iPhone OS 4: A feature wish list

There are many predictions about features in Apple's new mobile operating system. Here are my two cents on what the update should have.

Wilson Tang Former Producer, CNET TV
Wilson G. Tang is a producer for CNET TV. He hosts The 404 Podcast, which is a daily talk show about the intersection of technology and pop culture. He also writes, shoots, edits and produces for CNET. In addition, he is an award-winning filmmaker and storyteller, with several short narrative and documentaries under his belt.
Wilson Tang
5 min read

Before many tech journalists even had a moment to sleep from the nonstop iPad coverage, Apple sent out a notice that it would be updating the world on iPhone OS 4.

One anticipated feature is an option for a global in-box. You're probably going to see a lot of predictions for the upcoming release. In the meantime, here are the features I feel iPhone OS 4 should have.

A suggested rebranding. Wilson Tang/CNET

First, Apple should change the name of the underlying operating system from iPhone OS to Touch OS. With the operating system running on the iPod Touch and now the iPad, it makes little sense for Apple to continue to call the software iPhone OS. Something like Touch OS would convey the larger message that Apple wants to ultimately send about its vision for the future of computing.

Wilson Tang/CNET

Second, the push-notification system could use some help. The current push notifications are essentially dialog boxes that pop up, occasionally play a sound, and then give you the option to ignore or launch an app.

The biggest problem with the current system is that messages tend to pile on top of each other and obscure the previous push notification. This is especially cumbersome in IM applications. The next generation of push notifications should probably closer resemble the popular messaging system for Mac OS X called Growl, especially when it comes to a device like the iPad, which has more screen real estate.

I hope to see a queue for push notifications, and I hope that Apple allows developers to push out more advanced notifications that are more like tiny HTML widgets that would allow users to respond to instant messages without launching their chat client, display images, or even background messaging that updates news applications with the latest stories.

Push notification was Apple's solution to multitasking, but given the speed of the iPhone 3GS and few practical uses of multitasking on a screen so small, Apple has steadfastly refused to allow third-party multitasking on the device. Rumors of an Expose-style multitasking interface are floating around on the Internet, and I am inclined to believe that Apple is finally ready to allow multitasking, if only to get the tech press to shut up about the lack of multitasking.

The company claimed that multitasking would drain battery life and needlessly confuse the end user. With the next iteration of the iPhone and the 10-hour battery life of the iPad, this is becoming less and less of an issue. Like copy and paste, I believe that Apple's biggest holdup for multitasking was not the technology, but rather the design and implementation.

Windows Mobile users can attest to running apps in the background for weeks without knowing that they were "closed," when they hit the "X." The current iPhone OS enables users to bring up iPod controls by double-clicking the home button. iPhone OS 4 should open up a similar dialog box, with floating application icons.

One thing to consider is whether Apple would allow more than one third-party application to run in the background--especially if it implements a more advanced push notification system that lets, for example, The New York Times app constantly update with the latest stories.

iPhone OS 4
Apple is holding a preview event for the next version of iPhone OS on Thursday. Apple

iPhone OS 4 should also have an information screen. The biggest complaint that many power users have with the current version is that the lock screen displays very limited information about e-mails, text messages, and phone calls you might have missed.

I actually would not expect Apple to turn this on by default, but rather as an option in the Settings menu. A lock screen with e-mail counts and upcoming events would be a huge boon for many people. The Spotlight search page should also be updated, such that much of this same information is displayed there, along with actual message previews. The current Spotlight search screen is so empty, it's practically begging to be filled with something.

Next on the wish list: Wi-Fi syncing. Currently, the operating system syncs contacts, mail, and calendars for MobileMe and Microsoft Exchange users over the air. Wi-Fi syncing would be especially helpful for a device like the iPad, for which syncing between music, video, and app collections could get a bit tedious.

I'd love to see library sharing over Wi-Fi as well. You shouldn't be able to steal your friend's music collection, but if you're in range of his Wi-Fi, you might be able to stream a few of his movies or listen to the latest Lady Gaga album that you refuse to buy yourself. The same APIs that allow for instant library sharing may even allow developers to create instant personal-area networks, where users can share or even work on the same document simultaneously. Imagine a company meeting at which everyone is editing the same Pages document or updating a spreadsheet together.

Rumors suggest that we're also likely to see limited printer support, especially for the iPad. Apple has positioned the iPad to be for light work, and for a lot of people, that means printing out--on occasion--a book report, air plane ticket, or spreadsheet. The biggest problem with implementing printer support in general, though, are the drivers.

We may end up seeing printers with the "Touch OS-capable" label showing up in the near future, but we're more likely to see some sort of iTunes pass-through, where your iPad sends the document over to iTunes, which actually does the printing on a printer already configured for your computer.

Finally, Apple should implement a limited file system. The current OS doesn't really expose the underlying file system to users, but given the iPad's new work-oriented direction, I hope that Apple will implement a limited file system that will appear as a mounted drive or folder on Macs and PCs when connected via USB or Wi-Fi.

The storage folder may even be a copy-and-paste repository and maybe be shareable over Wi-Fi or MobileMe. This could enable Bluetooth file sharing. Given Apple's penchant for simplicity, we're more likely to see a single massive document folder than multiple subfolders. Technophiles would gripe about this, and prompting the enabling of subfolders in iPhone OS 5.0.

All together, the biggest features that end users should see, come Thursday, are advanced push notifications, limited multitasking for third-party applications, a new information-oriented lock screen, and Wi-Fi syncing. For now, it could probably get away with updated or polished user interface elements--nothing particularly drastic--just enough to keep users thinking that they are using the latest and greatest.