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With mulitasking, a game center, a bookstore, a new advertising platform and more

Photo: Jon Fortt

Steve Jobs, looking and sounding healthier than he has in some time, took the stage Thursday to unveil the third major update for the software that drives Apple’s (AAPL) growing family of mobile devices.

The improvements in iPhone OS 4.0, as the new system is called, were not terribly surprising. Rumors that Apple was going to add multitasking — the ability to run several programs at once, something competing smartphones already have — had been circulating for months. Developers can download a beta version today and start using 1,500 new programming tools. The finished product, with more than 100 new features for users,  won’t be ready for installation (as a free upgrade) on iPhones and iPod touches until this summer and on iPads this fall.

Still, the range and scope of the improvements were impressive. Jobs and Scott Forstall, one of Apple’s rising young stars, unveiled seven so-called “tentpole” features:

  1. Multitasking. By tapping twice on the home button, users can switch from one app to another, while the first is still playing in the background. This means music programs like Pandora don’t have to stop playing when e-mail comes in. Voice over Internet programs like Skype can receive calls, even if the program isn’t running in the foreground. And social media programs like Loopt can keep round-the-clock track of its users’ locations.

    Photo: gdgt

  2. Folders. By grouping applications in folders, users who once could install no more than 180 apps on an iPhone can now fit 2,160.
  3. Mail. Apple’s new enhanced mail app lets users create one unified mailbox for all their mail accounts. It also allows threading by topic and multiple exchange accounts.
  4. iBooks. This app brings to the iPhone and iPod touch the iBookstore introduced on the iPad. Included for free is a copy of Winnie the Pooh, a book with color illustrations that shows off to best advantage what Apple can do that Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle can’t.
  5. Enterprise. Apple is adding a suite of improvements aimed at attracting IT departments currently wedded to Research in Motion’s (RIMM) BlackBerry, including stronger encryption and mobile device management.
  6. Game Center. Playing on its growing lead in terms of number of games — more than 50,000 compared with 4,321 for the Nintendo DS and 2,477 for the Sony (SNE) PSP — Apple is adding leaderboards and matchmaking services to make it easier to find people online to participate in multiplayer games.
  7. Photo: gdgt

    iAd. Steve Jobs saved this for last. What he’s offering developers is a way to create interactive ads that don’t, in his words, “suck” or force users to leave the program they’re running when they click on an ad. With Apple’s various mobile devices serving up more than 1 billion impressions a day, there’s an opportunity for both developers and Apple to make a lot of money, and Jobs is offering them a 60/40 split.

Before the iPhone 4.0 presentation, Jobs trotted out some of the nice round numbers he likes to share at these events:

  • 450,000 iPads sold as of today (nearly 200,000 less than the Chitika Labs‘ counter showed before it was hastily reset, which doesn’t say much for Chitika’s methodology)
  • more than 3.5 million iPad apps sold to date
  • more than 600,000 books downloaded
  • more than 185,000 apps of all varieties in App Store
  • “Well over” 4 billion apps downloaded
  • Over 50 million iPhones sold
  • Roughly 35 million iPod touches sold

Click here for Jon Fortt’s live blog of the event.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]