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Apple plays catch-up with new iPhone features

Point the DeLorean at 1999!

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Apple has announced the new iPhone features due for summer, including several the competition has only had for a decade or so.

The upgrade will be free for iPhone owners, although those with an iPod touch will have to stump up another $10 to get to version 3. Anyone desperate to get their hands on the new features earlier could do worse than to pick up one of the competing devices which already sport them.

Copy and paste is the feature that iPhone users have been crying out for, and one that Apple very nearly convinced the world couldn't be done. O'Reilly's latest publication on Gestural Interfaces includes the classic line: "Cut-and-paste is only partially implemented or theorized on most gestural interfaces." That will come as a surprise to anyone who has used any system except the iPhone - even the Newton could manage cut and paste, and the FingerWorks system uses the zoom gesture so beloved of iPhone users to cut and paste text.

Some features aren't even worthy of comment - no other smartphone platform has a problem displaying a keyboard in landscape or recording a voice memo, or even connecting a tethered laptop over the cellular connection (though the latter capability might put network operators in a flap, protesting that making use of such a feature breaches their terms and conditions).

Support for MMS has traditionally been difficult for smartphones - Microsoft's solutions have always been a dog's dinner and only Symbian handsets offer a properly-integrated MMS experience - but every other smartphone on the planet does at least support the standard.

Bluetooth stereo should never have been left off a device based around music, and it will be interesting to see if Apple launches a set of Bluetooth cans to go with the new support. But failing that, we can use the headphones we've been using with other devices for years.

Peer-to-peer connectivity is slouching about ten years behind the competition - where's the support for the Bluetooth keyboards and mice that have been working on Windows Mobile for the last five years and Symbian devices for almost as long?

Cross-application searching was nice on the Palm OS back in the day, and will doubtless be nice on the iPhone. The Palm OS search triggered every installed application in turn, passing them the search string as a parameter and leaving it to the application developer to decide how to execute the search.

We can only speculate that Apple has chosen to emulate this excellent methodology, though it only works as long as data files are bound to specific applications. Apple's decision not to allow multi-tasking is also in common with the original Palm OS, which managed task switching with an aplomb almost equal to the iPhone but equally stopped short of allowing apps to execute at the same time.

Notifications, routed through Apple's servers, can be used to trigger applications running on the new OS version, which is nice as long as your application only needs to respond to external stimuli and you're prepared to trust Apple to deliver the message. Background processing is still not permitted, despite the fact that everyone else is doing it.

Most interesting, though, is the provision for incremental charging; allowing applications to talk directly to the iTunes store. The insert-more-coins-to-continue feature is hugely demanded by games developers, and while the technique has been used for many years (as in QuickOffice on S60, or the Palm, which offers in-application upgrades) it has never been properly exploited. Announcing the capability, Apple demonstrated a version of The Sims that allows players to buy in-game items for $.99 a shot, clearly showing how the company envisions itself providing ongoing support to iPhone customers.

Apple's announcement is, no doubt, in response to the perceived threat of the Pre and the next generation of Android-based handsets, which will offer all of the above features as standard - as indeed they should. But the Pre will offer something more in the centralised address book that offers a gateway to social networking and a search function that blurs the distinction between local and cloud data, while Android devices offer the allure of an open platform where anything is possible, and permitted.

Whether these distinctions are enough to sway iPhone users is debatable. Technology and features in the iPhone have always been secondary to the cool factor - an area in which Apple is still well ahead of the competition. ®

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