iOS 4 — what is it good for?

6:30am. I wake up, somewhat weary. Rather coincidentally, random shuffle on my iPhone throws up the following lyrics:

"Wake up in the morning, and I raise my weary head/Got an old coat for a pillow, and the earth was last night's bed"

Well, that would explain why my back hurts. I can only hope that the upgrade to iOS 4 doesn't involve being shot down in a blaze of glory. It would give me an excuse to upgrade to an iPhone 4, but I'd have to wait at least a month for that.

What does seem to be being shot down is my broadband allowance. The update is 378.0MB. I'm not sure why iTunes needs to tell me about the .0 of a megabyte it's not downloading. Perhaps it's meant to make me feel better. I'm just hopeful that as my ISP doesn't count iTunes song downloads against my cap, perhaps OS upgrades will be free as well.

Anyone considering the jump should also bear in mind that you'll probably double that figure in App updates alone as well, even if some of them are just noted as "working" under iOS 4 anyway.

The next ten minutes pass in a blur of coffee and toast-making, as well as discovering that one of the fuses for the lights has popped. You probably don't need to know that, but it's ever so slightly more interesting than telling you to stare at a download screen for ten minutes.

While the download processes, I'm left pondering the fate of the early adopter. iOS 4 marks a breaking point, as anyone who grey-imported an original model iPhone, or legitimately purchased a first-generation iPod touch (I'm in that camp) will be left twisting in the wind on iOS (as it's now known) 3. I do wonder what that does to the security of iOS 3 devices. I'm not stupid enough to think that there aren't security holes, but hopeful that the ongoing install base will be small enough to mean that it's not worthwhile for the bad folk to warrant chasing it. It's a worthwhile bet that iOS 4 has something of a target on its back.

I'm somewhat surprised when, at 7:10am, the update is finished, and iTunes politely informs me that my iPhone is restarting. For whatever reason, a nearby connected iPad starts syncing again. Perhaps it's pining for iOS 4. Not for you, flatty! Not yet, anyway.

It's at this point that my only-just-processing-the-coffee brain remembers that the bulk of my iTunes music resides on a NAS and not locally, and that if the iOS 4 update involves re-synchronising all my music, it's going to throw up all sorts of interesting errors. It might be something of a quiet morning as a result.

My first interesting quirk comes not long after. iTunes tells me that the iPhone Sync is complete. The iPhone itself begs to differ. Do I unplug it, or leave it be? A five-minute wait seems sensible, and thankfully the two devices finally agree that things are in fact in sync with each other.

So, first impressions, then.

For a product that's designed to be "easy to use" and from a company that prides itself on ease of use, there's sweet bugger-all in the way of an introductory tutorial. Where's the slickly-produced video to walk me through all of iOS 4's new features, Apple? At first glance, all I spot is the background photo now being the backdrop (which I don't mind, but could be a lot worse depending on your backdrop photo) and the multi-tasking bar that pops up with a double tap. Nothing is multi-tasking right now, but that's to be expected for a newly-restarted phone.

Ah. Apple's support pages will have something, right?

Wrong. There's a single link for the new features of iOS 4 depending on phone model, but clicking on it reveals this rather unhelpful message:


OK, OK, the English version is above it, informing me that "Due to a scheduled upgrade of Apple's support systems, some features of the website are currently unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience." I still reckon the Kanji is about as helpful.

Yes, that's right, the Apple Support Store is down. I wonder what new non-products Apple's brewing up now, and more importantly, where can the T-shirt be purchased?

It takes a couple of Google searches on related pages to figure out folder creation —not much more than drag-and-dropping icons on each other, which works reasonably well. I could see it being something of a chore if I had to do some app sorting on the fly if my finger stops in the wrong place, but hopefully that'll be a somewhat rare occurrence. It also gives me a single useful folder for hiding the preinstalled Apps that I never use. Why yes, Stocks and Weather, I'm looking right at you.

It's also somewhat easier to do all the folder creation at the iTunes end on my iMac, but again, that's no great shock. I've got to qualify that with "somewhat", as the icons have this habit of doing an annoying swap-positions dance with each other rather than forming folders. It takes a good dozen swipes to drop iTunes (the App) into my music folder.

The default folder naming strategy is to grab the product category as the folder name, which makes my brain wonder what happens if you create two folders from the same category apps. The answer is that you can seemingly have any number of identically-named folders on the same page, which is a little confusing. I'm either going to have to get organised, or be prepared to squint really hard at even tinier icons.

Then it's time for my organising gene to kick in. When I start, I've got nine pages of applications on my iPhone. When I finish, it's down to three — although half a dozen of my folders are just called "Games", and I'll need some more solid organising time to make sense of my folders. In the context of how I use most common applications it doesn't matter that much, because I tend to find them via Spotlight search. Then again, the limit of 12 applications per folder introduces a new problem. You can put 12 apps into each folder, but tiny icons for only the first nine will actually show up, which means applications 10-12 will hide even more than they used to on pages eight and nine.

I'm also totally sick of icons bouncing to accommodate each other, rather than dropping neatly into their folders. iOS 4 won't nest folders or merge them as far as I can find. They just do the bouncy dance around each other any time I try. I can live with that. It does mean I'll have to do some solid organising of my Apps, and hope and pray that my App database never becomes corrupted. I wouldn't want to have to create all these folders twice.

Many of the other new consumer-facing features are small tweaks here and there. The camera zooms, but it's still a digital zoom, and frankly unless I'm using it for some kind of low-grade, highly grainy surveillance work, I'd rather take the full shot and blow it up in Photoshop. iBooks is on the iPhone! Celebrate! Go wild! Go crazy ... and "buy" free books, as I discussed last week. Universal mail inbox functions, but it's still missing the most vital feature for a phone based email client — namely the ability to mark all messages read with a simple swipe or click of an icon. Frankly, I'd trade the universal inbox and folders for that feature alone. Are you listening, Apple?

What do you think? Is iOS4 everything you hoped it would be? Did it kill your iPhone, scramble your Apps or destroy your photos?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!

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