Whether or not you appreciate its products, you have to admire Apple's adeptness at creating new ways to delight its customers while finding equally creative ways to draw revenue from already closed sales. Some 50 million owners of iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod Touch got a sneak peek today at iPhone 3.0.
Device owners will have to wait until summer before iTunes will inform them of a free firmware update that, as iPhone 2.0 did a year ago, makes their existing iPhone or iPod Touch match or exceed the capabilities of flashy new alternatives. iPhone developers, who made the platform the wild success it is by populating the iTunes App Store with 25,000 downloadable Web and native applications, all in the eight months since iPhone 2.0 went live, get to play with a beta of the new OS now. Developers got almost everything they asked for, and by the time iPhone 3.0 launches, App Store will be stocked with a new generation of iPhone apps, and users will be more inclined than ever to put the word "my" in front of Apple's brand.
Cut and paste
Apple spent most of the event addressing developers, but it packed a lot of new out-of-the-box features into a very brief period of stage time. The headliner, without question, is the addition of cut and paste to the iPhone GUI. This is difficult to pull off on the small screen even with a stylus or a navigation pad, but Apple covered the most common case of selection -- paragraphs or sections -- a matter of tap and drag. Tapping on text pops up a tooltip bubble with buttons (as close as iPhone gets to a pop-up menu) for cut and paste. You drag markers that define the region of text or HTML you want to lift, copy it, position the cursor in the document that is the paste target, and tap paste in the bubble to perform the magic. If you mess it up, you can undo a paste by shaking your iPhone.
Apple's framework-centric design of the iPhone platform allowed it to wire cut and paste into all Apple applications. It required the creation of a global pasteboard to hang onto copied content while you switch applications (iPhone 3.0 is still limited to one app at a time). As with OS X, the pasteboard supports document type tagging. Apple demonstrated cut and paste with text, HTML (formatting remained intact), and images, using the pasteboard to send multiple photos in a single e-mail. There's no reason the concept couldn't be extended to other applications, including iPhone's built-in rich document viewers.
For me, the next iPhone 3.0 standout is the implementation of Spotlight global search. Like Spotlight in Mac OS X, Spotlight in iPhone 3.0 will look just about everywhere -- mail, appointments, application names, contacts, and iTunes content were demonstrated. You access it from the home screen, and choose an item from the list of matches (the list populates as you type your search term) to launch the associated app. Searching for applications by name is deliverance for an App Store junkie. A more practical use is the ability to search for e-mail in the way that you can do in the Mac's mail client. iPhone 3.0 will reach out to your Exchange Server 2007 or suitably modern IMAP mail server to extend the search to messages that aren't stored locally. Apple didn't demonstrate or speak to an ability to search attachments, or browser bookmarks and history, all things that the Mac can do. Perhaps these are beyond the capabilities of an embedded, battery operated platform, but Spotlight itself is something I wouldn't expect from a phone with 16 gigabytes of memory.
Along those lines, iPhone's Safari continues to take on Mac-like attributes. iPhone 3.0's Safari adds auto-fill, entering the previous contents of fields in a Web form (a blessing for mobile users). New anti-phishing filters and the extension of parental controls to cover multimedia are blended in as well. In the same way that Safari auto-fill eliminates the need to type something twice, iPhone 3.0's automatic Wi-Fi profiles log you into and out of hotspots as you wander within range of them. Battery life being a theme of the day -- it was cited as the reason that Apple doesn't allow multiple applications, the day's only significant dose of FUD -- it seems absurd to leave Wi-Fi on so that it can sniff out hotspots. However, auto-login brings automation to the wiser practice of powering up Wi-Fi only when there's something worth connecting to. Auto-login is also part of Apple's new YouTube app, which previously treated all iPhone users as guests to the service.
Another change that iPhone 3.0 brings to all Apple applications is landscape mode operation. It's a trade-off: A huge on-screen keyboard obscures most of the content, but that huge keyboard is immeasurably easier to type on than the comparatively cramped portrait mode keyboard that nearly all iPhone 2.x apps force you to use.
Messaging and media
iPhone has strong support for SMS. SMS is iPhone's stand-in for IM, and in iPhone 3.0 SMS takes on more IM-like features with the ability to forward and delete messages. iPhone 3.0 adds support for MMS (Multimedia Message Service) so that photographs, contact information (vCards), audio, and location data can be sent while you're texting someone. To supply MMS with audio worth sending, Apple includes a new voice notes application, also demonstrated. Video was notably absent as an MMS data type. iPhone lacks video capture capability, so this aspect is moot with regard to outbound MMS. Apple did not demonstrate or comment on the handling of video embedded in incoming MMS.
iPod Touch owners, and those for whom iPhone doubles as a media player, will be pleased by the addition of support for A2DP stereo Bluetooth headphones, ridiculously absent in iPhone given that it's standard in BlackBerry, and support for streaming video and audio. Streaming wasn't covered in elaborate detail. The only on-stage example was an ESPN application prototype that played game highlights to accompany its reports. The app reportedly scales itself for the speed of the connection, and ESPN made specific reference to the ability to stream over 3G, something that AT&T hasn't allowed with iPhone but supports (in some cases, as a plan add-in) on its other devices, including BlackBerry. Developers will reportedly have access to the video APIs, an area that's been marked off-limits, and Apple made reference to the simplicity of video embedding in HTML 5.0 pages.
A Macworld reporter brought out that the second-generation iPod touch has a Bluetooth radio that lies dormant. iPhone 3.0 will awaken it, so touch users can get their wireless headset fix, too.
Gifts that give
Apple claims more than 100 new user-targeted features in iPhone. Many more will emerge as third-party developers take advantage of 1,000 new APIs, most notably one for turn-by-turn navigation. More than an API, turn-by-turn navigation represents a turnaround in policy. No navigation app will be bundled with iPhone 3.0, and Apple made clear that developers can't use Google Maps. But such maps exist for free or can be licensed affordably, so the freedom to fill the real-time navigation gap is there.
Another new developer resource that end-users will feel immediately is the ability of third-party applications to handle purchases from inside the app. Most of the examples given were game-oriented, adding a level to a maze game or buying a sweater for a virtual dog, but Apple brought out the more practical example of buying city maps from inside the navigation software. Writing about user-relevant features that third-party developers will create with iPhone 3.0 in the months they'll have it to themselves would fill many stories this size, but that's something I'll do and will be worth tuning into even if you're not a developer.
Owners of all iPhones (first generation and 3G) will get the update for free. Owners of the iPod Touch will pay $9.95. There is no other mobile platform that remakes itself yearly. Only Google Android has similar potential, but it has gone unexplored.
Following the event, a reporter asked about a new iPhone model. With utmost respect for my colleague, she may have missed the point. That iPhone 3.0 distributes new handsets to all iPhone and iPod touch owners without requiring the purchase of new hardware is the story.