Apple surprises with iPhone OS 4.0 business features

Apple iPhone OS upgrade enables smartphones to reach out to servers, social gaming networks

Apple's preview Tuesday of iPhone OS 4.0 included not just expected multi-tasking features, but some surprise capabilities targeted at enterprise users and IT departments.

Version 4 now can encrypt all e-mail and attachments, unlocking them with a user-entered pin code. This "sandboxing" will protect e-mail even if a lost or stolen smartphone is accessed. Among the 1,500 new APIs Apple has packed into the firmware, due for release this summer, are those for developers to encrypt data inside their applications.

Tech Debate: What ultimately wins in the enterprise, the Blackberry or the iPhone? 

Enterprises also will be able to wirelessly distribute an app from their own servers, according to Apple. But executives said users won't be able to distribute other apps outside of Apple's App Store. "Apps have to be code-signed via enterprise distribution," according to Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iPhone software.

Jack Gold, principal of J. Gold Associates, a technology research and consulting firm, pointed out that this will enable companies to upload and update apps from corporate systems without going through iTunes. "This is a big deal. You no longer have to 'side-load' [these] devices through a PC," he says.

The new OS version will also support "mobile device management" but Apple didn't describe how that would be done. "The new management APIs sound like a major upgrade," says Gold.

Apple lacks the systems and device management server applications offered for enterprise customers by Microsoft and Research in Motion. Through its support for Microsoft Enterprise ActiveSync, however, iPhone OS devices can make use of management and security features offered by Microsoft Exchange Server.

The new OS will also support Exchange Server 2010, enable multiple Exchange accounts on a single phone and offer SSL VPN support via Cisco and Juniper.

Enterprise users will likely also appreciate another main new feature: the unified in-box. IPhone users can have multiple e-mail accounts, all showing up in one in-box. Version 4 will allow organization of e-mail threads with visual indicators; and you can open attachments with a fingertap.

The updated firmware will be available to all iPhones and iPod Touches, but only the latest models, the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod Touch, will have the hardware to support some of the more advanced features, such as multi-tasking. Users of the older devices can get the new software this summer and use many but not all of the new features.

Programmers can immediately access a "developer preview" of the new version at developer.apple.com.

Other key new elements in 4.0 are:

* Addition of "folders" into which groups of applications can be placed.

* iBooks, an electronic book purchase and download service, apparently identical to that offered on the new iPad.

* An online "Game Center" similar to Microsoft's Xbox Live community.

* A platform that will let advertisers and software developers embed a range of multimedia ads directly into an iPhone 4 application.

Some features remain missing. Apple didn't and won't support Adobe Flash (or Java). Apple CEO Steve Jobs suggested that the emergence of the HTML5 standards render proprietary rich application formats unnecessary.

Multi-tasking is being touted as the basis for a range of new capabilities on the iPhone and Touch devices, and in fall of 2010, the iPad as well. A music app such as Pandora can now run in background, when you switch to a different application, instead of stopping as it does now. Likewise, running a VoIP client to take an Internet-based voice call, you can switch to another application, or vice versa, without dropping the call.

These will be available to developers in the form of "services," according to Apple executives, which might suggest that developers won't have unrestricted access to the full range of multi-tasking features in the underlying OS.

"Apple says there are seven services you can use for background tasks, but you can't write your own multi-tasking capabilities into a [software] program," analyst Gold says. "There are limits to multi-tasking [being] available. This may be an issue for companies that do a lot of background processing, like say, running a database or reporting on a device in background."

Multi-tasking will also enable continuous "live" location tracking in the background via GPS, or via less-precise cell tower triangulation (or presumably via Wi-Fi, since iPhone supports that feature also).

In today's presentation, Apple executives didn't go into details on how multi-tasking applications will be managed, especially if badly coded apps become especially demanding in their memory or power requirements.

Apple has been criticized for not letting developers exploit the multi-tasking features in the OS, which Android and the older Windows Mobile platform from Microsoft do allow. But the new Windows Phone 7 platform does not, though Microsoft executives argue that the platform's easy-to-use push notification and deft integration solve most of the multi-tasking challenges that mobile developers face.

But Jobs' real enthusiasm was clearly reserved for the embedded ad platform, called iAd, that will be part of the 4.0 release, based on the company's acquisition of Quattro. The goal, he and other executives repeatedly insisted, was "all about helping developers make money from advertising [and] to keep apps free" for iPhone users.

Jobs clearly foresees an explosion of creativity and activity to bring rich, interactive ads to the iPhone platform, with multi-tasking enabling users to view ads without being "yanked" from the application in which it's embedded. Developers can incorporate iAd into their programs "in an afternoon." Apple will sell and host the ads, based on the Quattro platform.

As Engadget's Joshual Topolsky, and other livebloggers noted, "Steve seems pretty pumped up about these new opportunities."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnwwBlog RSS feed

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