I was at a Best Buy today replacing a failed Bluetooth headset, and I noticed iPads on display. On display – but not for sale. After selling 300,000 iPads on launch day, and 450,000 iPads through the iPhone OS 4.0 announcement, Apple hasn't yet caught up with Best Buy's demand. It hasn't yet been a week.
In that not-quite-a-week, Apple reported selling 600,000 iBooks (what Apple is apparently calling the books sold through its e-bookstore) and transmitted 3.5 million applications. Even if those apps are free apps, Apple is happy: the iPhone OS 4.0 offers an advertising API so developers can have Apple supply what the developers want, which is ad content and payment. Apple will deliver all the ads in HTML5. Apple will take 40% of that revenue for sourcing the ads and transmitting them to the freeware users. (Presumably, paid versions will offer ad-free use; if the ad platform is a success, however, "free" apps supported by ads may make good enough revenue for developers that they thrive in the enormous and growing community of iPhone OS users.) There are currently 185,000 apps in the App Store. 3,500 are iPad-specific apps. Apple's ad platform will not take users out of the app, just expose them to the ad and allow them to interact with the ad – if need be, it seems, to play a game, learn about a close-by restaurant, or buy another app.
What prayer has a potential competitor to approach Apple's mobile platform anytime soon?
Looking at mobile browser use for an indication of users' actual demand from mobile devices do do something besides make phone calls, one finds Apple's mobile platforms accounting for 64% of the entire mobile browser use. This means that all competitors combined barely crack half Apple's share. Looking back at Apple's ad-supported app revenue, one quickly realizes that Apple sells the platform with the eyeballs. As a developer, Apple provides the platform with the user demand.
Example? Pandora adds 30,000 users a day on iPhone. Per day. One platform.
What will iPhone OS 4.0 offer?
Other than a new ad system likely to change the way developers finance "free" applications, there are several features Apple addressed in the announcement.
For developers, new APIs are offered: an acceleration API for accessing hardware-accelerated math functions (useful all the time), and a set of services applications can access while they are in the background (useful when you want output from an application in the background). This means for users that applications written for iPhone OS 4.0 will be able to offer services – like positioning data, or music (or other audio like turn-by-turn directions), or ongoing two-way voice communication, or push notifications, or a message when some task has been completed – while the application is in the background. This, for users' purpose, is multitasking.
For Apple's purpose, it's the ability to offer what people want without entire applications – including their user interfaces, for example, which cannot be accessed while in the background – hogging system resources on a constrained system with only 256MB RAM and a single general-purpose processor core. In other words, the reason Apple didn't launch iPhone 2.0 (the first iPhone OS with third-party application support) with multiple simultaneous applications (the reason being fear of lazy developers running whole apps, including their graphics, in the background) has been solved in "allowing multitasking" on the iPhone.
Applications that want to access system resources while suspended to the background can do it through the new services APIs, and applications that don't need resources while in the background won't ask for them and won't get them. The apparently new paradigm of suspending applications while in the background will enable applications to maintain their exact state between users' access, which is both a win from the standpoint that opening the Address Book will potentially give me the open contact, scrolled to the part of the note with the stuff I was reading, rather than giving me part of the contact list (as it does now). This is good. It will also make users feel that applications they access after switching apps were still running and make them feel the whole thing is running like on a multitasking desktop – because from the user's observation, there will be no difference.
Users will get progress indicators for background uploads of photos and all kinds of useful stuff Apple will support in the services API.
Apple will also support blueooth keyboards, geotagging, system-wide spell-checking, and organizing apps into folders (e.g., a games folder, a folder for apps related to photos, etc.; useful if you need more than the 180 apps you could fit in Apple's old scheme, or just want to be able to find the apps faster).
Since iPhone OS has over fifty thousand games, Apple has also integrated into iPhone OS 4.0 an API with which developers can plug their users into a social gaming network – to access information about what games people are playing/recommending, who has the high score, and so on. This social network aspect of the new API could become very interesting to see develop as a way to multiply the value of users by causing them to reinforce successful applications with recommendations, sales, and competition (that will cause more app use, that may drive more ad revenue for Apple and for developers ... I imagine a racing application in which you pass billboards advertising things game users might want to buy, and each time the developer gets a fraction of a cent from the brief impresion ....). Very interesting.
The synopsis of the iPhone OS 4.0 presentation: "So let's review. Multitasking, folders, enhanced mail, iBooks, enterprise, Game Kit, and iAd. And these are just seven of the 100 new user features. Now we are releasing a dev preview today."
iPhone OS will run on all the currently-shipping platforms, and on iPod Touch 2nd gen and the iPhone 3G. To get all the iPhone OS 4.0 features, one needs a phone that's a year old or younger: iPhone 3GS or iPod Touch 3rd gen. The platform launches for the iPhone this summer, and for the iPad this fall.
The iPhone OS v.4.0 will not support Flash or Java. (Apparently, even through cross-compilers, though there's some speculation the ban is based on their impact on multitasking rather than being a result of pure philosophical opposition.)
The Future ...
iPhone has gone from "not a business tool" to being deployed in 80% of the Fortune 500. Most of the professionals I know now seem to be toting iPhones. Apple's iPad has been embraced by one New York hospital reported to me, which is configuring users' Citrix apps to join its LAN remotely and enter prescriptions for patients without having to get to a fax machine. It'll be psychiatry from the couch, on an iPad, while your explicit app runs in the background. Longtime computer-industry geeks are using Apple products as their main portable computers, and Apple's platform puts it in a position to flexibly build machines out of any parts it thinks will give it the best bang for the buck, thus solidifying its competitive position by allowing it to pick the best parts for whatever application Apple chooses to target.
Apple owns the catbird seat.