Editorial: Developers’ iPhone OS 3.0 Features Work, With Key Caveats
Though many of the new features in Apple’s iPhone OS 3.0 are obvious to users from the first moment they install the software on their iPhones or iPod touches, a number of other additions only appear after downloading new third-party applications from the App Store. These features are ones that Apple told developers in March to start testing, and consequently are just beginning to appear in actual applications this week.
Because these features could not be fully tested prior to the widespread release of the iPhone OS 3.0 software, we mentioned them in our Complete Guide to iPhone OS 3.0, but only barely touched upon them in our iPhone OS 3.0 Review or Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iPhone OS 3.0 article. This editorial discusses the most notable new features, as well as their pros and cons.
Arguably one of the most important developer-side additions to the iPhone OS 3.0, Push Notifications are supposed to enable your iPhone or iPod touch to receive text, badge, and sound updates sent through Apple’s servers, displaying them instantly while you’re using other features of the device. If you’re using Safari, for instance, and a friend uses AIM to instant message you, Push Notifications are designed to interrupt your browsing to let you see your message and quickly re-open the application.
In practice, Push seems to be spotty for the time being, and its performance may or may not change going forward. When used with any iPhone—devices that maintain persistent Internet connections—it appears to be generally reliable: for instance, we tested the feature with Ngmoco’s Star Defense, sending Challenges from one device to another, and they were consistently received on the iPhone. But on iPod touch devices, which turn off their Wi-Fi antennas when going into sleep mode, the notifications were unreliable, and in some cases did not arrive at all.
Push Notification heavy applications have not yet appeared in the App Store, so it remains to be seen how reliable this service will be over time. Our impression at the moment is that iPhone users will have a better Notification experience, and that iPod touch users may be out of luck if they’re hoping for notifications to work when they’re not actively using and monitoring their iPods.
Gamers are the primary focus of this new Peer-to-Peer feature, which depends upon the unlocked Bluetooth chip in second-generation iPod touch hardware and the Bluetooth features of iPhones in order to work. In essence, Peer-to-Peer makes a wireless connection between two nearby devices with a simple, Apple-developed handshaking interface: a user can choose to host a game or join a game, and see a list of other devices that are running the same game.
We tried Peer-to-Peer with Smule’s excellent Leaf Trombone, which has just been updated to let two people play their musical instruments at the same time. Though the Peer-to-Peer feature is extremely simplistic here, serving only to place both users on the same song, starting at the same time—and not clearly indicating which user’s song has been chosen in the event that they each selected different ones (hint: it’s the Host’s)—it worked, sometimes. When a connection was properly made, the two devices could be used to play the same music together, but sometimes, the connection was dropped almost as soon as it began. We’re not sure if it’s the software, or due to wireless connectivity issues that our iPod touches have been experiencing after the iPhone OS 3.0 update.
Other Peer-to-Peer implementations should enable even easier, more widespread two-player gaming, showing two cars on the same race track, two boxers slugging it out, and so on. Especially good developers already implemented this functionality in pre-3.0 releases such as Firemint’s Real Racing, but now the feature will be more widely available, and hopefully reliable as well.
In App Purchasing
Discussed in a separate iLounge editorial today, In App Purchasing allows developers of paid apps to charge for additional “in app” content that users opt to add after the initial App Store purchase. Thus, a 99-cent book reader application can be augmented with $10 worth of books, or, in the awful case spotlighted in our editorial, a 99-cent turn-by-turn directions application can charge you by the minute to access directions—including ones that don’t even work.
While In App Purchasing may well allow developers to charge to add new levels and features to their games, a feature that may or may not prove problematic over time, there appears to be one major snag: unlike full-fledged app updates, In App Purchases are subject to special Apple terms and conditions. Apple summed them up by saying that some In App purchases “can only be downloaded once and… cannot be transferred between devices. The Application Provider is solely responsible for In App Purchases.” Apple is thus handing over the responsibility to developers to help multi-device users get their purchased In App content working on more than one device tied to the same iTunes Store account; it remains to be seen how or whether this will work in the future.
Also of note: In App Purchasing is only available for paid apps, and not free ones, which at first sounds like a positive thing: developers can’t offer a free app in the Store and then sneakily start charging for content. But, as demonstrated with Gokivo, they can offer $1 apps in the Store and lock all of their advertised functionality behind additional charges. Additionally, this raises the question of whether Apple will block 3.0 updates to apps such as Amazon’s Kindle for iPhone, a free app that displays books purchased without using Apple’s In App Purchasing system. In sum, this new feature raises more questions and possible issues than any other that has been added to iPhone OS 3.0.
In-Game iPod Music
For the past year, we’ve scratched our heads as certain developers insisted that they didn’t need to come up with soundtracks for their iPhone and iPod touch apps because people really wanted to listen to their own music, instead. Sure, some—probably even many—people did, but actually doing so was a real pain with the iPod and iPhone. You’d need to start music playing, run an app, hope that the app didn’t interrupt the music, and then hope that the music didn’t run out mid-app.
iPhone OS 3.0 changes all that, at least, with developer support. Ngmoco’s Topple 2 is one of the first games to add an “iPod Music” button that lets you browse your entire iPod music library from within the game, and even build a specific soundtrack using + buttons to pick individual songs. The iPod music then plays as you play the game, and you can go back into the game’s own menus to make adjustments rather than having to exit the app.
The only oddity we noticed in Topple 2 was a little weirdness one time when we tried to use a connected wired remote control to change and pause tracks: pausing and track-switching didn’t seem to totally work. But on two subsequent tests, it worked reliably. And the music doesn’t stop when you leave the app—a nice touch. Developers are going to need to work on integrating this feature into their apps, and we certainly hope that they won’t leave out proper soundtracks for their games as a consequence—or try, as EA suggested in an early demo of The Sims 3, to use In-App Purchasing to charge you to listen to your own music—but this could wind up being a great feature for iPod and iPhone users going forward.
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