggest short-coming right now compared with Android phones or other smartphone devices. Unlike those devices, you generally can’t run more than one application at once. (There are a few exceptions, such as pulling up a Web page while you are on the phone, or playing music from the iPod program while doing other tasks.) Instead, in order to pull up another program, you typically have to close down another by pressing the home button.
That’s a pain if you want to switch back and forth between two programs repeatedly. And it also means that you can’t multi-task. On my computer, for instance, I often will check my e-mail while I’m waiting for a Web page to load. You can’t do that on the iPhone.
Most annoyingly, it means that you can’t use any of the great audio programs now available for the iPhone — such as WunderRadio or Pandora — while you are doing anything else, like checking your mail or using a turn-by-turn navigation program. It also would be nice to allow some of the location-based programs — like the yet-to-be-available as a native app Google Latitude — to run in the background while you did other things.
Apple’s excuse in the past for not allowing multi-tasking has been that it would run down the battery too easily. But the Palm Pre and the new Android devices, which run on similar hardware as the iPhone, get similar battery life as Apple’s gadget, despite allow multi-tasking.
Apple has made a stab in the direction of multi-tasking by allowing programs to receive background notifications, even when they aren’t running. But this is a half-solution at best, and doesn’t really address the issue. You can’t listen to Pandora via a background notification.
Unobtrusive notifications. Speaking of notifications, I’d like Apple to take a page from Palm and Google and make them less obtrusive.
On the iPhone, notifications for things such as a new text message or a low battery come in the form of a box that overlays whatever you are looking at at the time. You can dismiss the message, but you have to deal with it in some way before you can go back to what you were doing before. And if you choose to act on the message, the program you were previously working in will be closed.
In contrast, on both the webOS and Android phones, if you get a text message or some other notice, the device alerts you with an icon at the edge of the screen. You can deal with the alert when you want to by clicking on the icon (or pull down the notice bin in Android); you don’t have to stop what you are doing at the time.
In my book, the webOS and Android solutions to notifications are much more elegant and user-friendly than the iPhone’s.
Flash support. I know. Steve Jobs has said that Flash in its current state isn’t a good fit for smartphones. The full PC version of Flash is too system intensive for the devices. And Flash Lite, which the company is pushing for mobile devices, isn’t capable enough.
But that situation looks like it’s about to change. Palm has already announced that the new Pre will support Flash later this year — and so too will Android devices. If the iPhone doesn’t, it risks being left behind.
Because here’s the thing. At least right now — and for the foreseeable future — Flash is a key component of the Web experience. There’s just a lot of content, from videos to games that you can’t view without it.
Apple has tried to work around this by pushing its QuickTime media standard, HTML 5, which is an alternate means of delivering Web content, and by encouraging companies to develop native apps for the iPhone. To some degree that’s helped, but there’s still a lot of content out there on the Web that’s currently inaccessible from the iPhone.
Widgets. This is one of the cool features of Android. Widgets are small programs that are viewable from the phone’s home screen that are always running. They can include such things as weather information, stock quotes or sports scores. But they can do a lot more.
One of my favorite widgets for Android is one that allows you to toggle off and on its various antennas, such as Bluetooth or WiFi, and its syncing services, such as that with Microsoft Exchange. In order to do something similar on the iPhone, you’d have to pull up the Setting programs and got deep within several of its menus. In other words, it’s a lot easier with a widget.
As I mentioned in my review of the Motorola Cliq, Motorola has built its Motoblur service around widgets that deliver updates from users social networks and that display the latest messages in users’ universal inbox. It would be cool to have similar widgets for the iPhone.
Social networking integration. I love the Facebook application for the iPhone. But webOS and Android have taken Facebook (and social networking access in general) to the next level for smartphones. On those phones, your address book not only synchronizes your contacts with those stored Microsoft Exchange mail servers, but also with Facebook and other social networks.
So the address book entry for John Doe might include not only a phone number stored on Exchange, but an e-mail address listed on Facebook, a picture stored on LinkedIn and John’s Twitter address. Motoblur goes even beyond this, allowing users to see a contact’s latest Twitter posts and Facebook updates directly from their address book entry on the phone.
I’d like to see something similar on the iPhone. The latest Facebook app for the device has started to add this feature, but that’s only one social network. I’d like to see much broader support for other networks and Web sites.
Free turn-by-turn navigation. There are now loads of GPS navigation programs available for the iPhone. But they all cost money — sometimes significant chunks of it.
Meanwhile, the trend in turn-by-turn navigation seems to be moving in the other direction. The latest version of Android includes Google’s free turn-by-turn nav service. And Nokia announced today that it would make available a free turn-by-turn nav service for its smartphones, starting with devices like the N97 and the E72. I’d like to see Apple do something similar — or update the Google Maps app to include Google’s nav service.