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Tuesday, August 05, 2008, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone OS vs. other mobile platforms


Additional common phone features iPhone still needs

While cowering to its mobile provider partners in failing to support tethering or UMA, Apple has also conversely taken a position against SMS and particularly MMS picture messaging, choosing instead to push users toward free, standard Internet email instead. That doesn't benefit users of other phones, who frequently can't receive email with photo attachments, and also precludes those users from sending MMS photos to iPhone users. The latter would not really be a problem if AT&T delivered a simple SMS URL hyperlink that opened MMS photos in Safari rather than providing clumsy instructions on how to manually access the photo. In the UK, O2 provides an iPhone web app that makes it easy to receive MMS photos. Apple should begin beating AT&T unmercifully until it can at least do the same.

Apple itself clearly isn't feeling any love for other phones or the archaic and expensive pay-per-message fees that mobile providers have invented in parallel to the free and open Internet. That being the case, why hasn't SMS been replaced by or at least augmented with a mobile iChat IM application from Apple, with support for AIM and Jabber accounts? Apple didn't rely on AOL to deliver instant messaging support in Mac OS X, but rather developed its own iChat app. So why has the company allowed AOL to deliver a buggy, third party IM app for the iPhone, one that can't even support open Jabber accounts such as Google Talk? Clearly, the company's resources must be stretched quite thin to concede such an important app to the clumsy neanderthals at America's LOL-ISP. 

Google has released its own iPhone web app providing access to Google Talk IM, but the lack of native instant messenger support on the iPhone is a standout feature omission, particularly when considering the often pioneering efforts Apple has made in delivering low cost, high quality text, audio and video messaging services in iChat. Mac OS X Leopard's IM document sharing, as well as its Quick Look-based audio and video streaming may provide hints at what Apple will one day deliver for the iPhone, but until then the phone remains a half step behind the basic text messaging features available on other platforms.

For another missing feature, voice activated dialing, it appears AT&T could actually be helpful in contributing its own WATSON technology toward the problem. The company recently demonstrated a server-based iPhone app prototype for looking up phone and address listings from the Yellow Pages based on voice command. Apple has its own voice recognition technology, but may be holding back the run until it can crawl in order to prevent a Doonesbury-Newton style attack on the iPhone's ability to provide accurate results. In any case, given that far simpler phones can perform voice activated contact dialing, it would be nice to see this on the iPhone, too.

Microsoft prominently advertises Office document editing in Windows Mobile, although this feature is often impractical to use on tiny mobile screens (screen shot below; Windows Mobile Smartphones do not even have touchscreens!) and involves translating the document to a "mobile" version that can cause other problems when you attempt to use it again on a desktop computer. It seems likely that Microsoft itself will want to provide a mobile version of Office for the iPhone, and if it does not, expect third parties to take advantage of Cocoa Touch to beat it to the punch.

iPhone 3G


Incidentally, while the Apps Store is only three weeks old, it is interesting that neither Microsoft nor Google have delivered iPhone apps yet, although both have buns in the oven. Apple's maverick "mobile WiFi" software platform has done what Apple's pre-Mac OS X Rhapsody project was unable to do a decade ago: shift power from big developers toward a more democratic market that showcases the efforts of nimble entrepreneurs. That in itself is a huge difference between the iPhone OS and conventional mobile platforms. 

Video embarrassed the QuickTime star

One last common smartphone feature missing on the iPhone is support for video conferencing and video recording, both of which are curious omissions considering that Apple helped pioneer adoption of 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project, the group the developed a variety of mobile standards related to 3G networking) video when it added support for the mobile optimized, MPEG standard to QuickTime back in 2003. 

While Apple touts its Mobile (3G) technologies for creating, editing and delivering 3GPP content to other mobile phones, it does not even note that the iPhone can play back 3GPP video (commonly designated as .3gp). The mobile 3GPP video format uses H.264 video and AAC audio, which is right up the company's Infinite Loop alley (and despite its omission from the iPhone's tech specs page, the phone can play back .3gp video). Perhaps Apple just needs to discover a business model behind delivering video conferencing and video capture on the iPhone. 

Unfortunately, third parties are currently unable to solve this problem for Apple, because the current iPhone SDK does not provide access to the lower level hardware required to support video capture. The phone hardware is capable of doing this however, as demonstrated by the unofficial jailbreak video recording software already available.

Now that third party app support, an Apps Store marketplace, and the BlackBerry's hallmark push messaging have been addressed as features, along with hardware support for the previously missing 3G networks and GPS, Apple's priorities should migrate down to other features and applications that are less critical to the company's bottom line but perhaps more flashy and exciting, such as improved photo and video features, voice recognition, Bluetooth peripheral support, and so on.

This feature intentionally left blank

There is also a bucket of other random features that most mobile platforms support but that the iPhone intentionally does not, often for the purpose of doing specific things well rather than trying to do everything on a checklist and ending up doing none of it admirably. For example, the lack of copy and paste appears to be the result of wanting to simplify the iPhone text-entry interface rather than just building a handheld system that works identically to a desktop and therefore requires a pointing device with the precision of a mouse. 

Certainly the company that invented the Command X, C, and V shortcuts and brought graphical copy and paste into the mainstream didn't just overlook the concept accidentally when designing the iPhone. As users acclimate to the iPhone's environment and grow ready for additional sophistication, a usable form of copy and paste is likely to emerge from Apple. Greg Joswiak, the company's VP of iPhone and iPod marketing, has indicated that copy and paste just hasn't been at the top of Apple's to do list.

Critics also like to haul out Adobe Flash and Sun Java (and occasionally even Windows Media DRM, DIVX H.263, or Ogg playback) as missing features, but of course Apple would gladly dance at the death of all competing APIs and codecs. The company wants developers to exclusively use its own Cocoa Touch, as well as mainstream open standards such as HTML/JavaScript and the modern H.264/AAC codecs rather than pay its competitors to license their alternative technologies. Anyone harping for Flash in order to run Scrabulous or to experience web ads with the power to crash their browser need to be laughed off the stage.   

Another example a "feature" Apple intentionally avoided is background third party apps. There are plenty of valid reasons for developers wanting to install daemons to lurk in the background or wanting their apps to remain running in the same way Apple's own apps continues to work in the background: Phone listens for new calls all the time and can maintain a call while other apps are in use; Mail can check for new messages on a schedule or respond to push updates with other apps in the foreground; SMS is also ready for new messages at all times; and iPod can play music in the background. Clearly, the iPhone has no architectural problem that prevents background apps from running.

On page 4 of 4: Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose; Advantages in the iPhone platform; and The iPod phone.