25 Features iPhone OS Still Needs

In which I offer Apple some suggestions for OS 3.1 and beyond.

By  |  Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 12:39 am

iphonefeatursI’m not sure how operating-system version numbers translate into human years, but this I know: 3.0 is still well short of adulthood. Windows 3.0 was the first version that was recognizable as Windows at all; Mac OS 3.0 came along so long ago that I don’t remember anything about it.

So it’s no knock on version 3.0 of the iPhone software to say that even though it contains 100 new features–some of which are a big deal–there are plenty more it could benefit from. What follows is a highly personal list of stuff I think this OS needs–and as far as I know, none of it is in OS 3.0. If we see some of it in OS 3.1, and more in 4.0, and a sizable chunk by 5.0, I’ll be a contented man.

I said the list is personal, but I tried to be realistic. It contains nothing that I can’t see Apple enabling, or which would require new hardware. I also didn’t include multitasking or Flash support on this list. They’ve been covered to death, and my gut tells me neither is coming to the iPhone soon. Consider them features #26 and #27 if you like, though–and I do suggest some things that might lessen the need for them.

Ready to celebrate the release of OS 3.0 (which is due later today) by being dissatisfied, nitpicky, and generally unreasonable? Here we go.

iPhone OS still needs…

1. Home screen folders. The iPhone desktop is made up of a super-wide, horizontally-scrolling workspace, so it’s possible to sort different sorts of apps into their own screens. But moving them around is a hassle, and you can’t jump directly from any screen to any other one. I want something that the old Palm OS had eons ago: The ability to easily organize apps into folders.

2. A Home screen that flips into landscape mode. Most of OS 3.0’s apps now let you work with the nice, wide keyboard enabled by rotating the phone 90 degrees. I’d like to be able to use the phone almost continuously in landscape format if I felt like it–which I guess means that the settings screens and App Store should flip as well as the desktop.

3. A roomier dock. Quick access to four apps isn’t enough. If the OS let you optionally turn on a second row of icons (or even a third or fourth one) we could get to more of our most-used programs without having to slip-slide our way around the Home screen.

4. Help for third-party apps that want to support landscape mode. I’m not an expert on what Apple’s SDK does to assist programmers create apps that work in both portrait and landscape form, but I take the fact that relatively few do as a sign that it’s not a cakewalk. My old AT&T Tilt phone ran Windows Mobile, and just about every application that should have supported both orientations did. I’m assuming that Apple’s OS will need to go resolution-independent at some point to support new devices with different screens, so the time to make it easy is now.

5. A more programmable Home button. In iPhone 3.0, double-clicking it can reportedly launch Search, your phone’s Favorites, the camera application, or the iPod features. Shouldn’t it be able to launch any app on the phone–Apple or third party?

6. The ability to delay Slide to Unlock. Whenever the iPhone is shut off–either because you turned it off yourself or it timed out–you must Slide to Unlock to get back to the Home screen. That makes it hard to pocket dial the phone, but it’s annoying if the phone just turned itself off right before you wanted to do something. I’d like to see the ability to delay the autolocking by a user-specified amount of time. And hey, why not let us disable it altogether if we feel like it?

7. Access to attachments by third-party applications. No iPhone office suite will be truly satisfying until it’s possible for it to open, edit, and save attachments directly from the Mail app. The OS still sandboxes all data so apps can only touch their own files, but Apple can and should make an exception in this case.

8. A better Notes application. iPhone 3.0 gives Notes the ability to sync with Macs and Windows PCs. It still features a lined-paper-and-marker interface that embarrasses me slightly every time I use it, though–at the very least, you should be able to switch to something more mundane and professional. I’d also like to see the ability to attach photos to a note. Maybe Apple thinks the existence of powerful third-party note-takers like Evernote eliminates the need for it to beef up Notes, but I’d still like to see something more substantial.

9. A to-do list. It startles me that Apple has done ambitious, enterprisey things like make the iPhone work with Microsoft’s Exchange server, but that the phone still doesn’t ship with a task manager.  I use and like Remember the Milk, but still find it odd that OS X’s iCal has a to-do list that doesn’t talk to the iPhone at all.

10. Human Interface Device support. The OS now lets third-party applications talk to peripherals through the dock connector–such as Johnson & Johnson’s glucose meter–but as far as I know, there’s still no way to create the one iPhone add-on I most want to buy. Which is a folding keyboard along the lines of the lovable and useful Stowaway. If Apple baked support for the Human Interface Device (HID) standard into the OS, you’d be able to use a physical keyboard anywhere where the on-screen one was available.

11. A useful Slide to Unlock screen. You can choose an image to show up when you turn on your phone but haven’t slide to unlock yet, and that’s very pleasant. But how about providing the option of putting information there that might help us avoid having to unlock the phone at all? It would be a nifty place to put appointment details, headers for recently-received e-mails, and the like. Bonus points if there’s an API that lets third-party apps funnel information to the display ,too.

12. Background music for third-party apps. Once you’ve used the Palm Pre version of Pandora and streamed music in the background while doing something else useful or entertaining in the foreground, it’s hard to go back to the iPhone–where every music app except for Apple’s own iPod stops playing the moment you launch a different application. If Apple doesn’t want to offer full-blown multitasking, how about providing hooks that let any audio app–Pandora, Last.FM, Slacker, AOL Radio–keep playing music in the background even after you close them? Seems pretty simple to me, and it wouldn’t cause stability problems.

13. The ability to subscribe to podcasts and sync them directly on the phone. As far as I can figure, you can snag individual episodes of podcasts you originally subscribed to via iTunes on a Mac or PC. But you can’t subscribe to them so they arrive on your phone whether or not you’ve synced with a computer. I’m in favor of the notion of iPhones being as autonomous as possible, and this would be a significant step in that direction.

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28 Comments For This Post

  1. air phloo Says:

    How about the ability to flag messages in Mail?

  2. Monsta P Says:

    I need t9 keyboard majorly!

  3. ediedi Says:

    Mobile Safari needs :
    – the possibility to open a link in a new page (which you already mentioned), and
    – the possibility to search for text within a page

  4. Verbal_Kint Says:

    Re: 25: It would probably take more power to constantly gps than to leave wi-fi in standby..

    I just want the iPod to remember what was playing after a sync.

  5. Wendy Sheehan Donnell Says:

    This relates to #5: I’d like to be able to use the Home key to hang up a call or snap a picture. After two years of using an iPhone, it’s still my first instinct to hit the physical button to hang up, which brings me back to my home screen while my call continues. Also, framing a shot would be much easier if you didn’t have to manipulate an on-screen button.

  6. Chris Says:

    Why not switch to an Android based phone. Either the G1 or the others that will come out later this year. A lot of these things Android based phones already do. Want to listen to Last.fm, type a text message but respond to a chat in the middle of the text with no interruptions or having to close anything? No Problem. That’s just one. You may not like the G1 but other Android phones are due out this year. And if you get one on T-Mobile its way cheaper than ATT.

  7. Backlin Says:

    I would also like a more useful lock-screen. Maybe one screen full of data from different sources (like you suggested) and a swipe away is a dial pad.

  8. DavidP Says:

    You can already use arbitrary sound clips as ringtones. Take your mp3 and use whatever tools you have to cut it down to the part you want to use as your ring tone. (e.g. CoolEdit on Windows XP). Load your new small mp3 into Itunes and use it to convert it to AAC (m4a) (change your importing preferences to encode as AAC). Now you’ve got an m4a file of your ringtone. Rename the file from filename.m4a to filename.m4r and drag the m4r file back into itunes. It’ll show up as an available Ringtone.

  9. JAWS Says:

    I WANT SUPPORT FOR MICRO SD CARDS!! WHY IS THIS SOOOO FREAKING HARD?

  10. Eyhk Says:

    The whole point about computing though is so that the user doesn’t have to. Why go through all that trouble when the hardware is more than capable of accomplishing it automatically?

    And to JAWS, your post reminds me of a recent Burn Notice episode. I can’t remember the exact dialogue but here goes. “I WANT A MANSION FILLED WITH MODELS IN BIKINIS BUT WANTING IT JUST DOESN’T MAKE IT SO!” The more mature response would be, because Apple wants complete control over hardware and data on the device. Introducing a file system with data that Apple has no control over, can and will be used to corrupt the system for which they regard so dearingly.

    If Apple allowed hooks into the actual OS, a lot of these problems would have been solved by 3rd party apps, but Apple is just afraid of dumb programmers messing up their pretty OS. I don’t see Apple ever changing this stance of completely separating apps from the OS.

    One idea:
    1) Shared directory. Create an API for allowing all apps (Apple or 3rd party) to access so that information can be shared, kind of like My Documents with default folders for certain types of files like ringtones, documents (for downloading, editing, attaching to email), calendar events, contacts, etc so that 3rd party apps can fill in the space where Apple is lacking or has no time to do.

    2) Designated thread. Create a designated thread(s) with limited cpu time (enough to play music) that the user can attach an app to run in the background. Apple can restrict the amount of cpu(power) it sucks up so that it won’t drain resources too fast. It will still be a pain handling which ones you want in the background, kind of like the Safari limit to 8 pages, but it will definitely take care of the majority of gripes concerning background. Pre’s card method is a pretty cool UI for sending apps to the background. There could be a fixed number of cards you can use and a fixed amount of resources (CPU cycles, memory, network activity) per card. As long as the app developer develops a “background mode” where the app is confined to the pre-set limit on resources and CPU cycles, any app should be able to be sent to the background. The Apple designated hard limit and restrictions to running in the background should satisfy most issues while still allowing Apple the “control” it so desperately clings to.

  11. Sean Says:

    Check out the App “To-Do’s”. It is a free app that may fill your need for a decent to-do list. There are others like “do.it” that have a nice theme based interphase but cost .99 cents.

    Hope this helps.

  12. Sean Says:

    OK, I did some more research and found over 100 Notes, Lists and To-Do apps. Some of them offering quite powerful features. Go to iTunes and search for “notes”. It will take you weeks to try them all out.

    This is why I love the iPhone. Apps, apps, and more apps.

  13. John Baxter Says:

    There never was a Mac OS 3.0. In those days, the “System” had a version and the Finder had a version, and more often than not they were out of sync. None of which reduces the meaning of the article.

  14. Don Says:

    And it should also pay my taxes, pay alimony to my ex-, wash my windows, and finally, give bl*w jobs.

    You’re NEVER going to be happy by focusing on what you don’t have. Why not focus on what IS there?

  15. Harry McCracken Says:

    @don: Not sure what you’re talking about, but A) I am happy; and B) thinking about possible new iPhone features in specific adds to my happiness rather than detracting from it. One of the best things about the platform is its potential…

    –Harry

  16. AmyT of www.diabetesmine.com Says:

    Thanks for the shout-out. As a further example of where Apple could go with Human Interface Device (HID) support, see the winning entry in this year’s $10,000 DiabetesMine Design Challenge:

    http://www.diabetesmine.com/2009/05/design-challenge-envisioning-the-iphone-as-a-diabetes-life-device.html

    — the iPhone takes over as glucose meter + insulin pump controller – why use a bunch of disparate devices?

  17. todd Says:

    where is the 3.0 OS???? I have been checking since midnight?

  18. Carl Gundel Says:

    How about a preference to tell the iPhone not to pop up that annoying Wifi hotspot chooser? If I want to connect to Wifi there should be a little icon at the top of the screen I can touch to bring up the list of hotspots.

  19. ajgago Says:

    i think the iphone needs a home screen similar to that of the HTC Touch Diamond and Pro, where it shows useful info such as a weather forecast, notifications for email, texts, and apps like Facebook and Twitter, and of course, the time. This info could also be on the unlock screen.

  20. Harry McCracken Says:

    This is a test. Please ignore it!

    –Harry

  21. Emily Says:

    All of these apps are amazing. I especially like the HID and how useful that would be to have!

  22. Jenn Says:

    Your number 2 & 11 are my top requests. Since mail has shifted to landscape I even keep it that way and move to safari or other landscape apps without flipping it around.

  23. Carl Gundel Says:

    I really want to be able to set my own limit to the number of email messages to be stored in my iPhone. I have 7GB of storage and I should be able to fill it up if I like.

    Also, Spotlight should be called Penlight. Not having the ability to search email message bodies for text is a huge disappointment for me.

  24. Eric Says:

    Meh. Your suggestions are banal.

  25. SquidgeyBall Says:

    You can already open a link in a new page?!?

    Just hold down your finger on the link!

  26. Slippy Says:

    MULTIPLE SIGNATURES!!!!! I would love to be able to send a message from my business account with my company signature…and send a personal email with my personal signature… just like in Mac Mail… 3rd party apps are too clumsy…

  27. Jordan Clennell Says:

    I Would like to see carriers making apps for iPhone, for example, Vodafone NZ has a great music store function called Musicstation, $2.50 a week and access to over a million songs (they stream to your phone) you can’t use this because they don’t have an application for iPhone. Another example is vodafone have a thing called Sky Mobile TV. this is the same, $2.50 a week, and you can watch Cable TV channels Over The Air but as the same, they don’t have an app for iPhone to enable this

  28. Noah James Says:

    i used to watch Burn Notice on our Cable TV but unfortunately they did not play the next season;`:

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