Last week, Apple showcased the upcoming 3.0 version of the iPhone operating system, widely expected to be available around WWDC in the June timeframe. If one thing became clear from this presentation, it is that iPhone OS is the next big computing platform, at least as far as Apple is concerned. After first introducing the iPhone and its incredibly slick and intuitive user interface to the public in 2007, Apple then educated millions of people on the idea that their phone can indeed be an all-purpose mobile computing platform by intoducing the App Store in 2008. And now, Apple seems to focus the attention even more on developers. Sure, Apple did announce some pretty nice new end user features in 3.0 (of which the company promises over 100 in total when the final product ships), but the really impressive announcements were the additions to the Software Developers Kit, or SDK.
No less than 1,000 new APIs were introduced to programmers, letting them do even more advanced stuff with the iPhone and iPod touch then before. Think of using the dock-connector or bluetooth to communicate to dedicated accessories, or the direct iPhone-to-iPhone networking connectivity over Bluetooth that doesn’t need pairing or joining of a wireless network, or the widely disussed push notification services letting applications notify users even when the actual program is closed, or the voice-over-IP functionality that can easily be implemented in a game or app without much efforts, or the in-app purchasing features opening up the way for many new types of applications.
Surely, consumers will be spoiled, if not overwhelmed, with the flood of new applications (or renewed applications) in the second half of this year, pushing iPhone as a platform even further away of the curve.
In this article, I will briefly share with you some thoughts I have on some of the new features offered by the iPhone 3.0 software and the new SDK.
iPhone-enabled USB-sticks and USB-adapters
When I heard that developers will now have full access to the dock connector to connect an unlimited array of hardware accessories, I started thinking about using the iPhone as a companion for USB storage devices. Think of an adaptor with an iPhone-connector at one side, and a USB-port on the other, which enables you to plug a USB-stick into the iPhone. Next to some obvious statistical data such as the stick’s free space, such an app could then also show a listing of the files that are on it. From here, you could do whatever you want with the files, such as opening (or even editing) documents, e-mailing them to others, or perform file management tasks like deleting, renaming or putting files in (password protected) ZIP-archives. The iPhone would be a perfect companion to a data storage device!
As USB-sticks use a standard protocol to present themselves to a host know as “Mass Storage Device”, a single piece of software should work with virtually all kinds of storage devices, including external harddrives. This might even result in a thriving new market for apps.
Of course, nothing would prevent hardware manufacturers from introducing USB-sticks with a USB-connector at one side to allow connection to a computer, and an iPhone connector at the other side to let the users do all the things described above.
iPhone-enabled photo cameras and card readers
Of course it’s easy to extend the ideas above to other specific pieces of storage devices, such as digital cameras. Imagine being able to connect your camera to the iPhone using a USB-cable, which would then show you all the pictures that are on the device. Apart from the general file management tasks that I desribed in the previous paragraph, the iPhone would be an excellent preview-device for pictures, with its large display, and the ability to zoom in and pan around pictures. And of course, these pictures could be transfered to the iPhone’s internal photo library, so that they can be used by blogging applications, your Twitter client, etc.
As most digital photo cameras also mount as a generic Mass Storage Device, so compatibility across apps and various makes and models of cameras should not be a big problem. And for those who think that connecting the camera using a cable is too cumbersome, you could of course imagine an SD- or CompactFlash card reader that can be directly connected to the iPhone’s dock connector. (That is, untill the first camera with built-in Bluetooth is available, of course.)
Push notification services
Yes, we get it Apple. Push notifications trough a dedicated Apple server are the best alternative to actually running apps in the background, as this drains the battery and slows down performance of the phone. I actually do believe that this is not entirely marketing speak, but very common sense from the guys in Cupertino. But yes, we know that we have to fight a minor PR battle with Android and Pre users that will show us their background-performing, multitasking applications (when connected to an AC-adapter, of course).
As I said, apart from the occasional application that I can think of that would really require background applications (such as a GPS tracker that still allows me to use the other parts of the phone), I am generally very pleased with the push notifications solution from Apple. It will surely enhance the usage of the phone and a lot of applications.
However, I think the fact that a lot of applications will add push notifications to their feature list, will also quickly become the weak spot of Apple’s solution. As of now, a push message is a simple blue-colored pop-up window (the same one that we know from the SMS app) with a line of text and a button to dismiss or open the respective application. There can only be one message on screen at a time, you have to dismiss it or open the app, in any case you have to perform an action in order to receive the next message awaiting in the notification que. And what will happen when you receive SMS messages, have IM-buddies contact you, set your traffic app to notify you of delayed trains or jams, receive notifications of @you-messages on Twitter and what more. There is no unified listing of messages (as there seems to be on the Palm Pre), just constantly popping up blue boxes. Worse, the boxes all look the same, as in the current beta-version they do not for example include the home-screen icon of the app (which would not solve the entire problem, but would at least give a very clear visual clue of the kind of message). Much to my surprise, Apple did say that notifications can issue a specific sound. But why limit this identification of the app to a purely auditive thing, and not add a visual part?
It might be that Apple just wants to put the underlying frameworks in place for now, so that developers can begin adding the services to their applications. It is very thinkable that Apple will add a nicer, clearer and more user friendly presentation layer on top of this framework when the final version of 3.0 will be released (we all know that competitors also watch the QuickTime streams on the Apple website after a keynote event is finished). After all, we still have quite some months to go.
A lot can be said about in-app purchases that become a possibility for developers in the next software release. My initial thoughts were those of a typical customer: “So now I do not know upfront how much this app/game is gonna cost me, whereas before the app costst would never increase after I bought it”. True, the new system will make things much less transparent for end users, especially for the type of applications that ususally did not require additional payments in the past.
However, I also quickly thought of the many applications that this new functionality would allow. Think of traditional magazine and newspaper publications, which could now offer a single app that loads individual issues at request. What’s more, Apple even promised a subscription feature, so that a user could subscribe to, say, a month’s worth of newspapers. This might also benefit TV-stations or other video producers (and who do not have a deal with Apple for distribution trough the iTunes Store), who can now offer their premium programming and easily monetize it.
For a long time I have thought that the final missing piece in Apple’s media offerings trough the iTunes store (which now feature music, audio books, podcasts, TV-shows and movies) was books, or “e-books”. I expected them to add this department at some time, and believed that that would be one of the reasons why developers were not allowed to sell content within an app. Appearantly I was wrong. You can bet that Amazon is already working on an updated version of its Kindle app that lets user not only read their existing e-books, but also preview and buy new ones directly over the air. (And you can bet that the standard 70/30 split between developers and Apple will be negotiated on a high level for this specific developer!)
The one thing that leaves me boggled as far as in-app purchases are concerned, is the comment from Apple that this functionality would not be available in free apps. Their explanation: “Free apps remain free”. Of course, this is just another push that Apple wants to give developers to charge for their applications (as free apps of course only costs apple in hosting fees). Wouldn’t this be an excellent oportunity to get rid of all the “Lite” versions of (mainly) games that currently make up for about half of the 25,000 entries in the App Store? The ability to download a free limited “trial” version, which could then be updated to a full-featured paid version, would not only generate a much higher conversion rate (as the “update” would be a rather impulsive action from the user from within the game he is currently playing), but would also help in tidying up the already over-crowded App Store.
GPS-navigation on the iPod touch
Now that developers can include hardware support in their applications, and now that turn-by-turn navigation is officially made possible, why not add a GPS receiver to the iPod touch and turn it into a highly advanced navigation system?
The iPod touch as it is today does not include GPS circuitry. However, I can think of a manufacturer making a cradle for the touch that can be applied to the windshield, and which includes the GPS receiver. A cable from this cradle could be connected to the car’s hi-fi system, or it could even use the Bluetooth functionality that gets unlocked on the iPod touch with the 3.0 firmware, to communicate with compatible car audio systems.
All in all, I think that such a device could sell for sub $99 (perhaps in a bundle deal with a navigation app supplier), and would be a perfect companion to the now $229 iPod touch. After all, this combination offers not only routing navigation, but also a lot of other functionality that other after-market GPS solutions lack, including all of the apps that the App Store offers that come in handy on the road, such as travel guides. Not to mention that this navigation unit could be used as a full-blown gaming device during rests, or that it can be taken in to that highway diner to check up with the latest news and e-mail using Wi-Fi.
And about music playback: Now that the 3.0 SDK even offers access to the user’s standard music library, the GPS-app might include music navigation controls (or even send this information to the car’s bluetooth audio system).
Keep an eye on the GPS space when 3.0 is released. I wouldn’t be surprised if this would not only benefit the iPhone, but also unvliels the contract-free iPod touch as a very capable car companion.