Apple last week finally released the update to its iOS software for mobile devices like the iPhone and the iPad. And while the big changes -- AirPlay, AirPrint and iPad-focused tweaks -- got a lot of attention, there are a slew of smaller changes and improvements that users will appreciate in iOS 4.2.
Here's a look at a few of those that might have gotten lost in the shuffle.
The mobile version of Apple's WebKit-based Safari browser is included on all of the company's mobile devices. Currently, more than 100 million users surf the Web with a WebKit browser -- in addition to Apple, Google, Nokia and RIM also use WebKit -- and Apple is using the browser foundation's popularity to influence future Web technologies. Specifically, it's pushing the adoption of open standards such as HTML 5 and h.264, hoping to diminish the role of Adobe's Flash.
The new version of iOS 4 includes enhancements to Safari that set the stage for new ways for mobile devices to interact with the Web. For example, accelerometer-based actions -- such as the ability to control or manipulate objects by tilting your iPhone or iPad -- have been available to developers of mobile apps for a couple of years now. But with the latest update, these abilities are now being rolled out to the mobile Web. Using the new DeviceOrientation API, programmers such as Maximiliano Firtman have created proof-of-concept demos that allow interactive Web content -- in this case, a demo of a ball being rolled around and controlled by tilting the device. This action relies on data from device accelerometer or gyroscope sensors to add another layer of interaction with Web apps and sites, without relying on plug-ins.
It's clear that the updates to Safari in iOS 4.2 -- in concert with WebSockets, HTML 5 forms, AJAX 2 and support for AirPrint -- mean Apple fully intends to embrace the open Web on mobile browsers, even if that means the ultimate demise of Flash.
Apple has long prided itself on making devices that are easy to use, whether you're a 2-year-old, a great-grandparent or a person living with disabilities. Now in iOS 4.2 it's offering a couple of features designed to make using iPads and iPhones better for people with vision problems.
The first feature is called Large Text; it can be found in Settings/General/Accessibility. This option does exactly what it says: It makes text larger in apps such as Notes, Mail and other supported programs. You can select text sizes ranging from 20 point to 56 point, which means you don't have to use the Zoom accessibility feature when trying to read text within those apps. The advantage of Large Text over Zoom is obvious: The Zoom option increases the size of everything on the screen, which can make reading annoying, since you have to constantly scroll side-to-side to see complete sentences.
Using Large Text instead means that any scrolling is mostly just up and down, which is more convenient and natural, since scrolling vertically is more common than scrolling horizontally.
Web Rotor is a feature few people will use. But those who need it will find it incredibly helpful. Web Rotor, found under Settings/General/Accessibility/VoiceOver, is an enhancement to Apple's VoiceOver function. VoiceOver allows visually impaired people to use the iPad by changing the way some gestures and taps behave, and by effectively narrating the interaction. With VoiceOver turned on, single taps select, double taps open, and three fingers swipe through different pages. For instance, the contents under your finger -- such as the names of applications -- are read aloud as they're selected when you slide your finger across the screen. When you find the app you want to open, you can double-tap anywhere on the screen and the item last read aloud will be opened. With apps such as Safari, content and bookmarks can be read aloud as well, with double-taps again activating selected items.
Web Rotor offers some instant fine-tuning options to Web browsing, text entry and some settings, such as the speed at which the VoiceOver voice speaks. With Web Rotor turned on, you can press two fingers on the iPad or iPhone screen and then rotate as if you were manipulating a dial. This action causes the device to bring up an on-screen graphic, reading aloud context-sensitive options depending on which app Web Rotor was opened in.
For example, when Web Rotor is activated within Safari, it allows easy navigation to Links, Form Controls, Tables, Characters, Words, Lines and Headings, and with each virtual turn of the dial, a voice reads aloud the available choices. For the visually impaired, this allows fast Web navigation because users can jump to specific sections of sites simply by swiping. For instance, by selecting the Web Rotor "Links" option, users can swipe up and down to navigate links on a site, quickly jumping from link to link, with each one being spoken aloud.
Selecting Lines allows you to have only selected lines of text read to you, and the swipe up and down gestures cause the iPad to read previous and next lines in paragraphs, respectively. The Form Controls option allows a user to skip from one form to another, which is easier than trying to "feel" for the next text entry point.
It's a fascinating feature to use -- I tried navigating with my eyes closed for quite a bit -- and while it takes some getting used to, VoiceOver really does add a level of accessibility to the iPad. As for Web Rotor, it certainly helps with navigation, but it's not always perfect. The Web Rotor option for Headings didn't always find the proper headings, depending on how a site was formatted. Still, swiping between options is often better than guessing.
AirPrint is a slightly controversial addition in iOs 4.2, mostly because of its still-limited implementation. Driverless printing is a fantastic concept, given that some printer drivers are hundreds of megabytes large -- and thus impractical for use on mobile devices with storage constraints.
But for now, AirPrint comes at a price -- only these printers work directly with iOS 4.2 right now:
* HP Photosmart Premium Fax e-All-in-One Printer - C410
* HP Photosmart Premium e-All-in-One Printer series - C310
* HP Photosmart Plus e-All-in-One Printer series - B210
* HP Envy 100 e-All-in-One Printer Series - D410
* HP Photosmart eStation Printer series - C510
* Epson Artisan 835 all-in-one.
Apple initially touted AirPrint as device-specific, meaning it would work with printers that had the technology baked in. But Apple also said that we'd be able to print to shared printers hosted on our Macs or PCs. That feature didn't make it into the final version of iOS 4.2, although that hasn't stopped enterprising developers from creating unofficial work-arounds.
Netputing has a free app that adds printer sharing from your Mac; I've tested the software, and it works as advertised. Printing photos and e-mails was quick and painless; my phone even alerted me that I was low on toner. Setup was a breeze: After installing the software, I flipped the AirPrint Hacktivator to On, deleted and then added my printer again through the System Preference Print & Fax panel, and then clicked the setting called "Share this printer on the network." That's it. All iPhones and household iPads were able to see and print to my Epson Artison 810 without error.
There's a $9.99 application for Macs that's a little more comprehensive and feature-rich: Printopia, which does something similar. Printopia works in Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6 and even on older PowerPC Macs. It offers DropBox integration, and unlike Netputing's solution, it doesn't modify your operating system. There's a demo version online that allows you to try before you buy.
Windows users can download a program that allows AirPrinting to shared printers too, but I haven't tested this system, so use it at your own risk.
Having to rely on third parties is not the same as having shared printing built into the OS, but until Apple offers its own solution it's a workable option.
And some business enhancements
There are many additions in iOS 4.2 that business users will find useful. For instance, the new operating system now allows you to set up multiple Exchange accounts, which should at least please IT support staffers who have to troubleshoot Exchange accounts. This is a long-overdue feature. Also with Exchange, you can finally reply to event invitations directly from within the calendar app. And the built-in ActiveSync includes Exchange Server 2010 and SSL VPN support, so communication between machines is as secure as possible.
With the release of 4.2, Apple has made Find My iPhone a free service for the iPhone 4, iPad and iPod touch. Find My iPhone uses the built-in GPS and 3G/wireless connections to locate and report back exactly where your iPhone or iPad is located. If you have a MobileMe account, you enable Find My iPhone in the MobileMe preferences. If you don't have a MobileMe account, you can get the free Find my iPhone application from Apple's App Store. With either one, you can pinpoint the location of your iOS device on a map, as well as lock the screen with password protection and send audio alerts or text notifications to the device.
I know quite a few businesses that were purchasing MobileMe account subscriptions just for that feature alone; now that Apple has made this a free service, it's something everyone should use, whether it's a business requirement or not. All that's required is a free Apple ID, which you already have if you're an iTunes user.
Three years ago, I spoke to a high-level corporate executive about the then-new iPhone. "Last night was the first time in literally years that I went home and didn't even touch my laptop," he told me. "For the first time ever, I was able to get my work done using only my phone." He was talking about the first-generation iPhone and the huge leap in productivity it represented. That was when BlackBerry devices were still dominant in the business world and Android didn't even commercially exist. Much has changed over the past few years, but the one consistency in iOS updates is the level of polish Apple has delivered with a steady of improvements large and small.
The big changes get the headlines, but it's the incremental improvements and niche features baked into iOS 4.2 that help lay the foundation for the future.
[Michael deAgonia is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter.]