The Competition: iPhone OS 4.0 vs webOS in depth 155
Multitasking. Unified email inboxes. Multiple Exchange accounts. Welcome to the future, our iPhone-toting friends. Well, eventually you’ll get there. Apple last week provided a preview of iPhone OS 4.0, and it looked vaguely familiar to those of us that have been using webOS. There are two truly big features that will be part of iPhone OS 4.0, with multitasking being the one that most users will care about. The implementation, however, is less than impressive.
Here’s the thing, as Rene Ritchie over at TiPb has pointed out before, webOS’ cards metaphor for multitasking seems to be an extension of what Apple did for managing multiple open pages in mobile Safari, with a dash of gestures thrown in for good measure. If you were to ask me, I'd say that’s more than likely what Steve Jobs and Co. would have preferred to do (and probably were preparing to do) for multitasking on the iPhone. But as important as multitasking is for the future of the iPhone platform, their perception as a leading innovator is also important, so just copying what Palm has done would be a PR disaster.
Instead, Apple is left with this quasi-dock thing that you get when you double-tap on the home button. In here is a sliding row of all the currently running apps, you slide around to find the one you want and jump into it. It’s less than ideal, at least to our eyes. It also seems that, unlike webOS, apps won’t actually be running in the background. Certain app services will run in the background, but as best as we can tell, the full app is not. Scott Forstall (Senior VP of iPhone software) explained that there are seven multitasking APIs that developers can take advantage of, including background audio, background VOIP, location services (GPS and cell tower triangulation), and local notifications (not location-based notifications, just notifications from apps on the phone without first going through the server).
All-in-all, that should provide basic multitasking functionality for most apps. But what about controlling those apps while using others, as with webOS? Can’t say that’s going to get much better, as Apple’s demonstrations still were hobbled by the modal deal-with-it-now notifications for everything. And forget about controlling something like Pandora while checking Tweetie, you still have to double-tap for the multitasking dock, slide over to Pandora, call it back up, hit next, double-tap for the multitasking dock, slide back over to Tweetie, and bring it back to the front. And if you want to "close" an app (we say close, because it's more like you're just removing it from your recently-used list), you have to hold on it till it starts to wiggle, and then hit the "minus" button to close. Like I said, Steve’s still kicking himself over letting Palm beat them to the elegant multitasking punch.
This method of managing multitasking reminds this Palm OS old timer of something. Though we didn't call it multitasking back in 2002 - we called it Palm OS 5.0 with multi-threading. No apps specifically ran in the background, but certain threads (music from pTunes, email fetching in Chattermail, etc) could still run while we did other things. It was less than elegant then, and it's not at all elegant eight years later.
Oh, and did I mention that multitasking will only be coming to the current generation of iPhone OS products? The iPhone 3GS and iPod Touch 3rd gen will be getting iPhone OS 4.0 over the summer, and the iPad won’t get it until the Fall. iPhone 3G and iPod Touch 2nd gen will get 4.0, but no multitasking. Original iPhone and iPod Touch users are being left out in the cold. We can’t say that surprises us too much - the hardware on these devices simply isn’t as powerful, nor will the 3GS be as powerful as whatever comes next from Cupertino. But it is worth noting that every update to webOS has brought the same new features to every webOS device, from the lowly Pixi all the way to the RAM-packed Pre Plus.
The other biggie for the iPhone, at least for those of us that manage multiple email addresses, is the unified inbox. And that’s what it is - all of your mail in a single inbox, and separately if you so desire. Just like on webOS. You can even add multiple Microsoft Exchange accounts to iPhone OS 4.0. Just like on webOS. What isn’t just like webOS is the addition of threaded messaging, as with Gmail and Apple’s own Mail app on Mac OS X. Threaded messaging (and proper Gmail integration) is a much-needed update for webOS email, right behind speed and more speed.
So that’s where Apple has caught up to Palm, at least in spirit (execution remains to be seen). But Apple had showed off seven key features last week, so what else is there to talk about?
Let’s look at app folders. The new “folders” for iPhone OS 4.0 allow a user to drag one app icon onto another to create a stack of app icons, tapping on it opens the subfolder. Given the iPhone OS’s app launcher UI, it was a necessity, as they locked themselves into fixed-grid pages of apps. Jobs pointed out that by being able to group apps together you can now see over 2000 installed apps on an iPhone. To that I say this: “Who the hell installs 2000 apps?” 185,000 apps is an impressive statistic. 32 GB of memory is a lot. More than 2000 visible apps on your phone is meaningless.
Are folders something we need to help with app management on webOS? While the option would be nice, we’re going to lean towards ‘not really.’ By allowing us to put as many apps as we want on a page, it’s quite easy to categorize app categories (like games, as demonstrated for the iPhone) by page. What we do need is for Palm to flip the switch on the add/delete page option in webOS. It’s there, we have patches to enable it, and it’s used by thousands of us who know where to look and what to do to make it happen. Unlike the dock multitasking, which is Apple’s kludgy response to webOS, app folders are more a response to the fact that Apple wrote themselves into a corner with the UI. It’s a decent workaround, but nothing like the full reworking that the iPhone app launcher ("Springboard") desperately needed and still needs.
Then there’s the new Game Center app and framework, which if you had to ask me is one of the more impressive features developed for iPhone OS 4.0. Essentially, it’s like Xbox Live for the iPhone OS. It lets game developers easily add things like global leaderboards, set up unlockable achievements, and even perform match-making between players (presumably of the competitive variety and not the eHarmony type). This deals a blow to the porting of 3D games in their near-complete state to webOS. Obviously, this framework is going to be specific to iPhone OS devices and not something that could be easily duplicated on webOS. Potentially, that means any 3D games programmed for iPhone with Game Center in mind are going to find themselves with lesser feature sets on webOS. Until webOS manages to obtain a critical mass userbase to justify the development of similar features, webOS games are poised to fall behind just as soon as they’d caught up.
The other impressive addition is without a doubt iAd. It’s Apple’s full-on assault on the mobile advertising market, so long as the mobile advertising market you’re talking about is the iPhone. Currently, as with 99.999% of desktop ads, tapping on an ad in a mobile app will send you to your web browser (that’s a major problem for ads in iPhone apps, as you instantly closed the app). iAd seeks to rectify that by creating immersive and interactive mini-app advertisements that pop up over the running app. Apple coded up and demoed a few different iAd packages for Toy Story 3, Nike, and Target, and as I said at the beginning of this paragraph, it’s impressive stuff.
iAd ads (rolls of the tongue like molasses) will be hosted by Apple, with 60% of the revenues going to developers. Which means that Apple gets to keep the other 40%. What remains to be seen is how well iAds are going to catch on with advertisers. Essentially, they’re going to find themselves having to a whole ‘nother app, and in HTML5 at that instead of Objective C as they’re used to for iPhone development. Of course, being on webOS we do like HTML 5, so there’s no reason that iAd ads couldn’t be adapted to work on webOS. Except that Palm would also have to provide support for hosting and distributing these ads.
Let’s recap: multitasking, mail enhancements, folders, Game Center, and iAds. Two impressive, and three worthy of “meh” reactions from webOS users (and exalted “Finally!”s from iPhone owners). What of the other three new tentpole features? There’s iBooks, which is nice and all and entirely expected after the iPad, but there are several worthy competitors (Kindle and Barnes and Noble, just to name two) - all we need is for one of them to actually develop webOS version of their app, which is only a matter of time and, more importantly, marketshare.
Apple has also bumped up their enterprise support, tacking on the aforementioned multiple Exchange account support and support for Exchange Server 2010, both things that webOS has supported since launching in June 2009. Where Apple has upped the ante, however, is remote management. Corporate IT admins will be able to remotely deploy apps, enforce better data protection, and manage devices wirelessly.
So there you have it, the major features of iPhone OS 4.0, in several nutshells. I’ve gone a bit in depth here, but it was necessary for a proper compare-and-contrast session with webOS. Apple’s found themselves playing catch-up for the first time since revealing the iPhone more than three years ago, and it shows. The way that multitasking applications are going to be handled in iPhone OS 4.0 also is very telling of the limitations imposed by the user interface constraints of iPhone OS 1.0. Workarounds like the multitasking dock and folders are indicative of the predicament Apple finds itself in now, with open up-and-comers like Android and webOS threatening to out-innovate the innovator.
Oh, and you can change the home screen wallpaper now. Exciting times, eh?