iPhone HD: hardware evolution, lock-in revolution

Last week's expansive leaks (and no shortage of rumor) gave us the opportunity to pick through the hard changes involved in the Apple iPhone HD; a display estimated at 960 x 640, a front-facing camera, talk even of the 1GHz Apple A4 CPU from the iPad. The question remains, though, will the iPhone HD be another game-changer or more of an incremental evolution? Right now, extra pixels and faster CPU aside, it looks more of the latter; the cynic might compare the iPhone HD with OS 4.0 to an ageing athlete, requiring the services of a bolted-on exoskeleton in order to keep up. The new software platform (which has likely saved a few surprises for the official fourth-gen hardware reveal later in the year) brings some much-anticipated features, but they feel a little clunky in their implementation. As I said in my recent iPad review, background notifications and multitasking will work, but they lack the purity found in earlier iterations of the platform.

That's important, because while not everyone has bought an iPhone, we've all arguably benefitted from Apple's innovation. Touchscreens were of course in use before the first-gen Apple handset, but rarely had they been so usable, so completely paired with an intuitive OS. HTC, Palm, RIM, Samsung, LG and others have gamely risen to the challenge, certainly, but they owe a debt to Apple for the halo product that spurred on consumer demand.

Of course, the real prize – that is, what Apple's rivals are really keen to emulate – is the iPhone's user lock-in. That is to say, the App Store and the vast (and ever-growing) catalog of third-party software which run on Apple's handsets and theirs alone. The iPhone software dynamic is an odd one, perhaps at odds with what you'd expect to be popular in an internet-savvy, freedom aware user base. Thanks to Apple's approval mandarins, the App Store is well-pruned; hardly a week goes by without some story of a title rejected for treading outside of Cupertino's boundaries of acceptability, outraged developers (and usually a fair few critics from the public too) decrying the company for being unnecessarily restrictive.

That frustration, however, seemingly prompts subconscious reassurance among iPhone users: they know the app they buy today won't turn around and bite their smartphone tomorrow, is unlikely to suddenly die and take their data with it. In turn, they're far more willing to hand over $0.99 (or thereabouts) on a punt purchase. After all, its met the excruciating Apple standards.

So, with rival on-device application catalogs growing (the Android Market, Palm's App Catalog, etc.), what's the next equivalent for Apple? With the advent of iPhone OS 4.0, it seems locking in not just users but developers is the next focus. iAd – Apple's new in-app advertising platform – isn't just about making them and the developer community some money, it's about making iPhone OS more alluring and, in time, the only viable option for coders.

Picture it: if iAd is making developers twice the amount of revenue in their free iPhone apps than basic advertising makes in, say, the Android equivalent, what's that developer to do? Will the market understand the reasons behind a free iPhone app being a paid one on a rival platform? Or will the knee-jerk reaction be for users to lean toward the iPhone as the having the most free (or most feature-rich) software, and for developers to neglect their free titles on other platforms because they see a better return on their coding investment under Apple's awnings?

iPhone 3G to 3GS was relatively incremental; case change, screen boost and CPU swap notwithstanding, 3GS to HD may be similarly incremental. With most smartphones on the market having fast processors, eye-catching displays and fulsome connectivity, the game has changed and it's a trickier one to play. As Palm have discovered to their shareholders' cost, it takes more than a great OS and decent "expert" reviews to conquer the smartphone segment these days. Apple's ground-breaking changes aren't so easy to quantify on a spec-sheet, but they'll result in a whole lot more users and developers with platform investment that goes far beyond a two-year carrier agreement.