iPhone OS 4.0 Looms, But When Will We See It?

Apple has set the standard that once every year they will release a new version of the iPhone. It stands to reason that this year will be no different, with a new model likely coming sometime this summer. But arguably just as important as Apple’s hardware refresh is the accompanying software refresh that comes with it as well. And that’s why it shouldn’t be surprising at all that whispers of iPhone OS 4.0 are starting to grow. But this year, the timeline appears a bit off.

As AppleInsider reported today, iPhone OS 4.0 is likely to deliver multitasking support. If true, that will make it perhaps the most important OS upgrade for the platform yet. However, in reporting the news, AppleInsider also notes that the software, “remains under development and reportedly has a quite ‘way to go’ before it’s ready for prime time.” Looking back at the iPhone OS SDK history you’ll notice a constant: Apple has released the beta builds in March the past two years. We’re already well into March this year, and so far, no word about Apple being close to doing the same.

In fact, last year, Apple held its iPhone OS 3.0 preview event (where it first made a beta available) on March 17. I remember this well because I was unable to attend as I was at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. I also remember when Apple sent out the invites to that event, March 12, because I wrote up the report about it on my way to the airport to leave for Austin. But the difference last year is that there were whispers leading up to that announcement that there would be some kind of event in March for the iPhone OS. This year, so far, nothing.

Now, it’s possible that some of the speculation about the new iPhone OS release has been muted because of the recent iPad unveiling, and it’s upcoming launch on April 3. But that very launch also adds fuel to the fire that we won’t be seeing an iPhone 4.0 OS anytime soon. After all, Apple is currently in the process of rolling out the beta builds of iPhone OS 3.2 (currently on beta 4), which is the OS the iPad will apparently ship with.

The launch of the SDK is important because it gives developers time to get their apps ready for any big changes coming. And multitasking seems like it would be a pretty huge change, though it’s not entirely clear if most of the work would be done through the OS itself to optimize how app resources are managed, rather than apps having to do that themselves to be deemed “multitasking ready.” Hell, it’s not even clear if any iPhone beyond the inevitable new one will be allowed to let third-party apps run at the same time as the new hardware will undoubtedly have a faster processor (possibly the A4 found in the iPad), more RAM, and maybe even a better battery — all of which will be crucial to multitasking.

I’ve spoken with a few developers and none have yet seen any part of the iPhone 4.0 OS. A few have gotten word from the company that it is indeed coming, and that big changes are in store (which had led me to speculate about background running in the past) but have no idea when that will be. Apple, meanwhile, has been thinking about how best to let third-party applications run in the background on the iPhone for about a year now.

It seems unlikely that Apple would launch a new iPhone OS without giving developers plenty of time to play around with it. And since there is no word about the 4.0 SDK coming anytime soon, that could well mean a push from the usual June/July timeframe for a new (final build) iPhone OS launch. Might we see new iPhone hardware that launches with OS 3.2? And then iPhone OS 4.0 would be released as a free upgrade closer to the Fall timeframe? It certainly seems possible.