Over the past two months, Android has jostled its way to the peak of the smartphone pile. The HTC Legend, HTC Desire and forthcoming Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 have all shown that Google’s OS is savvier, cooler and more desirable among the techie crowds than the iPhone.
But the dawning of iPhone OS 4 changes that, no matter what any hardcore gadget fiend might think. Yes, new features like multitasking are late in arriving. And yes, Apple’s sometimes nauseating self-confidence tempers their achievements. But beyond these usual gripes of Apple haters is a rejigged OS that screams ease-of-use. Not for tinkering techies, but your average punter who couldn’t give a monkeys about playing around with their phone’s settings.
During his keynote last night, Steve Jobs was asked by an eager hack as to how you shut apps while they’re running in the background. The bearded one’s response was swift. “It's like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it. In multitasking, if you see a task manager... they blew it. Users shouldn't ever have to think about it.”
It’s the kind of comment from Apple’s main man that leaves many cold. But he has a point. The new multitasking feature is excellent. Tap twice on the home button and you’ll see a four app wide dock that opens up stat and lets you choose the feature you want. That’s it. Some will say this is Apple locking you down, but most users couldn’t care less about that. They want a phone that looks the part and works in the most obvious way possible.
This is reflective of Apple’s wider move to control the entire system, one which former Stuff Editor-in-Chief and keen Apple watcher Tom Dunmore says has its benefits. “The closed system has great benefits in terms of usability, but also comes with frustrations for users who want to tinker. I don't think opening up is going to happen: and 99 per cent of iPhone users won't care.”
Away from just diving into open apps, Apple has also thrown open some cool new extras which put its OS lightyears ahead of the competition. The way VoIP apps run in the background is sheer genius. The Skype demo at the keynote showed an iPhone running Skype constantly, even staying on when you lock the screen and giving you notifications when you receive a call. If you’re savvy, it could mean using Skype solely for all your calls.
But it’s the dawning of iAds, the new in-app ad system that has greater implications. Mobile advertising has always been intrusive and infuriating. But this new system appears to work well, offering videos, real time local info (say for cinema times when advertising a new flick) and the chance to bake ads into apps properly, rather than tack them on nastily, a la Paper Toss.
But it’s not just Google and Android Apple has in its sites. RIM’s enterprise skills are ripe for the taking and the newly tweaked integrated mailboxes and support for multiple Exchange accounts should get businesses on board more willingly.
But it’s Microsoft who will be most concerned. Apple’s new Game Center, essentially Xbox Live for mobile, preempts plans to bring the Microsoft system to Windows Phone 7 later this year. Letting you match up against rivals and see scores and earn achievements, it’s Apple’s biggest social networking concession.
Android still has the edge when it comes to live social networking integration, thanks to skins like HTC Sense and MotoBLUR. But for Dunmore, this doesn’t present much stress for Apple. “Android is a big threat for Apple, but the smartphone market is growing at such a pace that there's space for both systems to co-exist,” he says. “Ultimately, Apple is likely to dominate at the high end of the smartphone market, while Android will dominate cheaper smartphones and feature phones.”
And that really is the key. iPhone OS 4 is a top notch OS, aimed at keeping things simple and resolutely designed for normal people. Apple haters will rail at the fact the ecosystem remains highly controlled. But ultimately, people will vote with their feet. The fourth-gen iPhone, and the iPhone 3GS which will also get the update, will be primed and ready for smartphone battle very soon indeed.