Apple iOS 4 review

With three years of major iPhone software versions under its belt, Apple’s strategy for releasing updates has fallen into a recognisable pattern. So far, every release has been anchored by a tentpole feature that many will argue should have been there from the beginning. In iPhone OS 2.0, that was support for third-party apps; in iPhone OS 3.0, it was cut, copy, and paste; now, in the re-branded iOS 4, it’s multitasking.

Make no mistake, multitasking is the lynchpin of iOS 4; for better or worse, the rest is just window dressing - though welcome window dressing, to be sure.

He tasks me, and I shall have him!

As pedants will no doubt note, the iPhone’s multitasking is actually multitasking with an asterisk. In the company’s preview of the new operating system back in April, it laid out seven specific types of tasks that could run in the background. The combination of these tasks presents a convincing simulacrum of the kind of multitasking you’ll find on a desktop computer, but there are holes in the functionality. For example, Instapaper developer Marco Arment pointed to one of the major gaps not addressed by iOS 4—the ability for applications to grab new data from the network while they’re in the background. So if you’re hoping that iOS 4 means that your RSS reader or Twitter client will be able to download new content while in the background and present it to you when you switch to the app, you’re going to be disappointed. (Arment’s post also presents a potential solution to this problem which I would be surprised if Apple didn’t implement at some point).

Apple iOS 4

For many users, though, the iOS 4’s implementation of multitasking will be good enough. And because Apple’s built the background capabilities into the OS, rather than leaving it up to individual developers, the company’s take on multitasking lets users do multiple things at the same time without chewing through their phones’ battery life. In my admittedly informal tests, multitasking in iOS 4 didn’t seem to drain my iPhone 3GS’s battery any faster than the previous version of the operating system, and I certainly wasn’t holding back on the multitasking.

Multitasking represents the biggest fundamental change to iOS at least since last year’s introduction of cut, copy, and paste—possibly in the history of Apple’s mobile devices. As with those text manipulation features, we’ve grown so accustomed to working without multitasking that it’s likely going to take an adjustment for most users to override that instinctive muscle memory that requires jumping back to the Home screen whenever switching applications.

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