Opinion: The 5 best things about iPhone OS 3.0

iPhone uers finally get copy/paste, Spotlighting searches and push

Apple Inc. today pushed out the much-anticipated iPhone OS 3.0 update that company execs touted at last week's Worldwide Developers Conference. After spending some time with iPhone 3.0 on both an original Edge-based iPhone and last year's 3G model, I can tell you the update makes even older phones more responsive and offers a number of improvements -- some of them long overdue. Aside from the new features I highlight below, iPhone owners who download the update through iTunes will notice that, overall, the user interface is smoother. Animations don't stutter as they did before and data loads more quickly.

After using the iPhone OS 3.0 for a week or so, I can say I'm impressed with the polish of the software. And I've come away with my list of the five best things in the new OS that I think are worth highlighting.

1. System-wide Copy/Cut/Paste -- Last week, a friend and I decided to go canoeing at a state park. Since we both had our iPhones, we never worried about finding the actual directions to the park until after we left the house. While my friend drove, I used the iPhone to visit the park's Web site to find the address. With a double-tap, I was able to select the address, copy it and then launch the Maps app, which accepted the paste and quickly found the address. Starting with iPhone 3.0, iPhone users will be able to Cut/Copy/Paste text and images from one application to another, and since this is a system-wide feature, developers can take advantage of this in their apps, if this feature is not already supported. It's been a long-time coming.

2. Push Notifications -- Ever since the iPhone was released, people have longed for the ability to run more than one application at a time. The iPhone itself is fully capable of doing so; for example, the iPod app still plays music even if you're not using the music playing software. The music plays while you are browsing the Web or using Maps. So, if the iPhone is capable of running more than one app at once, why has Apple not allowed third-party developers equal access? Other programs could certainly benefit from this feature: weather applications could alert you to severe weather advisories and you'd never miss a message in chat programs. While Apple isn't yet allowing for background processes to run just yet, it has implemented Push Notifications, which allow third-party developers the ability to add SMS-style alerts, sounds and icon badge alerts to their applications. So, while the AIM app may not run in the background as an active process, you'll now be able to receive alerts about your messages.

But Push Notifications isn't really the same as multiple apps running at once. You still can't listen to an internet audio service such as Pandora on the iPhone while doing something else. In that sense, Push Notifications are more like a workaround until Apple sorts out the engineering necessary to allow background processes to run on the iPhone without compromising system speed and battery life. Still, this is an important first step -- and a power-saving alternative -- to having actual background processes. But it's a significant step forward, and AIM will now find its way onto my Home Page screen; using it now in concert with Push Notifications will mean a smaller text messaging bill for the overzealous texters on my Family Plan.

-- Apple has created an API that allows developers to connect to external hardware via not just stereo bluetooth (a feature not fully implemented until 3.0), but through the Dock connector as well. The newly added ability to use external hardware in concert with the iPhone's software is going to open many doors for the phone. For instance, hardware peripheral makers were brought out at WWDC to demo connecting a guitar to the iPhone. Although the demo didn't quite work out, this is but a taste of what developers can do with access to the iPhone's dock. This may not be a feature that is noticeable right away to iPhone users, but it is one that will extend the phone's life and reach to an already powerful mobile platform.

4. Spotlight searching -- Swipe right on the iPhones touch-sensitive screen to bring up Spotlight (or press the Home button from the first page of apps) and with a few strokes of the keyboard, you can jump to anything on the phone. With Mac OS X 10.4, code-named Tiger, Apple added a system-wide search to its operating system that made finding just about any file or bt of data easy and quick. With iPhone 3.0, Apple brings that search functionality to the iPhone. Now you can quickly find and launch anything on the phone -- or if you're searching e-mail, even on servers. Songs, applications, notes, calendars, contacts, in my experience, Spotlight on the iPhone helped me find anything I searched for. And it's fast, too.

5. Safari -- One of the best features of the iPhone has been the Safari Web browser. While many people don't care how it's done, everyone appreciates how accurately web pages are rendered on the iPhone. Web marketshare for mobile devices has long skewed in the favor of Apple's products, and with the latest release, Apple continues to press its advantage. Safari for iPhone brings noticeable performance improvements and users will appreciate the addition of autofill for user names and passwords. Behind the scenes, Apple has worked in HTML 5.0 standards support and says it's improved the javascript rendering three-fold. Even more impressive is the support for HTTP audio and video streaming, which support automatic quality based on your connection speed. (This technology will also be available to other apps, and is already being utilized to stream live baseball games with the MLB At Bat 2009 app.) The best mobile browsing experience has just become even better.

No doubt, iPhone owners will find their own top five improvements in the new OS, but the one that permeates all is value. iPhone 3.0 is filled with refinements and improvements across the board, whether it's official support for internet tethering -- not yet available from AT&T -- MMS (coming this summer), the ability to finally sync Notes, or Landscape keyboard. iPhone 3.0 feels like a polished release that even manages to make the two-year-old original iPhone feel fresh and current. I find it an astounding feat by Apple that the latest, most current iPhone is running the exact same software as the iPhone that shipped two years ago, albeit with a few limitations dictated by the hardware. If there's one thing OS updates on any platform have showed us, it's that software updates often cause older hardware to become increasingly slow, pushing users to upgrade to the latest hardware. Apple has again bucked that trend with this release, a trend it stands to continue with the release of Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard for Intel Macs in September.

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