Apple’s iPhone OS Finally Gets Multitasking

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Steve Jobs has shown a new iPhone OS which finally allows the device to multitask- within limits

Apple has released a preview of its next-generation iPhone OS 4, which finally gives the device the ability to multitask – although analysts have criticised the limits Apple has placed on the new function. The new version operating system also includes the iAd advertising platform which can build  mobile adverts into apps.

Chief executive Steve Jobs showed the new OS version – which is released as a developer preview – in an event at Apple’s headquarters on 8 April. The operating system will get into consumers’ hands “this summer”, said Jobs. He reminded users of the story so far, with 50 million iPhones sold and 4 billion apps downloade, before detailing the new software.

The new OS will include tap-to-focus for video, 5x digital zoom for the camera module, sync IMAP notes, Bluetooth keyboard support, the ability to gift apps, and changeable home screen wallpaper. The iPhone OS 4 SDK (software development kit) will include automated testing, in-app SMS, photo library access, and full access to still and video camera data—for a total of around 1,500 new APIs.

But the biggest news was that iPhone OS 4 would support multitasking, a feature which has been widely predicted for today’s heavily trailed announcement.

Multi-tasking at last

“We weren’t the first to this party, but we’re going to be the best,” Jobs told the audience.

Rumours have abounded in the past few days that Apple would include multitasking for third-party applications in its new version of the iPhone operating system, with the blog Apple Insider suggesting on March 31 that users would be able to hit the “Home” button twice in order to bring up a special screen for switching between running apps. Rival smartphone platforms, notably Google Android, have been trumpeting their own ability to multitask as a competitive differentiator in the increasingly vicious battle for mobile-device market share, perhaps leading Apple to devise a response.

The truth of Apple’s multitasking turned out to be roughly in line with the rumours: users tap the “Home” button twice, raising a multitasking tray that allows for switching between apps. In this update, Apple is also including folders for arranging apps.

The iPhone OS 4 will also support background audio and voice over IP, background location, push notifications, local notifications, and task completion, which will continue running a particular task in the background until finished. For the enterprise, iPhone OS 4 will support multiple Exchange accounts, as well as offer Exchange Server 2010 and SSL VPN support.

On the play side of things, Apple is rolling out Game Center, a social-gaming network that will allow people to play against either their friends or other random players—the latter thanks to a feature called Matchmaking—in multiplayer games.

Do users want ads within apps?

One addition that may draw some controversy, though, is Apple’s new iAd platform, which in theory will allow developers to embed advertising directly into their apps. During his presentation, Jobs displayed a slide predicting “1 Billion Ad impressions per day,” based on the total amount of time all iPhone owners spend using apps per day.

“The iAd is a big step for Apple – their way to stick a finger in the eye of Google, and even Microsoft (Bing),” Jack Gold, an analyst with J. Gold Associates, wrote in an 8 April research note. “Sounds like the only ads going to iPhone and iPad ultimately will be through Apple’s ad-equivalent of iTunes monopoly for music. This is a game changer, and I’ll bet someone legally challenges this monopoly position (probably in Europe, where iTunes is being heavily challenged).”

Free Prize Draw: Win one of the first iPads in Britain
Free Prize Draw: Win one of the first iPads in Britain

Apple’s announcement comes a few days after the 3 April release of the iPad, which reportedly sold 300,000 units to customers and channel partner Best Buy by midnight on that date. The company claims that more than one million apps for the iPad have already been downloaded, along with 250,000 ebooks. Developers have been encouraged to build applications for the iPad with the iPhone OS 3.2 SDK, which includes an iPhone Reference Library, Sample Code, iPad Programming Guide and Human Interface Guidelines

Gold sees Apple’s new multitasking initiative as possibly a mixed bag for some users.

Multitasking – but only partially

“Apple seems to have added multitasking – but only partially,” Gold wrote in his note. “You can’t write your own multi-tasking capabilities into a program. So there are limits to multitasking available. This may be an issue for companies that do a lot of background processing, like say, running a database or reporting on a device in the background.”

Between the iPad’s release and this new announcement of the iPhone OS 4, it seems that Apple is trying to make good on chief operating officer Tim Cook’s February statement that it is first and foremost “a mobile-device company”. Apple is reportedly working on a smaller version of the iPad.

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