Ever since Apple announced iPhone OS 2.0, the once secretive company has developed more leaks than a sieve: with only the rarest exception, every major feature of each of its new software updates has been outed, photographed, and discussed so much that the actual releases have become non-events. At least, it may feel that way for those who spend every day obsessing over the latest Apple happenings.
But there’s a different reality on the streets where Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Even these devices’ point releases—two dot one, two dot two—have gone from being snoozers, a la recent updates to Apple TV, to making massive, impressive changes to Apple’s pocket devices. Consider the changes made today to just two applications in iPhone OS 2.2:
Maps now lets users in major metropolitan cities—including ones outside the United States—instantly access mass transit schedules, as well as getting customized directions from their current location to another destination either by foot, subway, or car. It also offers instant access to Google’s Street View images of actual locations wherever Google has taken them. Though both of these features have their limitations, and “Walking Directions” is described in Maps as a “Beta” feature, they’re a strong start, and the number of cities covered by Street View is already impressive.
iTunes, which is still called the “iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store,” now lets users download free podcasts—including video podcasts—over either the cellular network or Wi-Fi. Let’s repeat that: if you’re using an iPhone, you can now download audio or video content for free over the cellular network, even when you’re on the go. Users need to use Wi-Fi to download podcasts larger than 10MB in size, which will practically limit cellular downloads of video podcasts, but streaming of 10MB+ audio and video podcasts is, impressively, an option even on cellular networks.
Though you may have already heard about these features due to leaks out of Apple, it’s hard to overstate the significance of these two updates when you actually go and try them. Thanks to the changes to Maps, the iPhone OS just became an almost mandatory tool for navigationally challenged urban- and suburbanites. And, thanks to the tremendous growth of legitimately useful podcasts over the past couple of years, the changes to the iTunes app make it possible for users to access free, useful audio and video content from the road, without relying on iffy YouTube or Safari search results, and getting higher-quality videos that were originally encoded as downloadable podcasts. Even if you ignore the other updates in iPhone OS 2.2, which include long overdue stability and performance tweaks, these two features are massive, and much-appreciated additions to the iPhone’s arsenal of features.
There is, however, one major issue here. Though both iPhone and iPod touch users received version 2.2 software this morning, the downloads are different, and don’t contain the same features. The iPhone received both the Maps and iTunes updates, as well as bug fixes and small changes elsewhere. iPod touch users discovered that they got the iTunes Podcast update and bug fixes, but no major changes to Maps. Google Street View is missing. So are the walking and subway features.
Apologists might suggest that iPod touch users wouldn’t benefit from these features, but then, these people would have said the same thing back when the iPod touch lacked Mail and other apps; there’s little doubt that some touch users would love to have these features, too. From a hardware standpoint, there’s no reason the touch can’t cache Google’s maps when it makes its initial request over Wi-Fi for directions; the omission of this feature is purely an Apple decision.
Apple previously blamed iPod touch feature omissions on a United States accounting law, suggesting that it can only fix bugs in the iPod touch, and can’t add features unless it charges a fee or changes the way it accounts for sales of the device. We’ve been scratching our heads over this claim ever since we first heard it, and as companies such as Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have continued to unveil free update after update to their Wii, PlayStation 3/Portable, Xbox 360 and Zune devices, this suggestion has made less and less sense. Then there’s today’s 2.2 update: somehow, without a charge, the iPod touch is magically able to download podcasts—how is that possible?
Ultimately, even if all of its features were known beforehand, iPhone OS 2.2 has turned out to be a surprisingly great update—at least, for iPhone owners. Now that there’s ample evidence that other major consumer electronics vendors are not forcing users to pay for firmware updates, it’s time for Apple to let iPod touch owners enjoy whatever applications their hardware can support, rather than artificially limiting the touch for marketing or other reasons. Everyone from Apple to its third-party developers to its consumers will ultimately benefit from having an OS that’s the same in all respects from device to device.