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Review

Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Software

With the iPhone 3G hardware, Apple significantly improved upon last year's original iPhone. It also extended many of the benefits of its newest model to existing users in the form of the iPhone 2.0 software update (which is also available to current iPod touch users for a nominal $10 fee). This segment presents what's new in the 2.0 software, what hasn't changed, what's missing, what's wrong, and how it compares to other smartphone software platforms on the market.

Inside iPhone 2.0 series outline and publication dates:

Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Hardware (Last Thursday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone 3G vs. other smartphones (Last Friday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Software (Today)
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone OS vs. other mobile platforms (Tuesday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone App Store (Wednesday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: MobileMe push messaging (Thursday)


iPhone OS X 1.0

When the iPhone arrived last year, its software set a new high water mark for smartphones. It delivered a rich, desktop class operating system that borrowed heavily from Apple's Mac OS X, allowing it to support “desktop-class” applications such as Mail and the Safari browser that were far ahead of those offered on existing smartphones. The iPhone OS uses essentially the same Mach/BSD kernel, UNIX userland, and Cocoa development frameworks as Apple's Mac OS X computers, although many aspects of the software are customized for the unique environment of the device.

Less Than: The iPhone's software has to fit within a gigabyte of storage space, which means that Apple pared away lots of legacy (such as the Carbon-centric frameworks of Mac OS X designed to support Mac software from the 90s, including Adobe's Creative Suite and Microsoft's Office apps), as well as support for duplicative third party APIs (such Sun's Java, which is largely a duplication of Cocoa; POSIX X11; and even support for web browser API plugins such as Adobe Flash).

Greater Than: While Apple left out some portions of the full Mac OS X when developing the iPhone OS, it also took the opportunity to create clean, new implementations of existing components. The QuickTime architecture of Mac OS X Tiger was optimized into a highly efficient, playback-only system targeted toward the modern H.264 video codec standard, giving the iPhone the ability to watch everything from YouTube to iTunes downloads to online podcasts to home movies. This optimized playback system has since been reused in the development of Snow Leopard, where it is referred to as QuickTime X.

The iPhone also prompted a redesign of the AppKit, the Mac OS X development framework used to create applications' graphical user interface. Its replacement, the mobile-optimized UIKit of the iPhone, was specifically designed to deliver a modern new user experience that included smooth animations to make the system feel extremely intuitive and “real,” with heavy use of touch-friendly sliders and dials rather than the mouse-oriented pop-up and drop down menus, radio buttons, and other interface constructs Apple originally developed for the Macintosh desktop computer in the early 80s. Concepts from the iPhone's UIKit were also reused in Mac OS X Leopard to deliver Core Animation in order to bring the same highly animated interface enhancements to the desktop.

Apple's unique and luxurious opportunity to stop and rethink the technology and human interface of the iPhone resulted in a spectacular new jump in the state of the art in handheld mobile devices. Microsoft's WinCE and Windows Mobile and the Palm OS (both from the late 90s) had largely pushed forward a circa 1984 Mac-like, stylus driven interface that is simply unsuited to a small factor device, and neither is now in a position to radically update their platform to make it comparable to the iPhone's. Other phone platforms, from Symbian (a partnership between Nokia, Sony Ericcson, NTT DoCoMo, and others; it runs on the majority of phones worldwide) to RIM's BlackBerry, have largely evolved from humble origins as PDAs or pagers, greatly limiting the sophistication they can deliver now and into the future.

While Apple's incessant critics tried to invent calamity for the iPhone by harping on the potential of theoretical security exploits while lambasting both minor and significant omissions (including a lack of voice dialing, MMS, video recording, copy and paste, push messaging, and other missing elements), they failed to realize that Apple had delivered not just a product to sell in 2007, but a strong foundation to build upon over the next decade. Adding software features to iPhone 1.0 was clearly going to be a far easier task than retrofitting competing platforms to deliver a decent user interface, an efficient media playback architecture, rich development frameworks, and other features unique to the iPhone.

iPhone 2.0

Unappeasable critics and hopeful iPhone enthusiasts both had lists of desired improvements in hand when Apple revealed its priorities in the iPhone 2.0 announcement in March 2008. At the top was a software development kit for building third party applications, which will be discussed along with the App Store and leading mobile apps in the following segment. Significant improvements to the iPhone 2.0 software itself were also revealed. Most notably, the new software added push messaging compatible with Microsoft's ActiveSync and Exchange Server 2007, a feature designed to position it favorably against the popular BlackBerry BES messaging service. Apple later unveiled its own MobileMe service as an alternative to Exchange for consumers. Push messaging is also a big enough topic to be considered separately in its own segment.

In addition to the SDK and push messaging, the iPhone 2.0 software supports new hardware features in the iPhone 3G, and includes a variety of smaller improvements to the system in general and its bundled apps. This segment will focus on those improvements, along with the things that were not addressed in the update and the flaws that crept in along with those enhancements.

In many ways, the iPhone 2.0 update is a bit like the jump from the original Mac System Software to System 7 in 1991, or the subsequent jump from the classic Mac OS to Mac OS X earlier in this decade. Both jumps enabled vast new potential while also initially eroding what was at the time a stable reference release. Both advances included features that were too good to pass up, while doing so with entirely new code that needed years of refinement before it was really able to match the stability of the previous system. The new iPhone 2.0 is no different, although hopefully it won't require nearly so much effort to bring it up to the level of stability of the original iPhone experience.

That having been noted, the iPhone 2.0 software does disappoint. While the original iPhone's apps might occasionally disappear, dropping you back at the Springboard start screen, the new iPhone 2.0 is more likely to freeze up entirely, something that was extremely rare before iPhone 2.0. The interface in some apps, most notoriously Apple's own Contacts, is frustratingly lethargic to an extent that the original bundled apps never were. In addition to delays, lockups, and restarts, the new software also introduces some other irritations: battery life is significantly shorter, which can be attributed in part to more demanding hardware improvements in the iPhone 3G, but also to features unlocked in iPhone 2.0, including third party apps and push messaging.

The next segment will take a closer look at how iPhone 2.0 stacks up against rival smartphone platforms, but first we'll take an in depth look at the new features and improvements Apple delivered in the new update, along with the problems that weren't addressed, and some significant new flaws that hound users of of the initial version 2.0.0 software.

On page 2 of 4: Software Improvements in iPhone 2.0.