Fourth Time's An IPhone Charm?

I will have to busy myself with the iOS 4 release on my iPhone 3Gs for at least another week or more. Last week when pre-orders began for the iPhone 4 device, I got caught in AT&T's account verification hell along with many others. When I was trying to upgrade, the Apple system had to check my eligibility with AT&T, and that is where the pre-order attempts hung for many of us. By the time my order got through in the evening they had already sold out of the first run and my ship date was pushed to July 2. Well, it gives my daughter another week to campaign for me to bequeath the 3Gs to her and add her onto my account.

But yesterday the new version of the OS did descend on the rest of us. You probably already know the litany of new features because, like all things Apple, even a simple phone upgrade gets major media coverage. There is unified email, kinda-sorta multitasking, customizable backgrounds, file folder management, digital zoom in the camera, etc. For most users it will feel more like a welcome refresh than a revelation.



I imagine when some of the advanced features of the iPhone 4 itself are revealed -- like HD video recording and video chat -- we will start to see something worth crowing about. Also, we will have to wait to see how programmers make use of the new APIs in upcoming apps. But for now, it is all good blog fodder. Only in the bizarre world of Apple hypedom does bringing your phone OS up to par with the major competitor bring a torrent of coverage.

But iOS 4 is a pleasant upgrade that has some implications for marketers. Obviously, the customizable backgrounds give advertisers the opportunity to serve branded media to a user that will stay ever-present. Until now "wallpapers" on an iPhone were always a bit of a misnomer, since you really only got to customize the lock page. Now marketers have the opportunity to add another asset to offer consumers.

The camera digital zoom feature actually may be a help to 2D scan code users. It was easier for me to grab a QR code off a browser page with the iPhone now that I can zoom into it. The natural pixilation effect of a digital zoom didn't seem to interfere. Alas, the Microsoft Tag, which uses its own 2D code, routed the camera image through its own app, which did now recognize the zoom feature in the new OS. Generally, however, the more resolution and control you give over the phone, the more versatile it can become for these sorts of uses.

The faux multi-tasking or fast task switching on the new OS is as much of a pain as it is a valuable addition. I have to think that Pandora is overjoyed with this: I can now run its radio service in background and as I play with apps. As a result, it seems to make sense that Pandora would want to move some of its ad load to audio rather than the current reliance on display. I would be surprised if Pandora usage from iPhone users didn't go through the roof, and it presents a great opportunity to monetize all that air time.

But the task-switching also mitigates the incredible irritation of having in-app ads bump the user out to the Safari Web browser. This is a practice I always abhorred. Many apps aren't smart enough to restart where a user lets off, so if one of the ads sent you away to Safari, you had to restart the program from scratch. The process now is smoother, at least because the OS freezes your current app and slides open the browser window. A double tap to the Home button now brings up your running apps and a tap on the original app pleasantly slides it into view where you left it.

So I won't get as cranky as I used to when ads didn't keep me in the app, but now I have a cluster of frozen apps in that quick switch taskbar that I really don't need. The problem with the Apple approach to multitasking (Android's too, for that matter), is that is all programs are kept open even if you don't want quick access to them. I would just as soon be able to set the default behaviors for each program. The quick switch taskbar gets cluttered, and I have no idea how much of the phone's resources are used keeping all those apps in a frozen state.

There are other niceties to the new OS that make mobile life a little smoother with the iPhone. Making playlists in the iPod on the fly is a big help for those of us who do like to bring our music catalog around with them. The unified email accounts make message management much easier. And the new folders are perfect for those of us who stuffed our screens long ago. For app developers, the side benefit is that profligate downloaders like me don't have to think about the current app load on their phones before downloading another. I just got a license to download again and to think about the iPhone more as a portable desktop than I may have a week ago. With iBooks now on board and fully synched with my iPad version, the distance in my mind between the two Apple devices is not as great. The OS 4 is good to have on the iPhone and a nice about-damn-time evolution. I suspect it will really rock on the iPad, however, where some of its desktop-like functionality is more sorely needed.

In my household, however, the kids are slobbering over the 3Gs like small dogs waiting for a teetering cookie to fall from my hands.

"You know that you need the iPhone 4 to do video chats -- and you both need one," I say.

But my daughter and her boyfriend don't miss a beat. "OK, then tell us what it is like and maybe we'll both get one."

"I was thinking of getting her one so we could do video chat. It will save on texts," the boyfriend chimes in. Buying your girlfriend an iPhone is what passes for chivalry now. Mind you, his summer auto parts delivery job barely makes his car payments, and the young princess has not even gotten a summer job yet. But they want two iPhone 4s to save money on text charges.

Apple truly is sitting on top of one of the great branding achievements of all time.    

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