Apple is readying significant enhancements to the software in its iPhone handset for later this year. The company takes cues from both the business and consumer worlds, finally letting third-party developers in on the action to bring games, utilities, and other apps to the phone.
These impending changes promise to radically transform the daily experience for iPhone users. Based on what we've seen of Apple's Microsoft Exchange integration and our first-hand look at the new development kit, here's what you can expect to see when the upgrade becomes available in June.
Down to Business
Within a few minutes after the initial wave of iPhone hysteria ran its course, business users began debating whether the iPhone was really ready to take on the corporate enterprise. The general consensus: it wasn't, owing to incomplete networking and security tools, and an inability to support the nearly ubiquitous Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync protocol that keeps handsets connected to the central server. But the phone's widespread appeal kept interest alive in the business world, and Apple has responded by building Exchange ActiveSync directly into the phone, and revamping the iPhone's native e-mail and calendar apps. In addition, the company has added Cisco IPsec VPN support.
What does all this mean to you? If you're an IT professional, it could mean a lot. (At present, IT types are ambivalent about whether to trust the iPhone on their networks.) But even if you're not a network admin, or your company doesn't want to support iPhones, the update could still make your iPhone more functional at work: It makes it easy to configure your own corporate e-mail.
Apple recently demonstrated the phone's upcoming Exchange ActiveSync features, and even in its beta form the software looks simple enough for moderately savvy end users to set up without necessarily needing to call up their company's IT department. Like existing iPhones, the updated devices will display a selection of e-mail services to choose from. If a user selects Microsoft Exchange from that list--as opposed to, say, Gmail or Yahoo--the interface will present a standard Exchange settings menu.
From there, all you'd have to do is copy your login info and settings from your desktop or laptop's Outlook preferences and you'd be ready to receive push e-mail from the server, schedule and accept meetings, and browse the company's shared contact list as you would from the computer at your desk.
The basic Exchange features will be accessible to pretty much anybody with access to an Exchange server. However, some advanced features, such as the ability to remotely wipe the company's data off a misplaced handset or to use VPN, would clearly require your IT department's involvement.
VPN is particularly noteworthy: If your job involves a lot of work from the road, using sales leads, templates, or other data stored on a corporate server, you need VPN access. With Cisco IPsec VPN on the iPhone, getting to that data could prove a whole lot easier.
Currently, the iPhone's L2TP and PPTP VPN software requires users to get a lot of hands-on assistance from their corporate help desk to get a remote connection to their company's network (that is, if they're willing and able to do so). The popular Cisco VPN software should streamline VPN connections, requiring little more than a passcode from the end user once the device is configured. Setting up your VPN connection with IPsec will still require some help from your IT person, but it will make their job a lot easier.
For most users, business data support may not be the biggest thing coming out of Apple's new software update. In fact, the biggest news may not even come from Apple itself. Apple has released its own software development kit (SDK) into the wild, giving programmers the tools they need to write native software--rather than just Web apps--to run directly on the iPhone.
The iPhone 2.0 update will include an iTunes App Store utility. Tap it, and you'll see a library of downloadable titles. Apple CEO Steve Jobs indicated that, while the purpose of the App Store will be to sell software for the iPhone, many of these apps will likely be free. Of course, that depends entirely on what developers decided to do. To get a better idea of what kinds of apps you'll be likely to see come June, we downloaded the SDK ourselves and took a look at the tools Apple is offering.
The iPhone SDK will give developers access to most aspects of the device, from the touch screen to the camera to the accelerometer that is responsible for sending when you tilt the device. Sample code available on Apple's iPhone Dev Center site includes examples of how to do many of these things. What's clear from these examples--and from the developer demos at yesterday's briefing--is that games will be a major factor on the second-gen iPhone platform.
With the SDK, game developers will be able to tap into the iPhone's accelerometer and discover new ways to control the on-screen action. By tilting the device in various directions, or with combinations of tilts and screen taps, you'll be able to navigate heads-up displays, virtual environments, and anything else game makers can dream up.
Meanwhile, with the Wi-Fi hardware readily accessible, new apps will be able to do everything from conventional Web surfing and messaging to device-to-device data and media sharing. And most of these development tools will have benefits for iPod Touch users also. So while Apple never implemented a Zune-like squirting feature for music--letting users send songs from one device to another for temporary sharing--such a feature could easily come from a third-party developer (if Apple doesn't kill it first).
Ultimately, the iPhone may very well shape up to be a major platform in its own right if programmers take to the SDK en masse. And if the App Store fills up quickly with cool tools and games, yesterday's announcement may prove to be a major one, even for those who have no interest in creating their own software.