SAN FRANCISCO–It was no surprise the June 7 keynote address at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco focused on the iPhone, which has become a cash cow for the company. After a possible prototype of the iPhone 4 was mislaid during an engineer’s field test in March, speculation about the new device’s capabilities abounded. Instead, the iPhone 4’s debut almost flopped, following an unplanned surprise.
The planned surprise (and Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ traditional “one more thing”) turned out to be WiFi-based video calls, which for the foreseeable future will only be possible between users of the iPhone 4; dubbed FaceTime, the video calling option becomes available June 24 in the United States and five other countries. Jobs called it “one of those moments that reminds us why we do what we do” and announced that the company would be submitting FaceTime for approval as an “open industry standard.”
But the unscheduled surprise came earlier, at the halfway point of Jobs’ presentation, when he had to briefly abandon a demonstration of the iPhone 4’s display capabilities. The situation didn’t get any better when he tried switching to AT&T’s cellular network, to muted catcalls from audience members who were already familiar with the limitations of the carrier’s 3G coverage in downtown San Francisco and elsewhere.
The fault in the WiFi network that Apple provided at the Moscone West convention center here was very much like AT&T’s 3G problem: The network was simply too crowded. Apple’s event staff had planned for this by placing over 500 access points throughout the building, but as with all best-laid plans (whether made by mice or men), reality intruded, and Jobs was forced to beg the audience to stop using the WiFi network installed at the hall so that he could show off the company’s newest mobile gadget.
But “gadget” may not do justice to the iPhone 4; this model introduced a completely new case design with glass panels on front and rear and a stainless steel frame that incorporates three antennas for the device. This model is 24 percent thinner than previous iPhones and contains a display that is four times sharper than that of the current iPhone 3GS; it also includes a gyroscope, a new camera system with high-definition video capabilities as well as an LED flash, and noise-canceling microphones.
The display, dubbed “Retina” by Apple, puts 4 pixels where previous iPhones had one; at 326 pixels per inch, it’s at the limit of what the unaided human eye can resolve. Jobs noted that Apple had to install special projectors at Moscone West to show off the new display, because conventional projectors can’t reproduce the Retina display’s crispness. He also pointed out that the device’s operating system will automatically improve text resolution in existing iPhone apps. Developers will have to insert improved graphics if they want to take advantage of the sharper resolution of the iPhone 4.
Speaking of the operating system, it is no longer called “iPhone OS”; having spread to the iPod Touch and the iPad, it has been renamed “iOS 4”-one hopes Apple remembered to clear this with Cisco Systems, which uses an all-caps rendering (IOS) to refer to its Internetworking Operating System.
The gold master of iOS 4 became available the same day, and Jobs announced that Apple expects to ship the 100 millionth iOS device later in June. Apple had already previewed iOS 4 earlier in 2010, and it will become available to the company’s installed base on June 21. Perhaps the only notable addition to its feature set that was revealed during Monday’s address was that Microsoft Bing would be offered as a built-in search option.
There were similar nuggets of news throughout Jobs’ presentation, including the introduction of iMovie for iPhone, a video editing tool that takes advantage of the iPhone 4’s new video capabilities; a new version of iBooks that allows bookmarking, highlighting and note taking, and supports PDF documents; a raft of market-share and sales figures; and new pricing for the company’s existing iPhone 3G and 3GS models. But that was just gravy for the meat that was the iPhone 4’s unveiling.
If anything was missing from the WWDC keynote, it was discussion of the company’s Mac OS X and the computers that run it. This event was all about the iPhone, which is a sign that Apple’s mobile device business is firmly in the driver’s seat.