Report Card: The 20 New iPhone Features Virtually Everyone Wants

For years, Apple’s keynotes and special events were guaranteed to pack big surprises: the company went into near radio silence up until the point at which Steve Jobs took the stage, and absent comments from the company, speculation ran rampant. Who knew just what was going to be announced, upgraded, or abruptly discontinued? Small teams of key Apple personnel, and they weren’t talking. (Well, mostly.)

Most likely to cut down on the crazy speculation and resultant disappointment and stock price drops that followed, Apple has shifted strategies over the past year. Now it’s telegraphing its moves through a combination of advance announcements—iPhone OS 2.0 and 3.0 SDK events, quarterly Conference Calls, and deliberate leaks to certain favorite journalists—in an effort to manage expectations. Should some crazy talk start to spread, say, speculation that the next iPhone will get three times the prior model’s battery life, Apple can unofficially whisper “we’re thinking more like 1.5x” in someone’s ear, or make some oblique comment to financial analysts, and the word will get out.

Like it or not, the strategy has worked, and users have become more accustomed to the sort of incremental updates the company has more recently been offering. But that doesn’t mean these small updates are wholly satisfying, or that they’re enough to win a new purchase from every potential or current user. That’s why we’ve come up with a WWDC 2009 report card highlighting not the next-generation iPhone features Apple has told people to expect, but rather the as yet unannounced ones that people have been hoping for. When the event’s finished, we’ll go back and look at what actually happened.

1. Dramatically Better Battery Life. As noted in our review, the iPhone 3G’s battery life is way less than great—keeping it on or near a charger has been virtually mandatory for people who really use the phone during the day. What people want is a battery that can last at least a full day, dusk until dawn, under normal usage conditions. Apps, push e-mail, and 3G data transfers have become increasingly important over the last year; how will the new iPhone stack up?

2. Superior Build Quality. Once Apple shifted from the classy metallic original iPhone to the plastic iPhone 3G, users—including us—quickly began to notice cracks in their casings, and heavy smudges on the black models. Will Apple make major changes to improve the durability of new iPhones, or leave them mostly as-is?

3. More Reliable Calling and Data Speeds. Apple promised that the iPhone 3G would run at twice the speed of the original, and suggested that it would offer superior call quality. Users in some places saw corresponding improvements; others did not, paid more for their cell service, and sued both Apple and AT&T. Though it varies from country to country, city to city, and even block to block, everyone wants to have stable, high-speed 3G connectivity.

4. No Bandwidth Capping. AT&T has been trying to figure out just how upset people would be if their iPhone cellular data usage wasn’t “unlimited,” but rather capped at some amount with potential overage charges. Will AT&T try to cap bandwidth for its “unlimited” plan? Or offer a capped, cheaper plan friendly to both less data-demanding users and potential 2007 iPhone converts? As our recent poll suggests, without the right data plans, the next iPhone could turn off a lot of people, including current iPhone users.

5. 802.11n. Some users with 802.11n Wi-Fi routers have had to slow their networks down to accommodate the 802.11g iPhone and iPhone 3G. An 802.11n Wi-Fi chip would reduce the need for slower, cross-compatible g/n networks, as well as Apple’s dual-band wireless routers.

6. Turn-by-Turn Mapping. The iPhone had Maps, the iPhone 3G added a GPS dot, and the new iPhone is supposed to have a magnetic compass built in. Great, but what people really want is integrated turn-by-turn direction functionality, included in the OS, excuses be damned. Will Apple finally put the pieces together, or keep passing the buck to third-party developers?

7. No More Broken Accessories. It wasn’t Apple’s fault that the original iPhone put out screeching noises whenever it was near unshielded speakers; the company used this as a justification, however, to create an annoying accessory incompatibility notice that displayed whenever users connected plug-in devices that Apple hadn’t approved.  The iPhone 3G eliminated this sound except when it fell into EDGE mode, but kept the notice; it also created a new category of incompatible accessories—FireWire chargers. Will Apple finally just let users enjoy the items they’ve been purchasing, or is some new incompatibility just lurking around the corner?

8. Integrated or Accessory Keyboard Support. Many business users—and non-business users—have rightly complained that the iPhone and iPhone 3G don’t have the input scheme they really want, specifically physical keys. An iPhone with a slide-out keyboard would have been a gimme, but absent that, an accessory keyboard would be plenty good.

9. Joypad Support. The iPhone is now a gaming platform. If Apple’s not going to add a proper joypad and buttons to it, it needs to permit third-party developers to do so. Step one is to provide a concrete set of APIs for game developers that joypad manufacturers can rely on so their products work with all games, not just those that adopt their particular protocols. Step two is to provide the controller itself or a reference design.

10. An Improved Main iPhone Menu. Scrolling through page after page of app icons is a pain—everyone with more than three pages of apps or bookmarked web pages knows this. Folders would be an easy way to organize key icons, but more radical changes are possible, too. While they’re at it…

11. An Improved Splash Screen. The iPhone and iPod touch’s “Slide to unlock” screen is great for displaying a single photo, but there’s no good reason it couldn’t provide at-a-glance access to calendar and weather information, as well as indicators for new emails or other messages.

12. Improved Still Camera Performance. The iPhone’s camera does better at shooting far-away objects than ones that are up close, and doesn’t do a fantastic job with color rendition. There are strong hints that this will be improved in a new iPhone, with an autofocusing lens; what will happen with its overall performance, resolution, and color accuracy? Will iPhone 3G or 2007 iPhone users benefit from any software changes?

13. Video Recording. Being able to shoot, store, and send video clips would be fantastic—assuming that 3G-transmitted clips are not so size-constrained that they’re only useful as short snippets. Like improved still camera performance, this seems to be a lock for the 2009 iPhone, but we’ll be anxiously awaiting the specifics, as well as news on whether prior iPhones get anything here.

14. Video Conferencing. As concept art and many discussion forum posts demonstrate, users have wanted to use video iChat in an iPhone since before the original model was officially announced. A front-facing camera would be required, and would probably need to be protected in some way from facial smears. Could this bezel herald a change, is it a fake, or is Apple just playing with other components of the iPhone’s hardware?

15. Direct-to-iPhone Video Downloading. Sure, you can transfer videos over to your phone from your computer using iTunes, but what if your flight has been delayed and you suddenly find yourself with a couple extra hours to kill? The ability to grab a new movie or a few TV shows to pass the time is a no-brainer, and could potentially boost sales of video content on the iTunes Store. It’s a win-win, except of course for cellular providers’ networks.

16. Wireless Syncing. With either 802.11g or n, wireless connectivity speeds are fast enough that a hard line connection to iTunes seems unnecessary, if not downright cumbersome. For a company that’s long been known for reducing cabling and clutter, it’s time to let users cut the cord.

17. A Higher-Resolution Screen. When it was introduced in 2007, the iPhone’s 480×320 screen was a marvel. In 2009, it’s pretty much standard fare, and quickly being overtaken by higher-definition pocket displays. It’s time to step up and match the resolution of phones such as the HTC Touch Pro 2, which sports a 480×800 screen, a move that would finally take advantage of the DVD-quality videos iPhones and iPods have been storing for years.

18. HD Content Support. iTunes users currently need to maintain two copies of iTunes Store HD videos: one that plays on the computer, and one that plays on the iPhone. Letting the iPhone play the same HD videos found in iTunes would make watching on-board HD content worth the extra space it requires.

19. More Storage Capacity. iPod touch units come in 8, 16, and 32 Gigabyte capacities. iPhones have been constrained to 8 and 16 Gigs. Dare we hope for app- and video-filled iPhones to hit a 64 Gig maximum? Of course, but most likely, Apple won’t go higher than 32.

20. True Multitasking. Even Apple knows that its Push Notification service is no replacement for the ability to keep multiple apps open at once. But if multitasking is implemented in a limited fashion—think 3 or 4 apps open at a time—it would be a godsend for many users, and bring the iPhone up to speed with new competitors such as Android and the Palm Pre. Seriously, would you rather have this or a digital compass?

There are, of course, plenty of other important things that could wind up playing a role in the next iPhone: a lower price, even wider network compatibility, more impressive 3-D graphics, and Nike+ support. Which features would be in your top 5? We’ll be watching for your thoughts as WWDC 2009 inches closer next week.

[With contributions from Charles Starrett.]