Thoughts on iPad and iPhone

This past week has been a big one for Apple, everyone's favorite/love-to-hate electronics/computer company.  Two weeks ago, iPad apps and reviews started showing up, then Saturday brought the iPad to thousands of Americans (for a $500+ fee).  Then, last Thursday, Steve Jobs and other Apple executives gave developers and press a peek at the fancy new features coming to iPhones and iPod Touches this summer.  (Of course, there's no word on if there will be a newer, cooler iPhone this summer, but most likely there will be.)  It seems to me that the future of Apple's touch-based devices is bright; it features a brand new device and some much-needed updates to currently available devices.

First up, we have the iPad.  After seeing it in person, I can confirm that it is, in fact, mostly just an iPod Touch with a large screen.  On the other hand, it's easily the most compelling tablet device to date despite a decade of Microsoft trying to get people to run Windows with their finger or a stylus.  The big difference?  Apple and the thousands of developers who have already released iPad apps have created these programs to use the user's fingers for inputting data.  Windows has always been built for a screen, a mouse and a keyboard, but the iPad is made for you to swipe your finger across the screen and press the big buttons.  It's also a very bright, glossy screen that seems to make anything on the device pop.  E-mail and web browsing are a breeze, given that you don't want to write a very long post on the keyboard that pops up onscreen.  (On the other hand, you can use any Bluetooth wireless keyboard if you'd like to type more and can't hack it with onscreen keys.)  Of course, it's also great for watching movies or reading books as well.

Since the iPad hit stores, there have also been some great new iPad-specific applications released to the enjoyment of the world.  Although Hulu hasn't yet released an app to watch all their TV shows, has released a beautiful app to watch all their TV shows.  For those who have a Netflix subscription with Instant Streaming capability, you can watch anything they offer over streaming and it looks great as well.  One of my favorite apps to play around with a bit was any one of a couple of air hockey apps where two people could move their finger around the screen to control their virtual air hockey paddle and move the virtual puck into the other player's goal.  And finally, bordering on the insane (or at least the "I spent $1,000+ to do what I could've for $15"), there's a cool version of Scrabble for iPad where you can use your iPhones as your personal letter rack and then flick them off the iPhone screen and they will show up on the iPad ready to place them.  As usual with new technology, some are useful and some are just cool, eye-catching demos that people will most likely never use.

In my opinion, it's a great device.  However, as fun as it would be for me to have one, there's no way I can justify the $500+ price tag.  I'm not saying it's too expensive, it's just that I have very little use for the iPad in my life.  I carry a smartphone device and need a computer to do more substantial work on, and anything I can see using an iPad for I can do just as well on one of these other devices.  (Don't worry, Apple, both my laptop and phone are also Apple devices, so you're not losing out that much.)  It's still early days in such technology, though.  I can see a potential future where most of us are using iPad-like devices instead of laptop computers in ten years, but considering that this device has been out for just over a week, it's hard to say if that will come true or how the technology will mature.

Many are saying, and I agree for the most part, that the iPad does work pretty well as a simple, intuitive, stripped-down computer.  If all you want is to browse web sites, read e-mails and write the occasional short reply, then this may be a computer replacement that won't have the confusing, crashing issues of a regular computer.  It will be limiting to most computer users if it is used as a replacement, though.  (One other downside: although you don't need to sync it to a computer to use the device regularly, for some reason the iPad requires you to sync it to a computer before you can do anything with it.)

So about the forthcoming updates to the iPhone.  Hooray!  With the iPhone 4.0 update, users will be able to run third-party applications in the background.  Well, that is... mostly.  Apple knows that running a number of full applications on a small device like an iPhone is a quick way to drain the battery, so they've been resistant to doing it for a number of years.  Their current solution, at least as they present it, disallows developers from running their entire application in the background, but Apple has permitted certain services to run in the background.  From their preview on Thursday, it's not completely clear exactly what they will allow and what they will not allow, but thankfully, many of the applications that the majority of users want to use in the background were there to show off working prototypes of using these new features.  (To clarify, Apple's built-in applications have been multitasking since the release of the first iPhone but developers from other companies were not allowed to access these functions.)

The first big feature request is to listen to streaming audio just like the iPod functionality; the audio will continue to stream and play in the background while using other applications or browsing the web or e-mail.  The company Apple chose to demo this was Pandora, the personalized online streaming service.  The streaming worked great and there was even the ability to control Pandora while the phone is on its lock screen.  Seems like just what iPhone users such as myself wanted, even though I recently found that you currently can load an mp3 audio stream into Mobile Safari and it will also stream while other programs are running.

The next demo was an impressive one from the folks at Skype.  The features that Skype was able to now access made Skype nearly as powerful as the regular phone.  Skype is able to maintain an online connection and even receive calls while the phone is running other applications or in its locked, standby state.  If it's as good as Apple and Skype are saying, you could use a recent model iPod Touch as a Wi-Fi Skype phone for a lot less than a cell phone's fees.  As Apple explains it, this multitasking is not full multitasking because the full Skype program is not allowed to run in the background, but it's definitely enough to do the things users really want.

The last couple features available for running in the background are, first, location awareness.  Programs such as Foursquare and Gowalla could keep track of location history and allow you to check in after the fact.  Of course, Apple's first priority is battery life over function, so they say that these programs would only get access to cell phone location and not the battery-hogging, more detailed GPS location services.  Secondly, the ability to continue tasks in the background.  In the example mentioned, the Flickr app could finish uploading your photos in the background while other apps are running.  It's not clear if you have to trigger these background activities before leaving the app or, for example, popular Twitter apps could periodically download new Twitter updates like the built-in e-mail app does.  One video demo that surfaced online did verify that you can kill background apps if you wish, but it seems that any app you leave will stay in the list of apps that could be running some of the limited multitasking processes.

The apps that are the base of the iPhone also get new features with iPhone 4.0.  The e-mail application will now have a global inbox; if you have more than one e-mail account, the e-mails can be viewed on one screen just like in desktop apps.  Also, the e-mail now can organize by thread, which was probably the original killer e-mail feature of Gmail when it debuted six years ago.  Many people have pages and pages of apps on their home screens, but thanks to the new ability to put apps into folders, better and more organization can be gained without all that horizontal swiping through screens.  And, finally, some of the flagship features of iPad will be included in iPhone 4.0, such as the ability to read iBooks from Apple's bookstore and connect to other devices such as Bluetooth keyboards.  There are also other small features that we haven't even heard about yet but will likely be welcome additions to the iPhone OS this summer.  Of course, a number of features that Apple were excited to tout were better tools for corporate IT personnel to manage their iPhone users as well.

Apple's other major announcements for iPhone 4.0 are mostly new platforms for even more growth on the iPhone/iPod Touch market.  The first was GameCenter, a programmer API and gaming network.  This further cements these devices as a legitimate gaming platform and will give users a consistent user account, friends list, and high scores.  The screenshots showed the ability to see what games your friends are currently playing/watching as well as the ability to view high scores and get achievements for progress in games.

The other major business market for Apple is now called iAds, which is an advertising network that Apple controls for iPhone/iPod Touch devices.  Apple is definitely pushing to make their iAds content more interactive and engaging as well as not make you leave the app which featured the ad.  Apple said that Apple gets 40% of the ad cost and the developers of the apps that host ads get 60%, which may seem a lot, but considering they're providing the infrastructure and probably detailed tracking, it's a fair amount.  (Remember that Google does the same thing with its ad programs but refuses to disclose what percentage they take off the top.)

The major bad news? Unless you bought your iPhone or iPod Touch in the last 9 months, you will not get every feature in iPhone 4.0.  Apple was not specific on these feature degradations, but they did say that only iPhone models marked 3GS (note the "S") or new iPod Touches released after September 2009 will be the only ones to receive the multitasking.  Apple claims that the older phones cannot run these features, and I think that more likely it is just that the older devices don't have the RAM and/or the processing power to run these features well.  In other words, Apple could allow users to do these things, but they're probably right that these older phones would be too slow for comfortable use with these new features.  In my experience, my iPhone, which I got about 18 months ago, was nice and fast on the iPhone 2.0 that it was released for, but once the iPhone 3.0 OS was available, my device definitely was a bit more full-featured but also a bunch more sluggish.  Also, the 3GS is notably faster, so many of the more demanding apps available today run slowly or even crash on my iPhone 3G.

What does this iPhone update mean for me?  I'll probably get a new iPhone sometime this fall after my two-year contract is up.  Most likely, there will be a speedy new iPhone that runs lightning fast before that time comes.  When I bought my iPhone 3G 18 months ago, there was no phone that was half as useful and cool.  These days, the iPhone 3GS is on the same plane or maybe even a bit behind phones that run Google's Android OS.  But with the promise of iPhone 4.0, Apple keeps up with the competition and, with some potential new phone models this summer, they can even stay ahead of the curve.  Now I'm just hoping for one with 128GB of flash memory on it so I can even hold all my music and podcasts in one device!


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