A first pass at iPhone OS 4

The new iPhone OS 4 adds home screen folders, a unified e-mail in-box, and, for some, multitasking.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Donald Bell Senior Editor / How To
Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.
Kent German
Donald Bell
7 min read

The continued evolution of the iPhone operating system has been rather like completing a puzzle. In its original form, the puzzle lacked important pieces like multimedia messaging and a landscape keyboard, but with each subsequent update, Apple filled those gaps.

For screenshots of OS 4 in action, see our slideshow.

Thursday, the company added more missing pieces when it introduced the fourth generation of the iPhone operating system at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. After a wait of almost three years, we finally get multitasking--though not for everyone--and other sorely needed features like home screen folders and a unified e-mail in-box. The update is available for developers now with the general release for the iPhone and iPod Touch coming this summer and the iPad in the fall.

It doesn't deliver quite the changes that we got from the iPhone 3.0 release last year (at least for now), but rest assured that OS 4 is a major update that checks off more boxes from our standing iPhone wish list. Though OS 4 is set to bring 100 new features, CEO Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iPhone software, focused on the seven biggest changes, or "tent poles," during the course of Thursday's event.

Multitasking! Huzzah!

In our review of the iPhone 3GS, multitasking led our list of common cell phone features that were lacking. Granted, that list was shorter than it had been with previous iPhone versions, but multitasking remained a major omission in light of Android and the Palm Web OS.

Apple, however, has a special talent for making us forget such things by packaging an existing feature in a flashy new way. As Jobs said, Apple isn't about being first, but rather about "being the best." We'll have to get our hands on the update before we fully agree, but Apple appears to have hit the mark. During the demo, Jobs showed how you'll be able to tap the Home button twice to get a pop-up menu of running apps at the bottom of the display. As you switch back and forth, you'll return to the exact point you left, even if you're in the middle of a game. There's no task manager of any kind and Jobs dismissed competitor devices that have one. As he put it, "If you see a task manager, they blew it."

Though the pop-up menu only shows four apps at a time (you can swipe sideways through the full list), you'll be able to run at least 12 apps simultaneously. Jobs did not say if that number is a hard limit, but we'll confirm that one exists when we get to play with the OS ourselves. Forstall insisted that multitasking would not affect performance because Apple distilled background processes into seven API services. They include audio from apps like Pandora Radio (yay!), VoIP (for Skype calls), push notifications, and task completion. Multitasking also will support local notifications and related security setting enhancements.

There is bad news with multitasking, though. The feature is compatible only with the iPhone 3GS and the third generation of the iPod Touch. Owners of other iPhone and iPod Touch models still get other OS 4 benefits, but you'll need to upgrade if you want the full package. Before you run to the store, however, keep in mind that OS 4 probably won't appear until after the Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June. At that event--we're still waiting for firm dates--we should get new hardware, so make your upgrade decision then.

iPhone OS 4 features (photos)

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Are you sick of scrolling through seven home screen pages to find your app? We certainly are, which is why we welcome the option for home screen folders. After a long press on the home screen (so the icons "jiggle"), you can take an app and drop it on top of another to create a folder. To see the contents of a folder or change the default name, just tap it for an expanded view. You can add as many folders as you like, but we're unsure if there's a limit to how many apps you can store in a single folder.

The process appears to be easy, though we wouldn't say it offers a huge change from the equivalent steps on Android. It's interesting, though, that with multitasking and the home screen folders, Apple is slowly chipping away at the advantages that Android currently holds. We love a good fight so we can't wait to see how this develops.

Though e-mail has always worked well on the iPhone, the experience has been a little disjointed with its various in-boxes and limited options for message sorting. Fortunately, the OS 4 update fixes some of those flaws. Not only will you get a unified e-mail in-box, but also the ability to add multiple Exchange accounts, organize e-mails by thread, quickly switch between accounts, and open attachments with a preferred app. We're most excited about the unified in-box--sometimes it's the little things--but we certainly wouldn't kick the other features out of bed.

Hello, unified e-mail in-box.

iPhone owners will be able to get iBooks, the Apple's e-book reader, on their devices. They'll also be able to access Apple's iBookstore to purchase new content. And if you have an iPhone and an iPad, you can read your book on both devices (with just one purchase) and sync your current page.

Though Forstall said 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies are using the iPhone, the device still doesn't have quite the reach of the BlackBerry in IT departments. Yet, Apple continues to pursue that market with new features like enhanced data protection, mobile device management, wireless app distribution (nice), and multiple exchange accounts. Also new is support for Exchange 2010 and SSL VPN from Juniper and Cisco.

Game Center
Coming "later this year," so perhaps not at the same time as the general OS 4 release, is Game Center. It will bring features like a social gaming network, the ability to invite friends to games, leaderboards, achievements, and the opportunity for "matchmaking" (setting up two people to play). We didn't get an extensive demo of Game Center so Apple may still be tinkering with it.

Though Jobs and Forstall spent a lot of time on this feature, we're not so enamored. Apple knows that iPhone users spend a lot of time in apps and it has recognized the revenue opportunities. iAds appears to be all about making you "want" to click on an ad by offering multimedia and interactive content. Jobs described it as combining "interaction" and "emotion" like we get in TV commercials. For example, if you have an ad about "Toy Story 3," you'll be able to see a preview and search local theaters for showtimes.

Though iAds will deliver new functionality to users, developers clearly are the primary target audience. Jobs even said that Apple wants to help developers make money by offering them a 60 percent share of any revenue. Yes, we understand that free apps aren't really free, but the prospect of more ads cluttering our phone isn't exciting. And you can be sure iAds will be available beyond the iPhone 3GS.

Just a few of the new features in iPhone OS 4.

Other changes
Jobs and Forstall didn't detail the 93 other new features of iPhone OS 4, but we did get a brief glimpse of other additions at the start of the presentation. Here are a few to ponder.

  • Spell check
  • Larger fonts for e-mail, texts, and alerts
  • Persistent Wi-Fi
  • Tap to focus video
  • Customizable wallpapers for the home screen
  • Search text messages
  • Choose image size in mail messages
  • Recent Web searches
  • Create playlists
  • 5x digital zoom in camera
  • Bluetooth keyboards
  • Gifting of apps
  • iPod out
  • Birthday calendar
  • Wake on wireless
  • File and delete mail search results
  • Web search suggestions
  • Rotate photos

What iPhone OS 4 means for the iPad
Version 4 of Apple's iPhone OS is going to bring many welcome improvements to the iPad, including multitasking, app folders, and more capabilities for app developers to tinker with. Unfortunately, though iPhone 3GS and third-gen iPod Touch users can expect to run the new OS this summer, iPad owners will need to keep patient until fall.

On the upside, there are a few OS 4 capabilities included on the iPad currently that iPhone users will have to wait until summer to play with. Features such as iTunes playlist creation, home screen wallpaper, and iBooks will have iPhone users giving the iPad envious looks until their upgrade is available. Also, the iPad already offers apps that all can maintain your place after exiting the app. These include: Numbers, Keynote, Pages, and iBooks.

Another silver lining iPad owners can hold on to is the fact that OS 4 should come as a free upgrade. The iPad's OS 3.2 documentation states that OS upgrades will be provided to users free of charge up to and including OS 4.

The collective groan from iPad users is mostly over having to wait for OS 4's multitasking capability. Given the iPad's aptitude for Web and e-mail browsing, it's a shame that users can't yet use these features simultaneously--a fact that Netbook proponents are quick to point out.

It might be easier to muster some patience if we only understood why Apple chose to stagger the roll-out to the iPad. No reason was cited at the OS 4 unveiling event. Given that Apple releases a new crop of iPods every fall like clockwork, it's possible that the iPad update is being deliberately delayed to dovetail with an iPod announcement and Apple's rumored cloud music service. It's also possible, given the larger screen of the iPad, that porting over iPhone OS 4 simply requires more time.