Apple is holding an event on March 17th to preview features in its forthcoming iPhone 3.0 software. Presumably some of these features will be made available on existing iPhones via a software upgrade; but there may also be new features that depend on hardware in the next-generation iPhone handset, expected this summer. So we may get some clues about future hardware.
First, the easy stuff. A lot of people think Apple will add MMS support (which would be very simple; MMS is really e-mail under the hood). Also expected are cut-and-paste and “push” notification for third-party apps, which would allow Facebook and other apps to receive updates even when they are not running. Both of these features have already been hinted at, and partly implemented, by Apple. All this could easily be added to existing phones as a software upgrade. So too could internet tethering, though carriers might want to charge extra for that. I’m not expecting video recording to be added to existing phones; to do video efficiently you need special hardware to do the compression, which I assume isn’t present in existing handsets. Besides, that’s an obvious feature (along with a better camera, with autofocus) to add to a new iPhone handset this summer.
What I’ll really be looking out for, however, are two changes to the software that would tell us about Apple’s hardware plans. One is the ability to run apps in the background, and switch between multiple running apps. The second is the requirement that apps support arbitrary screen sizes. This would pave the way for a new, cheaper iPhone model, perhaps with a slightly smaller screen; and for a larger iPod touch, which might be Apple’s entry in the netbook category (iPad?).
This week I spoke to someone closely involved with a big Asian mobile-phone operator, who said the next iPhone was going to be much cheaper, which would allow operators to offer it at a lower price. In the case of the iPod, Apple introduced a smaller, cheaper model alongside it, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if it did the same with the iPhone. Also this week there were reports that Apple had ordered a large number of 10-inch touch-screens, which triggered a lot of speculation about netbooks. I think Apple is going to offer a large iPod touch, rather than a laptop-style device, in this category. It would be different and distinctive. You wouldn’t be able to author documents on it very easily (not without the option of a Bluetooth keyboard, at least) but it would be great for web-browsing on the sofa. The addition of cut-and-paste and multitasking would make such a product much more credible as a netbook alternative. It would also make an ideal e-book reader, of course.
The state of affairs with the iPhone today is rather like that of the Mac in 1985: all Macs were the same, with the same processor speed and screen size. Then the Mac II was announced, which could support bigger screens and colour, followed by MultiFinder, which allowed Macs to run more than one application at once. I think we’re about to see the same transition with the iPhone architecture. To give app developers time to tweak their code, Apple needs to announce this in advance, so that the software is ready when the new devices ship. Hence this week’s announcement. Roll on Tuesday!
* Post-Tuesday update: Yes, iPhone 3.0 will have MMS, cut and paste, and possibly tethering if Apple can sort things out with the operators. There will also be background notification, but not full multitasking. It will be easier to sell things through apps (such as e-books and magazine subscriptions — let’s see how quickly Kindle adds those). But there was no indication about new hardware. This doesn’t rule anything out, but it suggests that the next iPhone handset will either be an incremental upgrade — or that its new features will rely more on new hardware than new software that developers have to prepare for (eg, a better camera with video and/or autofocus).