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Opinion: What I want in the next iPhone

What does it take to get a first-gen iPhone user to upgrade?

April 26, 2009 (Computerworld) Sooner or later, a new iPhone will come along, and the signs and portents are accumulating: Apple Inc. has already released developer betas of the iPhone 3.0 software, there have been rumors of new "iPhone-ready" chips hitting the reseller market, and the always-valuable MacRumors Buyer's Guide has charted the nine months since the iPhone 3G showed up last July. It all adds up to a sooner, rather than a later. Assuming the goodies promised in the iPhone 3.0 operating system work on existing iPhones, what does Apple have to pull out of its hardware hat to pry the dollars -- and old units -- out of existing users' hands?

Apple has already surpassed its own sales goals with the game-changing, nearly iconic iPhone. It has been in the market long enough that various options such as refurbished units have lured in the parsimonious with value pricing, and unlocked models are available for non-AT&T people. And there are still new and fantastic third-party applications flowing into the App Store, few of which leave us thinking, "If only the iPhone had...."

Apple does not need to worry about obsessive upgraders. People like my brother-in-law, who buys a new laptop every year, needed or not, will be on board for the next iPhone. First-gen iPhone owners, such as myself, may not have seen a value proposition in moving to the second-generation iPhone just for 3G networking. But AT&T's EDGE network is legendarily creaky, and there are now hints that AT&T may up the 3G download speeds from 3.6Mbit/sec. to 7.2Mbit/sec. It'd be nice not to face static and dropped calls half the time.

Still, in this economy, some buyers are going to want serious reasons to plunk down money on a new phone, even if it's from Apple. One necessary change -- but not sufficient on its own -- would be the camera. Being able to record video would be a nice bonus, but the camera must have better optics and more megapixels. (Larger storage space for these files, as well as for more App Store apps, is a given.) Some iPhone apps such as Digital Film Tools' Light and Omer Shoor's Photogene make gallant attempts at improving the result, but you can't make cake from mud. I tried showing a photographer friend a snap I took of a cute puppy, but she stopped me, saying, "If it's an iPhone photo, I don't want to see it."

An autofocus for the built-in camera would be nice. But don't count on it. "A feature found in a bunch of Sony Ericsson phones that take significantly better photos -- even with a comparable-resolution CCD -- is the ability for the camera to autofocus," said Julian Lepinski, a partner at Debacle Software, which develops Pano for the iPhone. "Having taken a few of those apart, though, I know the camera array is a fair bit thicker than the iPhone's camera because of the necessary lenses for doing autofocus. Apple's probably in a tight spot there, with a restriction on how thick the phone can be."
Some sources have leaked word of something called "Voice Control" in the OS 3.0 software developer's kit. That could be something as simple as voice dialing, which other phones have had and would almost certainly entice some people I know to upgrade. I could see voice control of applications or something like the feature on the new iPod Shuffle, which reads track names out loud. Maybe the best interface is no interface?

For certain, more memory makes sense. For a developer, "RAM is probably the biggest problem," said Marco Paolini, a partner at Digital Film Tools. Of the 128MB built into the iPhone, he said, "by the time you turn the phone on and Apple's default apps are loaded, there's maybe 50 to 55MB left."

"One of the biggest limitations that we've run into is the amount of memory available to applications running on the phone," noted Lepinski. "The 128MB of RAM gets split between the OS, background processes like the actual phone process, and whatever foreground app you're currently running. In our experience, we've found that it's necessary to keep your app's RAM usage under 30MB to avoid any potential stability problems (read: the iPhone OS running out of memory, panicking and killing your app).

"The OS will kill lower priority processes that try to run [in the] background -- like Mail or Safari -- before coming after a foreground app," he added. "The end result of this limitation is that, in some cases, developers are having to operate directly on the hard drive of the phone rather than in memory, which results in a reduction in performance."

Many developers also said they wouldn't mind more capable CPU and GPU chips in the next iPhone revision, especially those developers who are creating 3-D iPhone games. But those kinds of changes could pose a sticky problem for developers and Apple.

"Any major system improvements -- e.g., system memory, CPU speed, graphics acceleration -- pose a big issue: If Apple were to make major changes to any or all of those properties, it would certainly expand the realm of feasible apps in terms of graphics performance and processing complexity," said Adam Cohen, also a partner at Debacle Software. "However, any apps [that] relied on those properties to run properly would be unavailable to current 3G users, creating a massive compatibility rift in the App Store. [This would be a] big problem for developers, users and hence Apple. Any smart developer wouldn't want to rely on the new features so that they could keep their user base large."

Still, as dreamy as all these hardware changes would be to third-party developers and their nascent applications, "we understand that it needs to be a phone and an iPod first," said Paolini.

True -- but the iPhone is already a competent phone and iPod. To sell to existing customers like me, the developers' dreams need to come true. Sure, it'll bifurcate the App Store between old and new, but Apple has had experience making these transitions graceful, as in the transitions to Power PC chips, from OS 9 to OS X, and from Power PC to Intel. There may be some bumps, but that's the cost of change, right?

Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications such as Salon, eWeek, MacWeek and The New York Times.
By Dan Turner Computer World


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