It’s time to relax about multitasking

There was one thing I had intended to rant about last week that I just didn’t get to. People need to chill the heck out about multitasking on the iPhone. I see comments every day either decrying Apple’s implementation as not “real” multitasking, or helpless users asking how to make sure background tasks don’t grind them to a halt and kill their battery. Both of which tell me that there’s still a HUGE misunderstanding out there about how multitasking in iOS 4 actually works.

Let’s start with how it works on the desktop, which is what most people consider “real” multitasking. This is more formally known as “preemptive” multitasking, in that the operating system can preempt processes in favor of others to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Prior to the advent of multicore processors, the CPU could still only do one thing at a time, so the operating system had to decide which process got how many clock cycles. From the application perspective, they just ran without any consideration for other applications, and could continue asking for as much CPU power as they could get even if they were not the foreground application.

As anyone who’s tried to rip a DVD or transcode a bunch of media can tell you, even with a relatively smart preemptive multitasking operating system like modern day Windows, Linux or OS/X, background tasks can still use so much horsepower that they slow your “active” task to a crawl. On a laptop this is bad enough, but on a handheld, this can be the difference between having a smartphone and having a… rock. So clearly, a more sophisticated method was needed.

Or was it? The preemptive multitasking described above is essentially exactly how multitasking works on webOS. It is very similar to how multitasking works on Android (which is a little better at managing the resources of background tasks, but not much). And people with webOS and Android devices—and yes, Windows Compact Embedded, formerly known as Windows Mobile 6—learn very quickly how to manage their running programs and kill tasks that they don’t need running in the background. Very quickly, you get acclimated to micromanaging your phone, clearing memory and closing tasks and doing all sorts of digital housekeeping that has nothing whatsoever to do with what your phone is supposed to be actually doing.

Apple wanted none of this. And for the first three iterations of the iPhone, they simply didn’t provide multitasking for third party applications. They supported true preemptive multitasking for their own apps—iOS is built on the same core as OS/X, so it’s always been capable of it—but drew the line at apps that they could control. For everyone else, it was one thing at a time.

Which honestly, didn’t work so bad. Something I’ve noticed now that I have multitasking on my iPhone is that my attention span is just as fragmented as it is on my desktop. Not being able to flit back and forth between apps without losing your place did enforce a certain amount of focus. But anyway…

With iOS 4, Apple introduced their model of mobile multitasking. They didn’t invent multitasking, and no one is saying they did. But they did come up with a way to implement multitasking that seems to avoid the problems that desktop-grade multitasking has on mobile devices. The problem is that it’s also a little more nuanced, a little more complex, and a lot of people still haven’t figured out what it’s actually doing.

In iOS 4 when you double tap the Home button, the screen slides up and you see a row of application icons. THESE APPS ARE NOT ALL RUNNING AT THE SAME TIME. Depending on the app, they could be doing one of three things.

For apps that haven’t been updated to take advantage of iOS 4, the icons in the task switching area are exactly the same as the ones on the home screen. The app isn’t running, then when you tap the icon, it starts up from zero. When you switch away from the app, it goes away, removed from memory entirely until you call for it again. Needless to say, these apps use absolutely no CPU or RAM when not in use, even when you see them in the task switching area.

Apps that have been updated to support iOS 4’s fast app switching—but nothing else—behave a little differently. (To support fast app switching, all developers have to do is recompile their app with the iOS 4 SDK. They don’t have to add a single line of code. So eventually, all but completely abandoned apps will support this.) When you switch away from these apps, their process is suspended—using absolutely zero CPU—but they remain in memory. This is the key reason even this most basic multitasking feature isn’t supported on the iPhone 3G with its anemic 128MB of RAM. On a 3GS with 256MB or an iPhone 4 with 512MB, lots of applications can hang out, suspended, without impacting the speed or battery life of the device in any way. When you run the program again, either from the task switching area or the home screen, the process is simply unsuspended and resumes exactly where it left off. On occasion, you will run so many apps that you start to run out of free memory, in which case iOS will save a snapshot of the process to storage and kill the process. It will take a little longer to resume the next time you run it because that process snapshot has to be loaded into memory from “disk”, but it’s still faster than starting the program from scratch.

There are six other discrete functions apps can call to do things in the background. Sound can play in the background, VOIP apps can listen for an incoming call, GPS apps can keep tabs on your position, apps can continue a specific time-consuming task like uploading a file, etc. In these cases, part of the program does continue to run while this task is carried out, but there are two important things to remember. When the app is done doing the thing it has a good reason to be doing in the background, it suspends, just like apps that only support fast app switching, and the part of the app that remains running in the background is far smaller than the full application.

For example, when I’m listening to Pandora, I can switch away from it and let it play in the background. When I’m doing this, the part of the app that streams the music is all that keeps running. The rest of the app, the part with the user interface and menus and whatnot, is suspended. It no longer takes up any CPU of its own. When I put a GPS app in the background, it keeps track of my position and can even continue to give me voice directions, but the part of the app with the map no longer updates.

What does all this mean? It means that you don’t have to micromanage your device to prevent multitasking from killing your phone in iOS 4. Yes, you can manually “kill” an app, terminating the suspended process and removing it from RAM by tapping and holding on the icon in the switching area and then tapping the red minus sign, but you should almost never, ever have to. I’ve done this once, to force a Twitter app to pull tweets in the “gap” between updates. For just about everything else, you can just trust the device to kill off processes itself when it needs the RAM. You don’t have to do it yourself. (And yes, every once in a while I’ll notice an app “hitch” for a second when I’m loading it, telling me that something else just got purged from memory. It’s only noticeable because I’m looking for it, and doesn’t impede my use of the device in any way.)

It also means that the people complaining that the iPhone doesn’t support “real” multitasking need to take a deep breath and get over it. Apple’s implementation of multitasking is a compromise, yes, but it’s a very elegant, effective compromise that provides the benefits of full desktop-grade multitasking at a fraction of the resource cost. Smartphones are much more powerful now than they were just a few years ago, but until we have orders of magnitude faster processors and bigger batteries, Apple’s version of multitasking makes more sense than allowing any app to do whatever they want.

iPhone 4: The bars are a lie

There has been, well, some vigorous discussion this past week about the iPhone 4 and what those bastards at Apple have foisted upon us. People are losing their freaking minds. Lawsuits have been filed. People are threatening to take their phones back. And, of course, people have emailed Steve Jobs directly, with results of varying veracity.

Only, the thing is, it’s really not such a big deal. I know people are angry, and they have every right in the world to feel that way. And I know Apple has been unusually tone-deaf in how they’ve handled this situation, but I also think they’re doing the right thing. So let’s take a step back, look at the situation for what it really is and see how this all sorts out. (This would be a good place to take your happy pills if you need them.)

Design

The single most striking feature of the iPhone design, which you notice even before you see the ZOMG droolworthy screen, is the stainless steel band sandwiched between the two plates of glass. This is not only the structural support for the phone, but also the antenna. The left side, from the headphone jack around past the volume buttons, is the WiFi/Bluetooth antenna, and the rest is the cellular antenna. While this design choice simplifies and minimizes the layout of the phone, it also means that you will, in the act of holding the phone, alter the the reception of the phone as you, who are essentially a bag of salt water as far as RF signals are concerned, change the conductivity of the antenna.

The result is what has become known as the "iPhone Death Grip." If you hold the phone so that your skin bridges the tiny gap between the WiFi and cellular antennas, you can watch in awe and/or horror as your signal bars drop from five to one. This "design flaw" is what all this fuss is about.

Signal attenuation, by the numbers

Sure seems like a design flaw, right? To go from full signal down to nothing just by touching the phone? Touching the phone in the exact same way you see Steve Jobs holding it in just about every picture of him and the iPhone 4 on the web?

Well, maybe, maybe not.

See, the truth is that five bars can be well removed from "full signal," and even that’s kind of a misnomer left over from analog phones that doesn’t mean much in a digital world. Let’s look at the actual math for a minute. This won’t hurt a bit.

Click to read more the by creator of this chartRF signals are measured in negative decibels. The best signal you can get, standing right next to the tower, is -51 dBm. The worst is -113, the point at which AT&T’s towers just stop trying to talk to you. Now, you would think that the bars would be evenly distributed over that 65 dBm range. But the problem is that it’s a logarithmic scale. -100 dBm is ten times weaker than -90 dBm.

As a result, you see a "full" five bars all the way down to -90 dBM. Meaning as soon as you start losing bars at all, you’re not approaching the cliff, you’re already falling off.

This is already confusing, but it gets worse. When you touch the antenna, depending on conditions (moisture, etc.) you will cause the signal to drop by 20-24 dB. If you’re in a strong "five bars" area, this will still leave you with more than 90, and thus still have "five" bars. If you’re sitting right around 90, dropping 24 dB can drop you all the way down to the cut off point, even though you started with "five" bars.

Passing the bar

Only, even that isn’t really the case. Because as I mentioned before, the whole concept of bars is a hold-over from analog cell phones and doesn’t really make sense in a digital world. With digital cell phones, signal is a binary condition. Either you have enough signal to make the call, or you don’t. (It’s the same way with digital TV over the air now. You either get a perfect picture or you get nothing, no more snow that kinda resembles your favorite show.) Numerous reports have shown that the iPhone 4 holds on to a call just fine all the way down to -111 dBm, and holds calls in places the iPhone 3GS would have dropped or not shown service at all.

Apple contends that the iPhone 4 has the best reception yet of any iPhone, and even with the attenuation problem factored in, this does in fact seem to be the case. Personally, I’ve lost a grand total of one call that I can blame definitively on the Death Grip. Granted, when I touched the antenna and dropped the signal enough to drop the call, I was already in an underground parking garage. o_O

Bump the Bumper

Apple raised eyebrows at WWDC when they announced the iPhone 4 by also announcing their first ever case for the iPhone, something they’d previously left to third party companies. The Bumper is a minimalist case that only covers the steel band around the iPhone, leaving the glass front and back mostly uncovered. Once reports of problems with the antenna surfaced, it didn’t take long for people to figure out that 2 + 2 = Conspiracy Theory!

Obviously, they say, Apple knew about this problem, and that’s why they’re ripping us off to the tune of $30 for a band of rubber and plastic to cover up the problem they knew they had! Those bastards!

Maybe, maybe not.

I’ll admit the Bumper is suspicious. And yes, it does seem to reduce, but not completely eliminate, the attenuation. But a wise man once advised to never attribute to malice what could be explained by simple incompetence. And I can also see not only why Apple would have offered the Bumper without knowing anything about the signal issue, but how they never would have seen the signal issue.

The Bumper is good for more than just antenna insulation. It also provides a good deal of shock absorption, something at which steel and glass are notoriously bad. An iPhone 4 wearing a Bumper is much less likely to crack or shatter when dropped to a hard surface on the corner than a naked iPhone. So Apple could have provided it simply because they knew the iPhone 4 might benefit from the extra protection.

As for them knowing about the signal issue, think about how this problem manifests and how Apple tested the phone. You don’t see it at all in strong signal areas where even dropping the full 24 dB still leaves you with five bars. And within the Apple campus at Cupertino, you can bet they have impeccable AT&T signal. So on campus, they’d never notice it.

Of course, they don’t just test it on campus. In fact, we know at least one radio baseband engineer who, while testing the phone in a bar, had a little too much German beer and wound up without his prototype iPhone 4. But we also know from that little escapade that when off of Apple’s campus, the iPhone 4 was hidden inside a specially built case that made it look like a 3GS. And holding it inside that case would have insulated the antenna, similar to how the Bumper works, which means they wouldn’t have seen it there either.

In short, Apple’s testing methodology seemed to guarantee that they’d never the test the iPhone naked and in poor signal at the same time. When they say they were "shocked" to discover this problem, I believe them. I really don’t think they tested it in all possible conditions.

Don’t hold it that way

Apparently, Apple was caught so off guard by this controversy that they they stumbled repeatedly in dealing with it in public. The first time a user emailed Steve Jobs himself about it, or at least the first (only?) one Jobs replied to, Jobs actually told the guy not to hold it that way. This struck most people as flippant and dismissive, which is probably why Apple quickly followed up with an official statement with more careful wording. BGR reported that Jobs also had a longer exchange with someone else where he ended up telling the user to get over it, it’s just a phone. Apple claims this conversation is a hoax, though BGR stands by their reporting.

What we do know is that Apple’s official stance at the time of this writing is that all phones have this issue to one degree or another, but that iOS4 has badly calibrated signal bars that don’t give people a realistic idea of how likely they are to drop a call. This seems to be true, as people have been able to grip other phones from the Moto RAZR to the Google’s Nexus One in ways that cause similar signal drops, and the "hey, my bars are dropping like flies" effect is showing up on older iPhones that have been upgraded to iOS4. Apple is not recalling the phone or even offering free Bumpers as a matter of policy. Instead, they’re going to address this with a software fix.

Can’t fix the signal, so fix the bars

Wait a second. How can a software fix resolve a physical design issue? Because, as with everything in this story, things are more complex than they seem.

The iPhone 4 handles signal differently than other iPhones. Differently than other phones, as near as I can tell. Previously, iPhones tried to home in on the strongest signal from a tower they could find. The problem is that the tower they’re closest to–thereby providing the strongest signal–might also be the most crowded. Or there might be more electromagnetic interference in that area. So even though the signal is stronger, your call quality might actually be worse.

The iPhone 4 seeks out the "best" signal, not necessarily the strongest. It looks for clarity, lack of interference, low traffic on the tower. As a result, and keeping with digital calling’s binary nature, you "do" have a signal with the iPhone 4 more often than you "don’t" compared to older iPhones, even if the reported signal strength is a lower number.

Apple is going to change the way the bars are displayed so they follow AT&T’s guidelines on how many bars to report for a given signal strength. This seems to be another source for angry misunderstanding among the digerati, so pay attention.

Counterintuitively, this change is going to show fewer bars than you had before for any but really strong signals. Where you used to have four or five bars, you might now only see two. But, and this is important, those two bars are more "durable" and a more accurate indicator of what kind of signal you’ve actually had all along. You never really had the kind of signal strength you thought you did if you used to see five bars and now you see two after installing the patch. You always had "two bar" strength, you just didn’t know it. Everyone clear on that?

Let me sum up

So. Should you hold off on buying an iPhone 4 because of this issue? If you already have one, should you take it back? That depends. Are you dropping calls? Are you dropping more calls than you did with your previous phone, iPhone or not? If not, then I wouldn’t worry about it. As mentioned above, the iPhone 4’s antenna is actually better than the 3GS at holding on to a call at low signal strength, so for all practical purposes the numbers don’t matter.

Personally, my iPhone 4 performs at least as well as my iPhone 3G, and offers so many advantages besides, so I’d be a fool to take it back. Do I use a case? Sometimes. Sometimes not. I keep mine in a Griffin Elan Passport Wallet when I’m on the go along with my driver’s license and debit card. But I take it out frequently to sync, use around the house, for use as a GPS and when typing or watching video in the Griffin Travel Stand (no, I’m not sponsored by Griffin, but I wouldn’t turn them down; I like their products). In or out of a case, I don’t notice the “problem” much. It’s just not an issue. Put aside the hype and noise, and you might see the same.

Thoughts on the iPhone 4

After standing in line for a couple hours very early Thursday morning, I came home with a shiny new iPhone 4. The actual purchase and activation process itself took about five minutes and then I walked out of the mall with my shiny new phone and bumper case. Now that I’ve had some time to play with it, I’ve got a few observations.

Screen

The screen on this thing must be seen to be believed. I showed this to a friend Friday night and he thought the text looked pretty good, but when he got to the home screen and saw how clear the tiny, teensy icons inside folders were, his jaw literally dropped.

I’ve always been a typography snob, and this is the screen I’ve always wanted but never thought I’d see. It’s not just the pixel density (which according to an actual retinal scientist, actually does live up to the hype, even under a microscope), but what that pixel density does in a user interface that doesn’t necessarily assume everything is 72 dpi. Buttons, icons, widgets, everything is sharp and natural. Photos look better, too.

And oddly, I’ve seen apps that can sense when they’re on a retina display and react accordingly. On my 3G, iBooks won’t let me select a font smaller than 12 points or so. On my iPhone 4, iBooks has two more smaller font settings below what was the minimum on my 3G, because iBooks knows the device can handle it. It would have been worth the upgrade for this alone, but there’s more.

Moreover, a display this smooth challenges conventional wisdom about best practices for reading on a screen. For years, we’ve been told not to use fonts designed for print (Helvetica, Times New Roman) in favor of “web fonts” like Verdana and Georgia. On the iPhone 4, this is again reversed. The pixels are so dense, the curves so smooth, that the advantages of print-optimized fonts reassert and I find I much prefer Helvetica (which looks “cleaner” than Tahoma/Verdana) for most text and Times New Roman (which is denser, allowing more words per line, than Georgia) for iBooks.

Speed

The iPhone 4 is built on Apple’s A4, the same chip that powers the iPad. Speculation is that the iPhone 4’s A4 isn’t running at the full 1GHz that the iPad uses, probably closer to 800MHz. It benchmarks just about halfway between the 3GS and the iPad. But what this means is that it is most definitely faster than the 3GS. Compared to my old 3G, it’s a different experience entirely. Multitasking is quick and smooth (more on this later) and apps open just about instantly. I’ve yet to see any of the lag I was used to on my 3G when, say, tapping on the search bar in applications.

Build Quality

The iPhone 4 feels really solid in the hand. Given what we saw of the phone’s innards first from Gizmodo and then more fully in iFixIt’s teardown, this shouldn’t be a surprise. There’s not a cubic millimeter of empty space in this thing. The glass, which has been chemically treated to be as tough as sapphire, is clear and solid. The solid steel antenna band (more on this and the “iPhone Death Grip” later) is adds even more rigidity and all the buttons are firm and click with a decisive tactile feedback. And of course, the industrial design is stunning. This is the phone Jony Ives always wanted to build, I’m sure.

Battery Life

Part of the overall density of the phone is that the battery is so much bigger than on previous models, and you can tell. With my 3G, I carried a Kensington external battery pack with me everywhere I went, just in case. With the iPhone 4, I don’t. Even streaming Pandora in the background, it sips power and I can type for hours without dropping more than 10%.

Bluetooth Keyboard Support

Typing? Yes, typing. Like the 3GS when updated to iOS 4, the iPhone 4 fully supports Bluetooth keyboards like my iGo Stowaway. In fact, it does so better than than the Bluetooth keyboard driver I’d used under jailbreak. Once paired, all you have to do is start typing on the keyboard in any editable field, and the text starts to flow. Conversely, I had to re-pair my keyboard every time with the jailbreak driver. There is absolutely no lag no matter how fast I type, and most of the keyboard shortcuts you’re used to on Windows or the Mac work just fine. I can move the cursor with the arrow keys, select text with shift-arrow, and use Control-X/C/V to cut, copy and paste. This was the final nail in the coffin for my netbook. I now can do virtually anything I need to do on my iPhone when I’m out and about. For the few things I can’t do (notably, save documents from my critique group from Yahoo Groups to my Dropbox), I can use LogMeIn Ignition to remote into my desktop and take care of it that way, then go back to what I was doing.

Spellcheck

And of course, for you writers out there, iOS 4 now supports spellcheck system wide. You’ll see a red dotted line under words the system doesn’t recognize, and just tap them to correct.

Multitasking

There seems to be a lot of disinformation and fundamental misunderstanding out there about multitasking on the iPhone. Most of this seems to come from either jailbreak users who were used to the way Backgrounder worked or people that came to the iPhone from other multitasking platforms like Windows Embedded Handheld (formerly known as Windows Mobile), webOS and Android. So let’s set some things straight.

You do NOT have to “close” your “running” background apps. I see a ton of confusion on this. Seriously, you don’t. I know on other systems, even on the iPhone under Backgrounder you had to be really diligent about closing things when you were done with them, but that’s the beauty of the Apple multitasking implementation. Those apps you see when you double click the Home button aren’t really running. All that is, really, is a Most Recently Used list of shortcuts, the same as you have on your Windows Start menu. They are taking up no resources unless they have a good reason to be doing something in the background, and even then, they’re doing just that and no more, not taking up even as much memory as the whole application would when running in the foreground. I’m not sure how I can make this any clearer. Compulsively removing apps from the multitasking tray is a total and complete waste of time. Yes, you can kill apps by tapping and holding on them in the switching tray and tapping the red minus sign, but I only do that when I need to force quit an individual app, that is deliberately restart it from zero without saved state information. This is exceedingly rare.

Another multitasking complaint I hear a lot is that this only works if developers update their apps to support it. First, any app you run will show up in the recently used app list, whether it’s been updated or not. So it’s just as easy to switch to an old app as a new one, the only difference being what happens when you get there. Old apps will launch as though you just launched them fresh, new will pick up exactly where you left off. Also, you don’t have to launch them from the multitasking area to get this benefit. If you launch an app you’ve used recently from the homescreen, you’ll pick up where you left off the same way. Now what do developers have to do to support this magic new feature?

They have to recompile their app under the iOS 4 SDK. That’s it. They don’t have to change a single line of code. All they have to do is recompile, submit the “update” to the App Store and their app will support fast app switching. Doesn’t seem like much to ask, and it’s actually pretty much unavoidable if they update their app ever again for anything. So you’re going to see apps updated a lot sooner than later. Eventually, every app that isn’t just abandoned will be updated to support multitasking in some way or another.

I’ve seen some people claim that they feel like they have to remove “running” apps because they’re crowding out the apps they use frequently. I can only assume these people haven’t actually used said apps frequently, because that’s exactly how they’re sorted. The app to the far left is the last one you used. The one to the right of it is the next to last app you used, and so on. All you have to do if you want to bring an app back to the first screen of recently used apps is run it. So again, people accustomed to higher-maintenance systems are bringing old habits over and wasting time and energy (and getting frustrated) doing things they simply don’t have to do on the iPhone. “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” “So don’t do that.”

iPhone Death Grip

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the iPhone Death Grip. This may be a moot point by the time I post this article, as Apple is rumored to be fast-tracking iOS 4.01 to address this issue, but it was such a huge controversy at launch that even my mom knew about it, so again, let’s dispel some of the hoopla.

There is a problem with degrading signal quality if you meet a very specific set of requirements. In order to see this issue, you must:

  1. Have a sweaty hand or be in a high-humidity area
  2. Have a weak cellular signal
  3. Hold the phone in such a way as to bridge the gap between the Bluetooth/WiFi/GPS antenna (which runs up the left side of the phone through the volume and mute buttons) and the cellular network antenna (which wraps around the bottom and up the other side of the phone)

So, if you hold the phone left-handed in a moist palm where you have marginal signal, you can watch the signal strength bars drop down to virtually nothing. Oddly, in most cases this doesn’t seem to affect call quality and may be more a display bug than an actual signal problem, but it can happen. To some people. In specific situations. Sometimes.

When asked about this via email, Steve Jobs replied, “Don’t hold the phone that way.” Apple followed up with a more detailed public statement acknowledging the problem and suggesting people who experience this frequently might want to invest in Apple’s Bumper case, which covers the problem area with plastic and rubber and prevents the issue entirely. They’re also working on an update to iOS 4 to address the issue.

So, there’s a minor issue that the company has already committed to fixing and which can easily be worked around by using pretty much any case or merely holding the phone differently. Clearly, this was grounds for the world at large to go crazy. Coverage of this horrible design flaw even made local news across the country, to the point where my mom, not a techie by any means, asked me if I had the problem.

Personally, I don’t. And I’m left handed. But I live in Denver, where the air is thin and dry. So most of the time, all the criteria to see this problem aren’t met. I do have a Bumper, which I bought at the same time as the phone because I’d already seen, at 7am here in Denver, reports on the Twitter machine of the issue and wanted to be safe rather than sorry. While I almost never see the iPhone Death Grip issue when not using the Bumper, I’ve started using the Bumper more often anyway, mostly because it prevents the phone from sliding around on a table while I’m typing.

Conclusion

The iPhone 4 is the finest mobile computer I’ve ever owned. Coupled with my Bluetooth Stowaway, it’s everything I need in a mobile device and good enough to convince me to hold off to see if the next generation iPad has a retina display as well. Yes, there are a few things here and there I’d like to see tweaked (like how in many apps, the area where the on screen keyboard would be is just blank while using the Bluetooth keyboard rather than displaying more text), but overall this is everything I wanted. If you have an older iPhone, upgrade as soon as you can. You won’t regret it.

Torn between two ecosystems

Google impressed at last week’s I/O conference. They demoed Android 2.2, “Froyo”, which is already available for Google’s own Nexus One phone. (It’s coming “soon” for carrier-branded handsets like Verizon’s Droid Incredible and Sprint’s EVO.) They showed mSpot, a new service that does a lot of what LaLa.com did before Apple bought it and shut it down: allow people to upload their entire music libraries and then stream them to any Mac, Windows PC or Android handset. The bar, it is raised.

In particular, Froyo is over twice as fast as the previous version of Android (2.1, or “Eclair”), the webkit-based browser—basically Chrome-lite—is faster still, and it supports a fully functional implementation of Adobe’s Flash 10.1, meaning it can display all those web pages where Safari on the iPhone and iPad just show you that silly little blue Lego. Add to that the nearly standard specs for this generation of Android phones—480×800 AMOLED screens, removable batteries, 5MP or better cameras, with flashes, microSD card expansion—and the still expanding Android Marketplace—where you can find office suites like QuickOffice and Documents To Go, EPUB ebook readers, Skype, and well, a functional equivalent to just about anything in the iTunes App Store—and we got ourselves a ball game!

A lot of people compare the iPhone to a phone like the HTC Incredible and just look at the hardware. But the game is really much bigger than that. You’re not buying a phone. You’re buying into an ecosystem. It’s like marrying into a family, and bears just as much forethought and caution. You’re not just looking at an Android-based smartphone. To get the most out of it, you’re going to want to couple it with all the other parts of the Google ecosystem. Gmail for your email and contacts. Google Calendar for your scheduling. Amazon and MSpot for your media. Google bookmarks. Google Chrome as your desktop browser. Google Reader for your RSS feds. I won’t suggest your switch from Twitter to Google Buzz for social networking, but it’s there.

Right now I’m about halfway submerged in the shiny, multicolor Google lifestyle. I do use Gmail, Calendar, Reader. I’ve used Chrome as my default browser. I’ve kept my documents in Google Docs. It wouldn’t be hard at all for me to walk into a Verizon store, plop down a couple of Benjamins—and pay AT&T their Early Termination Fee, since I’ve only been with them just over a year—and walk out with an Incredible. (I’d have to wait to play with it until I got it home, though, since AMOLED screens are nearly useless in sunlight. Hell, even vampires do better these days.) The Android, it calls. Plus, just look at this list of five reasons to be afraid of Apple. Why wouldn’t I want to go all in with a company whose motto is “don’t be evil”?

But Apple. Ah, Apple. There’s a reason the apple features as the symbol of temptation in everything from Genesis to Snow White. Mister Jobs knows him some pretty when he sees it. iPhone owners have a more emotional, visceral connection to their phones than even other smartphone owners. My iPhone 3G is damn near grafted to me, and the iPhone HD due out just two weeks is even more gorgeous.

Where Google preaches open and flexible, do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, Apple tells us not to worry our pretty little heads, they’ll make everything all right. As long as you agree with His Steveness—and why wouldn’t you, he has impeccable taste—you’ll get everything you need.

And Apple, if they do as expected, is set to bring the ecosystem to play too. We—yes, that is a mouse in my pocket—expect Apple to announce more than just the new pretty iPhone HD at WWDC on June 7th. We expect them to announce that email, calendar and contacts syncing components of MobileMe will be free to any iPhone user. We expect them to announced iTunes 10 with the new “iTunes Live” feature to allow syncing your whole iTunes library to Apple’s new ginormous datacenter in North Carolina, from whence you can stream it all to your iPhone HD (and maybe 3GS, but probably not the older, RAM-challenged original iPhone and 3G). Basically, we expect them to at the very least match Google feature for feature. And maybe up the ante with Steve’s “one more thing.”

And it would just as easy for me to fall into the welcoming sleekness of the Apple ecosystem. I already buy my music and movies from iTunes, so why not my books as well? iBooks will be built into iPhone OS4. I could move my calendar, contacts and email into MobileMe. My email address, jeff@kirv.in, already redirects to Gmail, so I’d just have the redirect point to MobileMe instead. Same with iTunes Live. My media collection is in iTunes already, so this is a no-brainer. And from there, I could switch to Safari as my desktop browser so I can sync my bookmarks, and eventually just buy a shiny 27” iMac as my new media center. And hey, at least Apple is the devil I know. Look at this list of five reasons to be afraid of Google.

But wait a minute. I’m supposed to be a Buddhist, also known as “the middle way.” I’m bipolar. I’m a Gemini. I’m a gorram registered Independent. Why can’t I have both?

This is, after all, the true strength of the cloud. And the cloud is bigger than Google. It’s bigger than Apple. I can keep my bookmarks in Xmarks. I can buy my books from Google Editions, which will sell ebooks sans DRM so they can be read anywhere, on anything. I’ll keep buying media from iTunes, because Apple’s just made it so darn easy, and at least the music is DRM-free. I use Firefox as my desktop browser, Thunderbird and Lightning for email and scheduling. Seesmic for social networking, Evernote for random data, Instapaper for saved articles, Dropbox for my files and manuscripts, Bing as my default search engine. And of course, a jailbroken iPhone that has all the features of OS4 on OS 3.13, synced to Google for contacts, email and calendar.

This might not work forever. As the rivalry between Google and Apple heats up, they might not interoperate—a fancy word for “play nice”—as well as they do today. I might be forced into MobileMe if I want to keep push synchronization on my iPhone HD. But for as long as I can, I’m going to avoid going “all in” with any one company. Because really, I’m afraid of them all.

What to expect from the next iPhone

What we’ll see in this year’s iPhone, why we won’t seen an iPhone on Verizon until next year, and when to expect all the new Apple hotness.

We’ve got three weeks to go until Apple’s 2010 Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). Starting June 7, we expect Apple to shift into a higher gear and… Well, that’s just the thing. There’s a lot of confusion out there about, what, exactly, we’re going to see. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t have seekrit sources deep inside Apple (seeds, if you will). But I do have the Chewbacca Defense:

More importantly, I have the inverse of the Chewbacca Defense, Occam’s Razor. In short, given a number of possible explanations, the simplest is probably true. And Apple isn’t as secretive as they think. They can’t hide their own past. We can divine a lot from what they’ve already done, extrapolate future behavior based on previous trends. So here’s what I’m sure we’re going to see, and when. Steve and company might surprise me, but I doubt it.

First, the main event. In his opening keynote on June 7th, Steve is going to announce the next iPhone, the iPhone HD. It will feature a 2VGA, 640×960 screen, come in 16, 32 and 64GB capacities, sport the same A4 CPU as the iPad, run iPhone OS 4, have 256MB of RAM and look identical to the production test model Gizmodo “acquired.” It will most likely be available two weeks later, on June 21 or 22.

How do I know this? Because it’s simply the overwhelmingly most likely scenario. Look at the facts.

  • Apple has announced and released their new flagship iPhone in June every year, at WWDC.
  • They’ve stuck to an annual update/release schedule for their other products, particularly in the iPhone, iPod (and presumably iPad) family.
  • The Gizmodo test unit is obviously real, and John Gruber pointed out than the markings on the back identified it as a late-stage production test, unlikely to change much, if at all, before full production.
  • The iPad comes in 16, 32 and 64MB capacities, and the Vietnamese teardown of a test model nearly identical to the Gizmodo unit revealed an A4 and 256MB of RAM.
  • The iPad has 256MB of RAM, and was almost certainly designed with OS4 in mind.

I suspect it will be called the iPhone HD because of the 4x resolution screen. We’ve seen multiple sources revealing the pixel doubled 640×960 resolution, the Gizmodo unit was obviously of a much higher resolution than current iPhones. No, the screen isn’t 720 pixels tall in landscape, but I’m willing to bet it will be capable of 720p HD video out. The screen will be extended viewing angle LCD, the same as the iPad, as this is more likely than Apple switching display technology to AMOLED.

Why will the iPhone HD have only 256MB of RAM? Because Apple clearly believes this is sufficient for the managed, limited multitasking in OS4, or they would have put 512MB in the iPad. And in practice, I have every confidence 256MB will be “enough for anyone.” Why? Because that’s what’s in the 3GS, and Backgrounder/Proswitcher work pretty well on the 3GS. And Backgrounder uses “real,” Android/WinMob-style multitasking. Apple’s PalmOS Cobalt-style multitasking is far more resource-friendly, and I expect it to multitask as smoothly on 256MB as Android does on 512MB. And all things being equal, less RAM is cheaper to produce, meaning more profit per phone. Apple likes profit.

I’ve heard rumors that the iPhone HD will be available June 7, but I don’t buy it. Apple wouldn’t rush a delivery date, no matter what kind of press difficulties they’ve had, and OS4, at the time of this writing, simply isn’t ready to burn onto production devices and have them in stores in three weeks. It’s far more likely that they’ll announce on the 7th and release two weeks later, as they’ve done with other devices. I’m betting the iPhone HD will go on sale on the 22nd, as Apple seems to like Tuesday launches. OS4 itself might be available for previous iPhones on the 7th, if it’s ready.

I don’t think Steve’s keynote will be all about hardware, though. In conjunction with the release of OS4, I expect Apple to release iTunes 10, with some important new features. The biggest new feature will be the incorporation of LaLa’s technology into iTunes Live, the ability to stream your entire iTunes collection to your iPhone from Apple’s shiny new datacenter in North Carolina. And because they’ve got all that server capacity lying around, they’ll also throw in the basics of MobileMe–email, contacts and calendar sync, maybe iDrive for people who aren’t already using Dropbox–for free.

Why do I expect this? Again, it fits the profile of past behavior. Apple knows they need to step up their cloud efforts if they’re going to compete effectively with Google, and yes, Microsoft. A little over a year ago, I wrote about computing ecosystems, and that is crystallizing more than ever. Apple wants to keep its users locked into its ecosystem, and that means they need to provide the same services as their competition. Google and Microsoft both offer email, calendaring and contacts management for free. Apple can’t afford to keep charging for the same. They’ve made these kinds of competitive moves before. The most recent was the introduction of the iBookstore, a direct response to Amazon’s Kindle business. Jobs and company aren’t stupid. They know they need to deliver. That said, I expect them to hold off some of the features currently in MobileMe–Back To My Mac, Find My iPhone, etc.–for paying subscribers. After all, this is Apple.

This fall, as usual, Apple will update their iPod line. Rolled into this will be the OS4 update for the iPad. Why? Because they’re also going to be updating the iPod touch to OS4, and the iPad is more similar to the iPod touch than it is to the iPhone. Makes sense that these would be related development tracks. Rumors surfaced that the iPad might be due for a price drop similar to the original iPhone. I don’t buy this. I could see it if the iPad were a slow starter, a way to prime the market. But right now Apple is still having trouble making enough of them to meet demand. There’s absolutely no reason to drop the price. Shipping it with OS4 this fall will be all the extra shiny they need for an update.

Okay, you say, but what about the elephant in the room? The big red elephant, with the V on it? As we’ve recently discovered, Apple’s exclusivity agreement with AT&T was initially for an unheard of five years. That doesn’t end until 2012. Don’t wait for the end of the world though, because we’ll see a Verizon iPhone next summer. Why then? Why not now? Because now doesn’t make sense. Verizon’s CDMA network is completely different from the GSM networks every iPhone currently uses, both in the United States and abroad. Apple is still making so much money from AT&T’s iPhones that it’s simply not worth it financially for them to design, build, test and support a different model on a completely different cellular protocol.

So why does this change next year? Because by next summer, when the 2011 model iPhone is due to be announced, Verizon will have completed their rollout of their 4G network, based on the LTE protocol. And who else is using LTE? AT&T, T-Mobile and pretty much the rest of the world other than Sprint. So next summer, when the time is right, Apple will announce the iPhone 4G–see why they didn’t use that moniker this year?–available on AT&T, Verizon and other LTE networks worldwide.

So what do you think? Does the glove fit?

Apple is the new Palm

When Jon Rubenstein and his band of Apple cast-offs unveiled webOS and the Palm Pre, they were hailed as the next Apple. So it’s only fitting that the Apple of 2010 is taking it’s cues from the Palm of old.

Remember back in the day, when Palm’s market capitalization was bigger than GM’s? While I think we can all agree that Palm was never really that big, they were the driving force of mobile tech in their day. And they did that because they were masters of efficiency, squeezing the best user experience out of the hardware available at the time. Over time, through countless management and ownership changes, Palm lost sight of this core competency.

To a lot of people in the tech world, Apple’s not exactly the first company that comes to mind when someone says “pro-consumer.” I’d argue that while Apple is heavy handed in their app store policies, et cetera, it’s all with the best interests of the consumer in mind; they’re trying to make the user experience as good as it can possibly be. And in so doing, they’ve taken a few pages directly out of Palm’s playbook.

For three generations, the iPhone and iPod touch screens have been the same half VGA 320×480 as the Palm and Sony Clie devices of years ago. Now Apple’s competition is rolling out higher resolutions screens, and Apple has to answer. Consumers can see the difference between the iPhone’s 320×480 and the HTC devices with 480×800 screens. But the iPhone OS isn’t resolution independent (as, ironically, Palm’s new webOS is), so how does Apple roll out higher definition screens without breaking the hundreds of thousands of apps people already use?

Palm had a similar problem in the early 2000s. They’d pushed their 160×160 resolution screens as far as they could, even adding color. But Microsoft’s Pocket PCs had 240×320 quarter VGA screens that just looked better. So Palm doubled their resolution along both axis—effectively quadrupling the resolution—to 320×320. New applications could make full use of the additional pixels, but older apps were automatically scaled up, or pixel-doubled, by painting a 2×2 square of small pixels for every pixel of a 160×160 screen. Older apps worked just fine, and new apps looked even better than QVGA apps on Pocket PCs. (Eventually Palm added another 160 vertical pixels to replace the old silkscreened Graffiti text input zone that could be used for display when text entry wasn’t needed, bringing us to the same 320×480 that all iPhones use today.)

So how is Apple addressing the resolution problem? As seen on the new iPad, they’re using the same solution Palm did. Apps written aware of the iPad’s larger XGA (1024×768) screen take full advantage of the new resolution. Older iPhone apps can run either at native 320×480 in a small window, or pixel doubled up to 640×960, taking up most of the iPad’s screen. When Apple releases the iPhone HD this summer, it will ship with 640×960 screen nearly the same physical size as the current HVGA screen and automatically pixel double older apps to take up the full screen. Because the screen sizes will be nearly the same—actually, it looks like the iPhone HD screen is a tad smaller than the iPhone 3GS’s—these older apps will look exactly the same as they do on older iPhones. But updated apps designed to take advantage of the extra pixels will look amazing, better than anything on Android devices because of the iPhone HD’s superior pixel density. Thanks for the idea, Palm!

Let me give you another example. At the recent iPhone OS 4 sneak preview event, Apple unveiled how they would address what had been considered the key flaw in their mobile OS: multitasking. Instead of running an arbitrary number of full apps in the background, chewing up memory and processor cycles that the foreground app—the app the user is actually choosing to pay attention to at the moment—the way webOS and Android do, Apple decided to go a different way. Instead, they will continue to default to running only the current active application at any given time, and allow developers to opt in to using specific APIs allowing background threads when they’re actually going to do something useful. You can keep streaming music from Pandora in the background, but the bulk of the Pandora app quits when you’re not actually looking at it. You can be notified of an incoming Skype call without having to leave Skype running. The user gets the benefits of multitasking, but not the resource bloat downside.

When Apple announced this, it seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t place why. Then a friend of mine pointed out that it was familiar because this is exactly the multitasking implementation that was to be in Palm OS 6, known as Cobalt to Palm OS 5’s Garnet. Cobalt never appeared in a shipping device, but that was more due to the byzantine politics and rights issues behind Palm and its spin-off PalmSource in the mid-2000s. Architecturally, Cobalt was sound, and its method of multitasking would have been far more efficient and snappy than the alternative in Windows Mobile. By extension, Apple’s multitasking in iPhone OS 4 should be far more efficient and provide a faster, more consistent user experience—and without the need for gigahertz processors and 512MB-1GB of RAM found in Android devices—than found in Android and webOS phones today. Keep in mind the Palm Pre was considered a poor multitasker with 256MB until the updated Palm Pre Plus with 512MB, while the iPad, designed with iPhone OS 4 in mind, only has 256MB, as does the iPhone 3GS. iPhone multitasking will be disabled on the 128MB original iPhone and 3G, so obviously Apple has determined that 256MB will multitask just fine.

Good ideas are good ideas, and Apple has picked up the baton from Palm as the user experience champion in mobile.

It’s the apps, stupid

Why did Apple finally approve Opera Mini for the iPhone? Because on smartphones, browsers don’t matter.

One of the most important messages to come out of last week’s iPhone 4 sneak preview event at Apple has kind of fallen off the radar. In the iAd part of the presentation, Jobs said, “Search has not happened on a mobile device like on the desktop. People spend all their time in apps; they go into Yelp and don’t do general searches. This is where the opportunity is—within apps, not search.”

This is a major departure from the message coming from Apple in the early days of the iPhone. In 2007, it was all about Mobile Safari, searching and web apps. Three years later, the platform has matured and a different use case has emerged. Most iPhone users don’t use Safari all that much. Even when they search, they do it in discrete apps rather than in Safari. When I want to find out who some guest star is in one of my favorite TV shows, I don’t open Safari or even the Google or Bing apps on my iPhone. I open the IMDB app and look it up from there. It’s faster, more targeted and an experience designed for the iPhone screen size.

Jobs gets this, and Apple’s new ad platform is designed to exploit that. Google figured out a decade ago that people are much more receptive to ads if they’re targeted to them and their specific interests. With iAd, Apple has removed a lot of the guesswork even further. If you’re using an app, you’re probably going to be most receptive to ads with the same focus as the app you’re using. This gives Apple even more reliable targeting than Google’s use of keywords.

But there’s another side to this as well, one that I think is interesting in an of itself. Google’s ads live, for the most part, in browsers, because that’s how most people interact with the internet on “big” computers. As a matter of fact, I’m typing this post on a netbook (though I started it in the WordPress app on my iPhone) and the only application I’m running is Firefox. In various tabs, though, I have Gmail, Google Docs, Pandora, Sobees for Twitter/Facebook and Meebo for IM.

But on my iPhone, I can go months without even opening Safari. It just doesn’t factor into my workflow, even though I use all the same web-based services on my iPhone that I use on my netbook and my desktop. The difference is that on my iPhone I have discreet app for each service. I have a Meebo app for IM that sends me push notifications when I have a new message. I use Reeder to keep up on my RSS feeds in Google Reader. I use Tweetie (soon to be just Twitter for iPhone) for Twitter. When I find an article I want to read later in either, I send it over to Instapaper, and read them in the Instapaper app. I use QuickOffice Connect to edit Google Docs directly, the iPhone’s Calendar app for my Google Calendar, Action Lists to give my Toodledo to-do list a GTD workflow.

So when Apple approved Opera Mini for the iPhone last week, I wasn’t surprised at all. Apple has demonstrated that they understand very well that browsers don’t matter on smartphones. Opera Mini is just another app, no more useful to the average iPhone owner than Safari, which is to say not very useful at all. It’s likely to be ignored most of the time, because that’s what happens to smartphone browsers. Smartphones are different than “computers” as we traditionally think of them, and while both platforms need access to the internet, how they do it varies greatly. The size of the screen makes a qualitative, not quantitative, difference in how the device is used and how it accesses information.

And if you think that last sentence means that devices like the Apple iPad and Microsoft Courier are something altogether different from both smartphones and full computers, well, that’s a post for another time.