Apple iPhone software chief Scott Forstall. Photo: David Needle.
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CUPERTINO, Calif. — Apple officials and third-party developers dazzled a packed hall here at the company’s headquarters, showing off a beta of its upcoming iPhone software that will introduce some long sought-after enhancements.
Version 3.0 of the iPhone operating system, now at version 2.2.1, will usher in a slew of features that users have been asking for, like cut-and-paste and “push” updates — which create a persistent connection to Apple’s servers, so things like news, traffic, stock and sports alerts can be delivered in real time.
The push feature had been expected last fall, but Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) senior vice president of iPhone software, Scott Forstall, admitted it was late.
“A huge number of developers said they would use push in volumes we hadn’t considered,” Forstall said. “We had to completely rearchitect our server infrastructure to make it completely scalable” to accommodate all the applications that wanted to include the features.
“Now we’re good to go,” he added.
Despite the long wait for enhancements like cut-and-paste and push, users will have to wait a bit longer before they get their hands on the new OS and applications that use it. While the beta of version 3.0 of the iPhone operating system is available now to developers, the finished version is set for general availability this summer.
Apple would not comment on whether it plans to bring out a new model of the iPhone this summer as well, but there was plenty in the new software for current iPhone users to get excited about.
iPhone enhancements aplenty
In one demo, Oke Okaro of ESPN showed how the sports network delivered a real-time alert update complete with a video highlight from an NCAA basketball game in the current “March Madness” tournament.
Okaro said ESPN delivers over 50 million alerts a month. With the new iPhone software it will be able to tailor the video to the connection the iPhone user has enabled — either 3G or Wi-Fi.
“You used to have to pull it in,” Okaro said. “Now we bring it to you.”
Apple’s Forstall whizzed through several of what he said were the hundred new features in iPhone OS 3.0. In addition to push services, the update includes new peer-to-peer functions, e-commerce within an application and enhanced Spotlight search, which becomes available across applications.
Thanks to the Spotlight upgrade, iPhone users can search for specific e-mail messages, contact info and other information in various applications from a single menu.
The e-commerce or “In-App Purchase” feature, as Apple calls it, enables purchases to be made from inside an application with a few simple taps. This might include buying additional levels from within a game, business software upgrades and additional premium content.
The company said it decided to make In-App Purchase only available for paid applications to avoid confusion, so it will not be available in free apps as an upgrade, or as a mixed free-and-paid option.
Apple is also adding one new application to mix for iPhone users: Voice Memo, which will join other applications on the main screen, can be used for dictating notes that can be stored or sent via e-mail.
Page 2: More enhancements, unanswered questions
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For peripheral makers, Apple said version 3.0 of the iPhone OS software makes extended use of Bluetooth connectivity — and even unlocks the feature for owners of the second-generation iPod Touch, which contained the necessary hardware though it lacked software support.
So, for example, the iPhone or iPod Touch could control everything from speakers to medical devices connected via the wireless networking technology. In an on-stage demo, a representative from healthcare device maker LifeScan showed the iPhone being used with a glucose monitoring device to plan appropriate meals.
During a Q&A session following the announcement, Apple officials were naturally optimistic about how the new features will be received, though they also noted they couldn’t comment in detail on certain aspects because the company is in a quiet period before its next earnings announcement.
As a result, while the update may have addressed a number of features sought by developers and users, questions are still likely to remain.
For instance, while some developers have complained about unclear guidelines for acceptance into the iPhone App Store, or about Apple’s reasons for rejecting them — spawning a cottage industry of rival app stores — Phil Schiller, Apple’s vice president of marketing, brushed the issue aside.
“The growth rate of the App Store is unprecedented,” Schiller said. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
However, he did say Apple is constantly striving to improve the turnaround time for approval into the App Store. Still, he added that the number of applications makes it difficult for timely approval, as do the number of checks Apple undertakes to ensure submitted programs work properly and don’t include pornography or pose a virus or privacy threat.
“At the end of the day, we have over 25,000 great solutions out there working,” he said.
Additionally, while Forstall talked up Apple’s introduction of push features in the upcoming software release, he also said that Apple would no make no guarantees on the feature’s reliability or persistence. Still, he added that Apple would strive to make it reliable.
Apple’s strength in apps
Despite those concerns, analyst Nathan Brookwood said he’s impressed with where Apple is headed with the new release. “This really does provide them with a huge advantage when you look at all the software that’s already available for the device and what they’re doing going forward to improve the ecosystem for developers and partners,” he told InternetNews.com.
“You see Android, RIM and Microsoft building app stores, but Apple isn’t standing still and it’s hard to see how some of these competitors can catch up.”
Google, the chief backer behind the Android mobile OS, recently began selling paid apps through its own Android Market, while Microsoft is gearing up to do the same for Windows Mobile devices, as is RIM for the BlackBerry. Palm, meanwhile, quietly launched its Software Store at the end of last year.
Yet while Apple has a commanding lead in the mobile app space, Brookwood added that it still has one chief weakness: The singleness of its vision.
“Apple sees things one way, so if you really want things like a pop-out keyboard, [the iPhone] is not the device for you,” he said.