SHIFT: What comes after iPhone 3.0?

DVICE writers take a closer look at the latest tech trends in our weekly column, Shift.

Apple's unveiling of the third major iteration of the iPhone's software was extremely welcome news to anyone who uses the phone for anything more than calling. Pretty much every other aspect of the device got upgraded, even the Notes app, bringing existing features in line with current smartphones (e-mail search, finally!) and even creating some brand new ones (like in-app purchasing).

As an iPhone owner, now that I've heard about the coming upgrade it can't come fast enough. As many have mentioned, most of the "new" features really should have been part of the operating system in the first place. Cut-and-paste functionality infamously occupies the top of the list, but really, if the phone in my pocket is, right now, physically capable of A2DP Bluetooth streaming, why the hell can't it do it right now?

But there's another perspective if you take a few steps back from the upgrade. At the risk of sounding extraordinarily premature, if the bulk of iPhone 3.0 constitutes a software "cleanup," what will be left for Apple to do when it's time for iPhone 4.0? My answer after the jump, along with some advice for the Cupertino Crew.

Paradigm Shifts vs. Changes

The original iPhone — along with its OS — was rightly praised upon its debut as a breakthrough gadget, one that woke up the dozing cellphone industry with never-seen-before features like visual voicemail and the best touchscreen interface ever made for a portable device. When iPhone 2.0 came a year later, it capitalized on the emerging market for apps made specifically for the phone, introducing the term to legions of people who'd never used it before. The upgrade was a paradigm shift, elevating the iPhone from sleek cellphone to personalized playground, at the same time inspiring a lot of people to become software developers.

Now we have iPhone 3.0. It's welcome, certainly. I want to send photos through MMS (multimedia messaging system). I want to send people contact cards wirelessly. And if I were a developer I'd be excited about embedding a Google map directly in my app. But if iPhone 1.0 and 2.0 were huge events, iPhone 3.0 is the afterparty.

iPhone 4.0

That doesn't mean there's literally nothing left to do as far as the iPhone OS goes. Video recording comes to mind. The way the iPhone gives you alerts — always via a dialog box that appears in the middle of the screen — is often intrusive and annoying. Safari on the iPhone often refreshes pages for no reason at all. And as much as I believe Apple when it says battery life takes a huge hit when applications run in the background, there should still be exceptions (being able to launch a Web browser without quitting an app would improve many of them).

But again, all this is just more cleanup. It's all well and good to have the iPhone experience streamlined, but as far as breaking down barriers, inspiring innovation, and getting people excited about technology, the iPhone's pretty much done. Like successive versions of a video game (Resident Evil 5, anyone?), it can't hope to ever match the flavor of the early years.

The Next 'It' Gadget

Why does any of this matter? It doesn't, unless you're always looking for the next big technological innovation. The iPhone was the "It" gadget for a long time — and to a large extent still is — but iPhone 3.0 shows that its star is no longer on the rise. And with heavyweight competitors like Google and Palm entering the fray, it's going to be even harder to stand out.

This isn't to say Apple should stop upgrading the iPhone. It surely must (and will), but the company will have to attack a new category if it ever wants to shake the tech world to its foundations again. While Apple certainly has made its share of flops (the Newton, G4 Cube, and Apple TV come to mind), its history of creating breakthrough products that people actually want to buy is unquestionable. Personally, I would rather the company starts thinking about doing something with e-readers. Or maybe netbooks. Or digital picture frames. Or even robots.

The iPhone has earned Apple even more "innovator capital" than any other tech company. While upgrades are fine, even titillating, it shouldn't let other opportunities rust while polishing its shiniest toy.