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Flashback: iOS 4 adds multitasking, FaceTime and other important features

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Flashback articles often focus on hardware features. For example, in the iPhone 4 story, we talked about the new Retina display, improved camera, glass and metal sandwich construction, and more. But software can be just as important as hardware, if not more so.

The iPhone 4 was released with iOS 4, which introduced FaceTime video calling combined with Apple’s first front-facing camera. However, the launch of iOS 4 also meant a lot to owners of older iPhones, as it made their devices much better. In fact, iOS 4 is perhaps one of the platform’s most important releases.

Flashback: iOS 4 adds multitasking, FaceTime and other important features

First, we need to address the name. The original software was called iPhone OS since that was all it was. However, months after the original iPhone, Apple launched the iPod. Then in 2010 came the iPad. The software was therefore renamed to iOS to cover all the iDevices it powered (Apple canceled it a few years ago and now we have iPadOS, tvOS, etc.).

Second, the introduction of multitasking was the biggest change to the platform since iPhone OS introduced the App Store. Granted, the way iOS 4 did it wasn’t really multitasking. When you quit an application, its execution stops. The state of the app would be saved so it could be restored when you return to it, however, the app couldn’t do anything in the background.

There were exceptions – certain apps were allowed to perform certain tasks. For example, iPod (the native music player app) and Pandora can continue to play even when minimized. Other permitted background activities included internet telephony and satellite navigation.

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Multitasking interface
Kill some apps
iPod controls
portrait orientation lock/unlock

Multitasking interface • Stop some apps • iPod controls • Lock/unlock portrait orientation

This offered a pretty convincing facsimile of true multitasking – many apps sit idle waiting for user input, which wouldn’t come if the app isn’t on screen, so it might as well be paused. However, applications such as Navigon’s MobileNavigator can continue to give directions even if the application is not active, for example because you have received a phone call.

Multitasking was available on the new iPhone 4 at the time, the most powerful Apple phone to date with its 1.0 GHz Cortex-A8 processor (ARMv7) and 512 MB of RAM. It was also enabled on the older iPhone 3GS (600MHz A8, 256MB RAM), but not older models as they used ARMv6 processors and only 128MB RAM.

Apple’s fast-growing app store has already had several hits that have entered pop culture. To remember angry Birds, doodle jump, fruit ninja, Cut the rope and others? But where to put all these apps? Older versions of iOS limited users to 180 screen shortcuts.

The solution was obvious – folders. This increased the limit to 2,160 applications. The number of items on the home screen remained the same, 180, but each folder could contain up to 12 icons (no subfolders, though). Newly created folders would automatically get a magic name based on the apps you place in them (you can manually change the name later).

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A home screen folder
opening a file
edit a folder
edit a folder

A home screen folder • opening a folder • editing a folder

Another new feature in the “wait, couldn’t it do that before?” the category is wallpapers. Yes, wallpapers. There were 27 pre-installed wallpapers to choose from, you can also use your own image, or Retina Display as Apple calls it. The lock screen and the home screen can also have separate images. Sorry, iPhone 3G owners, your phone is too slow and the wallpapers make the scrolling animation too jerky – no wallpapers for you.


Wallpapers !
Choose a picture
For lock screen or home screen
Custom Pictures

Wallpapers ! • Choose an image for the lock screen or home screen • Custom images

But iOS 4 was not influential because of wallpapers. All iPhones up to 4 had the same basic display configuration – 3.5″ with a resolution of 320 x 480 px. The iPhone 4 quadrupled the pixels to 640 x 960 px resulting in a much The aspect ratio remained at 3:2, but this laid the foundation for diversifying and improving displays on Apple devices (iPhone 5 will bring a larger 16:9 display in 2012 ).

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Flashback: iOS 4 adds multitasking, FaceTime and other important features

We also mentioned FaceTime. It was sold on the App Store as a $0.99 app – Apple wanted to offer it for free, but ran into legal hurdles. Initially, it only worked over Wi-Fi, but 3G operation was enabled a year later. FaceTime was joined by iMessage in 2011 – Apple’s two exclusive communication channels are two of the highest walls in its walled garden (the “green bubble” is a stigma).

Flashback: iOS 4 adds multitasking, FaceTime and other important features

iOS 4 also improved search. Spotlight can now search the web (using your search engine of choice or Wikipedia), you can also choose between Google, Yahoo! and Bing as the default engine.


Spotlight could send web searches to Safari
Choose a default search engine

Spotlight could send web searches to Safari • Choose a default search engine

Apple now has a reputation as one of the most privacy-conscious companies around. iOS 4 was a step towards that reputation as it introduced user controls to allow/disallow location services for individual apps.


Which apps should be allowed to track your location?

Which apps should be allowed to track your location?

iOS 4 was also a big part of making the iPad the productivity tool Steve Jobs wanted it to be. It introduced Bluetooth keyboard support with a few different layouts. It wasn’t long before iPad keyboard cases appeared on the market.


Defining the layout of a Bluetooth keyboard

Defining the layout of a Bluetooth keyboard

If you want to learn more about iOS 4 from a 2010 perspective, check out our contemporary review (done on an iPhone 3GS).

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