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Monday, August 04, 2008, 05:00 am PT (08:00 am ET)

Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Software


New but awful in iPhone 2.0

It's easy to think up features that are missing, but iPhone 2.0 also introduces some significant problems that go beyond missing “things that would be nice to have.” The interface frequently balks for absurdly long periods of time (30 seconds is about long enough to consider smashing the unit), far longer and more frequently than the previous software. System-wide crashes were also once extremely rare, but now happen quite regularly. Apps also crash more frequently, particularly the new third party apps. This can be chalked up to less experienced third party developers, but there also appear to be problems with the iPhone OS that cause third party apps to die.

One common trigger is Apple's picture taker module, called from other applications to grab a photo. This hasn't ever worked flawlessly (or quickly), but iPhone 2.0 doesn't seem to help things; third party apps attempting to take photos often fatally fail in the process. Another example is location services, particularly when called up from coordinates outside the US. it appears many apps make assumptions that the iPhone is within the US, and when given a remote location they simply die rather than responding correctly.

Another irritation that began with iPhone 2.0 is that iTunes now does a very lengthy backup everytime the iPhone is plugged in. The purpose of the backup is to allow all data on the phone to be restored, but it simply takes too long. This process needs to be greatly optimized, perhaps using a differential backup model instead. It is possible to prevent the backup from happening with “defaults write com.apple.itunes DeviceBackupsDisabled -bool YES” but of course this will remove the safety net that currently makes restoring the iPhone's data (in case of a unit replacement or other need to perform a full software restoration) the great experience it currently is. The recent iTunes 7.7.1 update seems to help slightly, but the backup process is still really just too slow, and frequently unnecessary if nothing or very little has changed since the last backup.

There are also some irritating issues with push messaging (or rather a failure of messages to push) and the Apps Store and thrid party apps (such as apps crashing at launch and needing to be reinstalled) that will be noted in dedicated followup segments. The most painful problem with iPhone 2.0 is probably power management however; it simply lasts well short of a full day on a single charge. The original iPhone could often coast through two days of light use before dying. No amount of features can be impressive when your battery ends up prematurely dead.

Storm before the calm

It's not yet clear how much software optimization can do to improve the power consumption of 3G data service and GPS lookups, but the shorter life span of the iPhone when running 2.0 is a significant ding against its usability. Somewhat ironically, a key reason why the iPhone doesn't last as long is because third party apps, particularly graphically intensive games, make it easy to blow through the battery because they put pressure on the processor while continuously lighting up the screen.

A major reason why Apple was able to achieve fantastic battery life on the iPod was due to the fact that it was designed to do as little as possible, coasting along with the screen off while music played from its RAM cache. Playing games on the original iPod will also burn through its battery much faster because it has to do more. Software updates may help optimize power use in some circumstances, perhaps even intelligently turning off 3G when in standby, but it may be a simple reality going forward that users who put heavy demands on their iPhone 3G will need to recharge it more than once a day.

Apple is known to be internally testing an iPhone 2.0.1 bug fix for release in the short term, and working on an iPhone 2.1 feature update aimed for September. The second update is expected to deliver support for background notifications for third party apps, as well as significant improvements to GPS location services that should be able to provide reports on your current direction and speed, information required to provide turn-by-turn directions.

The next segment will look at how Apple's iPhone 2.0 software platform compares to that offered by other mobile vendors, in particular Microsoft's Windows Mobile, the Palm OS, and the Symbian OS. The following segment will consider iPhone 2.0's most significant feature and largest change: the Apps Store, SDK, and third party apps that transform the iPhone (or iPod touch) from a streamlined handheld device into a general purpose computer and games console.