Perhaps the biggest reason to allow multitasking on iPhone OS — for me, at least — is to allow media apps like Pandora or Last.fm to continue playing while you’re messing about in other apps. Honestly, when I try to come up with other reasons to allow multitasking, I have great difficulty coming up with scenarios that can’t (can’t) be solved with push notifications. Of course, the push notification service could potentially be improved to provide greater value and potential, but still: multitasking doesn’t seem to be necessary.
Now, in terms of media apps like Pandora and Last.fm, I got to thinking: would it be possible to introduce a new type of app that is simply a plugin for iPod.app? Imagine, if you will, if Pandora were made available as another listing on the “More…” screen. Start up the streaming from within iPod.app, and you can go play in other apps to your heart’s content. Or, if Last.fm is more your thing, you could stream your music the same way, through the plugin in iPod.app; or, if you want to play your own on-board music, you could turn on scrobbling, which would also continue to happen in the background.
Now, I know this suggestion is a pretty big break from iPhone interface convention. Currently, the iPhone OS and the AppStore are built on the premise of “one app, one icon.” So, my recommendation would mean that, after downloading Pandora to your device, you would not see a new icon on the Springboard. But I do think that this sort of expansion of the core OS could be a very good idea for everyone.
Perhaps it’s just my enthusiasm for the iPad, and the various UI differences that it brings. Largely, this idea came to me when I realized what a waste of space the Pandora app would be on the iPad. I’m quite anxious to see what types of innovation the iPad helps to spur in the iPhone/iPod Touch OS, since they are — at least in some sense — competitors in the market.
It’s what they do. They’re working on computing products that are several years out from production (or even introduction), and not a single person will ever open his or her mouth about it. And honestly, I think that’s a great way to do it. Mystery breeds curiosity, and in Apple’s case, fanaticism. And sometimes it pays off big, but only when they also master the messaging that does get out.
In January 2007, Steve Jobs gave what I believe might be his Magnum Opus in the introduction of the iPhone. Not only was the device simply revolutionary (at the time, against my usual MO, I believed that particular marketing-speak was actually on-point), but the structure of the presentation was absolutely perfect. The flow of the information that Steve presented was really conducive to getting everyone excited, on the edges of their seats, and dying to know more. He set it all up with context. He pointed and laughed at the horribly Photoshopped mockups. He did the quick, teasing reveal of the device he had in his pocket. And then he showed people how to use it, by using it. And narrating. And being fucking excited.
Yesterday, though, the iPad presentation was simply horrible and awkward. It pains me to say it, but as awkward as Phil Schiller has always struck me, Phil’s portion of the presentation was the only bit that got me excited about the iPad. The iWork software was really nicely done (and new!), and Phil was good at describing what he was showing, and his enthusiasm struck me as genuine.
Compare that with Steve Jobs, whose mind seemed to clearly be elsewhere. Now, if rumors are true (and I usually doubt they are), then it’s likely that Steve was hoping to present more/bigger news yesterday, possibly with regard to media services for iPad. But regardless of cause, it seemed clear that Steve was either disappointed, or pissed, or otherwise failing to focus on the awesomeness he held in his hands. Possibly the dumbest thing he could have said, he said several times: “It just all works.” Scott Forstall said the same thing a few times later on.
As some have already noted, Steve’s demonstration of web browsing on iPad just felt like an awkward session of watching Steve Jobs dick around on the web. There wasn’t much in the way of narration, and it felt as if he just forgot we were all there. Compare this with the presentation of the first-ever iPhone, and the contrast is stark. Steve was genuinely excited to show us the multitouch gestures, the new ways to interact, the fancy scrolling and rubber-banding, and the awesome ability to rotate the screen for better viewability. With the iPad? Not only did Steve take for granted that we all know the gestures he was making, but he also didn’t make hardly any allusion to the fact that the super-phenomenally-popular iPhone is this thing’s older sibling.
Now, I know in theory that this should actually be a good thing. When introducing a new style of device that fits in between your mobile phone and your laptop computer, you really have to tread a fine line with the comparisons to either device. Because, on the one hand, you don’t want to knock your other devices because you want people to keep buying them. And on the other hand, for the people who already own both of those other devices, you need to give them a good reason to buy this fancy new dealio.
That’s actually similar to another problem they had: they didn’t compare it enough to the other products in the marketplace. Of course, Apple is usually good like that. They don’t want to bash the Kindle. They didn’t really bash any other competing products when they introduced the iPhone. But what they did do was to look at those devices, and point out the specific ways in which they wanted their new device to stand apart. All they said about the Kindle was that it paved the way, and that they were going to stand on its shoulders. More needed to be said, if for no other reason than to point out who will be in the market for one of these things. Most people who say they won’t buy one are saying it because they don’t see this thing replacing their laptop. This means you’ve failed to tell them why they would want one. The message should have been clearer, especially after years of no messaging at all for this product.
So, the problem — as I see it — is that in reality they didn’t nail it when they really needed to. Steve didn’t nail it. I really think he needed to draw our attention to the fact that the iPad is a much larger and supercharged version of the iPhone, and that simply by nature of its sheer size, it is an extremely different type of platform. Things that could never be done on iPhone can be done on iPad with ease.
Of course, Steve can’t shoulder all the blame for a badly-done presentation. Scott Forstall, whose presentations have usually been well-received, made a pretty bad blunder. In terms of organization of content, the first major demonstration he gave on the iPad was a one-eighth-screen demo of an iPhone app. Really? That’s the first thing you want to show the world on your new device? Usage of 1/8 of the screen? You don’t do that with a “magical” device. You show how truly effing magical it is, and then you follow up by saying “by the way, all of your iPhone apps will run on it right away, so you’ve got a little time to fill the AppStore with awesomeness for iPad. Now, my Pokemans. Let me show you them.”
Everyone points to Steve Jobs as a great presenter, with an innate ability to get you wanting their latest piece of kit. But the truth is, in terms of keynote presentations, the only one I’ve ever gone back and watched multiple times was Macworld January 2007 (iTunes link). I’m hoping, next time they introduce something brand new, that they’ll do a better job of getting me fired up. I know they have it in them.
I disagree. I think it’ll take us perhaps one more year to realize that they absolutely NAILED IT with the iPhone. The weight, the size and the ergonomics of the iPad are going to eventually prove themselves as sub-optimal in terms of everyday use. Better value than a Kindle or Nook? Of course. But that’s not saying much.
The iPhone is the form factor that will “rule the world,” specifically because of its portability. If Apple turned the iPhone into a “head unit” that could be plugged into larger screens and input devices, then I would think they are realizing the dream. But this tablet form factor is a concept that has always bugged me as “that’d be fun, but nowhere near ideal.”
One would imagine that this post should be wrapped into my multitasking post from the other day, but I felt it necessary for this point to stand on its own:
If, by some strange chance, Apple finally allows us to multitask in the next major release of iPhone OS, I urge every currently-published developer to really take a moment to assess what it will mean to their revenue stream as it currently exists.
As an example, let’s take Pandora. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just fire up Pandora, exit the app, and go browse through NetNewsWire? Well sure, it would be fantastic for the end user, but I can easily see how Pandora’s advertising revenue would go directly through the floor. Same thing with NetNewsWire: if you can leave it running all the time, downloading your feeds in the background, that will dramatically decrease the amount of face-time each user gets with those ads.
Now, I’m not suggesting that this is a Bad Thing. Clearly, the platform needs to evolve enough to allow some form of multitasking, and I even think the “blessed apps” model could be the perfect solution. But the problem, really, is that there are several new types of “economies” that have sprung up from within the confines of this platform. And when you change a fundamental operating structure of said platform, it is bound to have consequences to those economies — some predictable, and others unpredictable.
We’ve seen this type of thing before, with the ongoing complications that arose from the initially-forbidden-and-later-granted ability for paid upgrades from within an app. Those problems were less about screwing up revenue streams for the developer, and more about maintaining a consistent business relationship with the end-user, but the basic problem is quite the same: when you fail to implement a certain facet of your OS in the most logical way, from the get-go, there will be consequences, either for the developer or the consumer.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m not one to hop onto the hot-button topics. I just don’t see the point. Why state what’s obvious to everyone?
But, in the case of multitasking on the iPhone, I’ve felt for quite a while now that nobody is really putting a finger on what multitasking could mean for the iPhone, were it to show up tomorrow. And I think a large part of that is because everyone knows the core iPhone apps so well, at this point, that there is no real novel way to look at the problem. People try to sell us on the idea of multitasking by pointing at the Jailbreak community, but seriously: HIC SVNT DRACONES.
But today, I had a pretty nice revelation: there is a hidden multitaskable app on the iPhone 3GS, which I’ve known was there all along, yet never had any interest in using. It’s the Nike+ app, and it is switched off in Settings.app by default. The problem is, without investing in the dongle, you’ll never get a chance to see how excellent and unique this app is.
Lately, I had gotten myself involved in using RunKeeper Pro, after having bought it nearly a year ago in a flash of wishful thinking. Everything was going wonderfully, until one day I had a minor problem with one of RunKeeper’s features. I eventually got it solved, but that moment of uncertainty made my eyes wander. I looked on CraigsList for a used Nike+ kit, and I googled around for some first-hand comparisons. I’m no dummy: just because Nike+ has been around longer and is much more widely-accepted, doesn’t mean it’s actually a better tool for the job. I’ll leave it at that, as this isn’t an app review blog.
So, while looking through the Nike+ config panel in Settings.app, and in reading Apple’s knowledge base article on Nike+, I was reminded of the fact that this app has access to the contents of the lockscreen while the iPhone is asleep — similar to what iPod.app does, but there’s a major difference. With Nike+, if the screen is asleep and you click the home button, the custom workout screen is displayed, and your current run stats are recited to you, over your music (if it’s playing). This stats screen will be there even if you have exited the Nike+ app, since it is a multitasking app. So, the take-away is that, when the screen is asleep, the user is given the option to send a function call to the Nike+ app by pressing the home button once, even if the app isn’t running in the foreground. This is unique to only this app on iPhone. The only comparable lock-screen functionality I can think of is the double-tap for iPod controls — which, incidentally, still work while the Nike+ lockscreen is active, but the layout of the controls is seamlessly integrated into a modified Nike+ lockscreen.
Also, similar to the “call in progress” (green) and “tethering is active” (blue) banners, Nike+ has its own banner (red) when it’s active in the background. When you take a phone call, the red banner is replaced with green, and the workout is paused. I believe the same is also true when a call comes in and you’re tethering, but the tethering does not disconnect. So, as a UI guideline, there is only one pulsating banner at the top of the iPhone screen at any given time.
Anyway, it’s been mentioned once or twice lately — on at least one blog (yeah, I’m taking it all with huge grains of salt) — that we could potentially see “rationed multitasking” in whatever forthcoming iPhone OS release we may see this year. If that’s the case, I sincerely hope that an updated SDK will allow third-party developers to manipulate the lockscreen (and its home button behavior) and “announcement banners” (for lack of a better term). Because, as much as I kinda prefer RunKeeper over Nike+ as a runner’s service, I’m thoroughly impressed with the OS-level integration that comes from this quasi-third-party app. And it’s kind of exciting that its impressiveness has been hiding directly under my nose.
Also, just as an afterthought: Even though the Nike+ app is technically not deletable, it’s super-nice that we can just flip a switch in Settings.app if we want it to be gone from the home screen. Technically, the same can be done for Safari, iTunes, AppStore and YouTube, via Restrictions. But it would be really nice if every non-deletable app had a similar switch within the Restrictions panel.
I have to say, it is a continual breath of fresh air whenever I go into YouTube.app these days. My favorites are pulled right from my YouTube account, my subscriptions are readily available, my posted videos are there. It was painful, for so long, to go into YouTube.app, only to be greeted with a glorified search engine. Having true integration with the web service is just where it’s at.
So now, with the advent of the Google/Verizon Droid, it’s going to slowly become apparent that other web services need some lovin’ on iPhone. The first example that comes to mind is Maps.app.
For roughly the entire time iPhone has been on the market, I can recall being frustrated that users are unable to create multi-stop directions. Thankfully, it’s possible to create multi-stop directions on the desktop, and email them to iPhone. The link will open up in Maps.app, and all the stops will be plotted. But you can’t change the route, since iPhone only does A -> B directions.
But, getting back to the point, Google Maps is your Google Maps. You’ve got an account that you can personalize, it keeps a history of your searches, and there’s the My Maps feature which allows you to save custom maps for later use. The Droid reportedly handles this with aplomb (as one would expect), and your saved maps are automatically available in Android. This is what these services are meant for, and it’s silly to under-utilize them.
Now, this is where Apple has often infuriated me in the past. Because when I really stop to think about it, I don’t know that — were I in their shoes — I would do anything differently. Maps.app was quite nice in the beginning, but it quickly felt a bit simplistic. Knowing now that Apple was very invested in getting third-party developers into the AppStore, one thing has become increasingly clear: sure, Apple needed to ship solid, reliable apps on the phone, but it was debatably better for them to leave people wanting. And once you’ve given your third-party developers a chance to shine, you’re somewhat backed into a corner — if Apple make their stuff far better than the products on the AppStore, many developers are going to get all butt-hurt about it.
The bottom line, though, is that you can’t delete Maps.app from your iPhone. You’re not given the choice. So, even if you were to find a much better mapping app on AppStore, you’re doomed to have two icons. By the same token, since Maps.app is destined to be a crutch, that gives app developers ample reason not to excel. You don’t have any incentive to develop a complete/excellent replacement for Maps.app, because you can’t ever truly replace it.