June 26 (Bloomberg) -- It’s unfair to suggest that Apple Inc. doesn’t innovate. Yet innovation isn’t what it does best.
The latest case in point is the new iPhone 4. It’s chock full of new features -- 100 of them, Steve Jobs says. But many are new only to Apple. A front-facing camera for video chatting? Running multiple applications at one time? The ability to shoot high-definition video in a handheld device? You don’t need an iPhone 4 to do those things.
No, what Apple does best -- does brilliantly, in the case of the iPhone 4 -- is to create a unified user experience. It doesn’t have to invent the technology; it figures out how to fit the technology together to make it easy, seamless and mainstream.
The new video-calling application, called FaceTime, is a prime example. At least for now, FaceTime operates under a host of limitations. You can only make video calls if you’re on a Wi-Fi network, if the person you’re calling is also on a Wi-Fi network and if both of you have an iPhone 4. No matter how many millions of phones Apple sells this year, that’s going to be a pretty limited universe.
Yet the FaceTime process itself is simple and well-thought-out. You simply place a normal wireless call and choose the FaceTime button (it’s replaced the hold button on the screen you see when you connect on a call). Your call is transparently handed off to the Wi-Fi network, where it no longer eats your cellular minutes.
Novelty for Now
For now, it’s a novelty, but FaceTime’s limitations won’t be around forever, and once it’s available over the phone companies’ networks and works with other devices, it will be the standard against which every other smartphone maker will be measured.
Physically, the new iPhone has undergone the largest overhaul since its 2007 debut. Gone is the rounded design of all the previous models, replaced by a thinner body that now lies flat on a level surface. Gone too is any trace of plasticky feel. The new exterior is made entirely of hardened glass and a metal frame that is reputed to improve wireless reception.
The iPhone 4 needs all the reception help it can get, especially in the U.S., where it’s available exclusively on AT&T Inc.’s network for $299 for a 32-gigabyte model on a two-year contract, and $199 for 16 gigabytes. Sad to say, even the new design hasn’t eliminated the dropped calls that have plagued the phone from its debut and tarnished AT&T’s image in key markets like New York and San Francisco. I lost three in my first hour of using the phone in midtown Manhattan.
Loud and Clear
If you’re actually able to get a call through, you’ll notice some big improvements. Apple has added a second microphone and noise-canceling technology, and the results are instantly apparent. A hearing-impaired family member, who has complained for years that iPhone calls aren’t loud enough, pronounced the new model hugely better. Even the phone’s external speaker is louder and clearer.
While the iPhone 4 is only slightly heavier than its predecessor, the 3GS, it feels heftier than it is. That’s because Apple has packed it with a good deal more stuff. The upgraded 5-megapixel camera includes a flash and zoom. The new gyroscope will probably first be called upon to make games even cooler, but may also point to a new generation of location-aware applications. The bigger battery might actually -- depending on your usage patterns -- get you through a full day; Apple says it provides 40 percent more talk time.
There’s also, though the company doesn’t make a fuss about it, twice as much internal memory as on the 3GS, which probably contributes to the iPhone 4’s overall zippiness. Possibly the most important speed boost comes from the same custom microprocessor that Apple introduced on its iPad tablet this spring. The new operating system, iOS 4, can feel a bit sluggish on an older iPhone, but it absolutely flies on the iPhone 4.
For the first time, sort of, the new operating system allows multitasking, sort of. Previously, Apple set strict limits on when you could run more than one application at a time. You could, for instance, check your calendar while you were on a phone call, but couldn’t listen to Pandora Internet radio while you were playing a game of Scrabble.
In iOS 4, Apple hasn’t done away with the restrictions, but it’s liberalized them. In some cases -- that Internet radio example, for instance -- it is allowing true multitasking. In other cases, it has enabled what is essentially fast switching between programs; one app is put into a kind of suspended animation while you slide over to another, and resumes where you left off when you slide back.
‘Oh, No’ Moment
If it falls short of what you can do on phones running Google Inc.’s Android operating system, it also reduces the risk of that awful “Oh, no” moment when you realize a program you accidentally left running in the background has drained the battery of your Motorola Droid. Not that I’m admitting I’ve ever done that, of course.
The operating system also introduces some useful tweaks to the user interface. To declutter your screen, you can create groups of apps: When I dragged Apple’s new iBooks app onto the icon for Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle, the iPhone automatically placed them into a single folder labeled “Books.”
Pushing the home button twice when the iPhone is in sleep mode brings up a set of iPod controls; pushing it twice when the phone’s awake lets you scroll through running and recently used applications. And everything is displayed on a new screen that Apple boasts is vastly sharper than the old one. I don’t doubt the company, but have to admit the old display never particularly bothered me either.
While it’s hard to make the case that the iPhone 4 represents a breakthrough, that misses the point. In true Apple fashion, the value of the overall package is greater than the sum of its already impressive parts. The long lines and rapturous reviews that have greeted the iPhone 4’s debut are by and large justified.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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