WWDC 2010: it's all about iPhone

Apple kicked off its Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco this morning with a slew of iPhone announcements — including a new model and a new name for the operating system — and a total of zero announcements regarding the Mac. It's a sign of changing times at the Mac maker.

The attention-grabber was the iPhone 4 (if you picked that in your office "what will it be called" pool, congratulations). The new model hits US stores in a couple of weeks, Australia a few weeks after that. Among its key selling points: front and rear cameras (including an LED flash and HD video recording) and glass surfaces front and rear, with steel around the edges (in which antennae to improve reception are embedded).

The phone is also, at 9.3mm, 24 percent thinner than the iPhone 3GS and squarer, lending it an elegant profile. Under the skin it's powered by the same A4 processor found in the iPad, and includes a three-axis gyroscope. More on that later.

The display has received a major boost in resolution, to 326 pixels per inch. According to Steve Jobs this is greater resolution than a human retina can discern, making the display as sharp as such a thing can ever be expected to get (and also meaning that the iPad display will look kind of blurry so we'll all have to buy a new one of them). To enhance the sharpness of the display, the glass is affixed to the display using a process called "optical lamination" which apparently reduces the amount of light refraction in between the LED and the glass. Apple is referring to the screen as a "Retina Display" and initial hands-on reports indicate it really is pretty sharp.

That sharpness will come in handy wh en showing off photos taken with the new phone, whose camera has been upgraded to five megapixels. More importantly it adds an LED flash to throw some extra light on your subjects, and also features a "backside illumination sensor" which does not do what you might think it does, but rather it throws extra light onto the sensor from inside the camera, thus assisting in low-light situations.

The new camera also enables video recording in HD (well, 720p, which is the kind of HD Apple sells through iTunes so it sort of counts). The flash also works in video-recording mode, as does the tap-to-focus feature.

As mentioned, there's also a camera on the front, and a new application to make use of it. Face Time is what Apple is calling its videoconferencing system. You can actually use either the front camera (so the person you're calling sees you) or the rear camera (so the person you're calling sees what you see). At present Face Time only works over WiFi, but Jobs broadly hinted that 3G functionality would be added in future.

As an aside, the concentration of live bloggers using their own portable WiFi base stations hooked up to 3G in the auditorium at Moscone caused one of the demos — showing off the speed of downloads on the iPhone 4 versus the iPhone 3GS — to fail miserably, to Jobs's clear frustration. Before the Face Time demo at the end, the live bloggers had been asked to switch off their WiFi base stations. Expect future keynotes to be rather less widely live-blogged. If Face Time over 3G does arrive, expect to be able to get live video streams all over the internet.

Maybe it's time for Apple to rethink its decision not to stream these things itself?

Adding to the video capability of the forthcoming iPhone is a mobile version of iMovie, meaning that video clips can be genuinely edited (ie spliced together with transitions and so on) rather than merely trimmed, as the current iPhone can do. Mobile iMovie also allows you to add titles and to share your video creations direct from the application.

Please Apple, make this work on the iPad too.

Powering all of this is the same A4 processor used in the iPad. As it's actually smaller than the processor used in current iPhones, that leaves more room in the case for a bigger battery, and Apple claims up to 40 percent more talk time on iPhone 4.

Then there's the gyroscope. As you probably know, the iPhone already contains a three-axis accelerometer which allows it to sense its position in three dimensions. The gyroscope adds another three axes, so it can detect pitch, roll and yaw — in other words it has a much better and more precise understanding of its position at angles in between perfectly upright or perfectly flat. Quite what applications this will have remain to be seen, but I expect we will see them.

Zen Bound 3 leaps to mind as a possibility.

Aside from the hardware and the iMovie and Face Time applications that will come with iPhone 4, a number of features of the updated operating system were also demonstrated, though these had been shown off before — unified inbox for Mail, folders to help sort apps, customisable background wallpaper, multitasking and so forth. The same demos seen at the iPhone OS 4 announcement event, but in a somewhat later form and running on the newer, better hardware.

Speaking of iPhone OS 4, it's now called iOS 4. This will elicit cries of relief from journalists and editors the world over who have grown tired of typing "iPhone, iPad and iPod touch" over and over. Now we can refer to them all as "iOS devices".

Of course there may be some murmurs from Cisco, which has its own IOS. Presumably Cisco's lawyers and Apple's lawyers got on so well when they were suing about the "iPhone" trademark that they felt like a reunion.

And that's about it for the key points. There was also Farmville and iAds, and a new version of iBooks that makes Apple's book-reading app rather more like Amazon's in that you can have the same book on all your different iOS devices (rolls off the keyboard, that does) and it will synchronise where you're up to, along with bookmarks and notes in the margins, between them all. Start reading a book on your iPad on the train, then pick up where you left off on your iPhone sitting on the loo (better than making calls while you sit there).

The iPhone 4 will be available in the USA, Japan, France, Germany and the UK on 24 June, with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Norway among the 18 countries where it will be available in July. By the end of September it is expected to be available in 88 countries.

iOS 4 will be available for download on 21 June, and will work on iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, though the multitasking won't work on the iPhone 3G. Apple says that updates for all models including iPod touch will be free, though it hasn't spelled out which iPod touch models will or won't run the new OS.

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