Before Apple made three major software-based announcements—iOS 5, iCloud, and OS X Lion—this week, validating a leaked claim that there would be no new iPhone or other hardware announced at the 2011 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), many people thought a purely software-focused keynote would be unlikely and unfulfilling. Yet the debuts of iOS5 and iCloud alone turned out to be such major news that the world is still sorting through all of their features two days later.
While our readers have already discussed their favorite and least favorite parts of the announcements, we’ve assembled this list of the ten biggest iOS- and iCloud-specific changes that were buried in the pile. They’re ranked in increasing order of importance to current and future iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch users, along with shorter lists of honorable mentions and disappointments at the bottom. (A full breakdown of new iOS 5 features can be found, with screenshots, here.)
10. Newsstand. Arguably the most trivial of the marquee additions to iOS, the new dedicated magazine and newspaper folder Newsstand is nonetheless a welcome feature—arguably more so for the iPad. Using a tweaked version of the shelf interface from iBooks, Newsstand automatically organizes newspaper and magazine apps within their own section of the iOS Home Screen, providing thumbnail previews of the latest downloaded covers for easy reference. While it mightn’t be as efficient a use of screen real estate as the standard grid of icons in a folder, it’s great to see all publication-specific apps going into one mega folder.
9. Twitter Integration. Some people will understand and love Apple’s decision to build Twitter support directly into iOS; others will continue to curse the increasingly popular microblogging service. We’re enthusiastic about this new feature, which lets iOS 5 users send photos (not videos) to Twitter directly from the Photos app, as well as map details and web pages from the Maps and Safari apps, while also linking your Contacts directly to their Twitter accounts. It has limitations – you can only share one photo at a time, for instance – but the official Twitter app is available for deeper interactions with that service.
8. Reminders App. It was patently obvious when we started to review reminder-based applications some time ago that their features would best be part of iOS itself. Apple agreed, and built Reminders, leveraging clock and location services to provide time- and place-specific reminders. Enter a quick to-do note and you’ll be able to have it trigger once at a specific time and date, repetitively, or as you arrive at or leave a specific destination—determined using location services. Typically sparing in obvious frills, Reminders’ integration into iOS will nonetheless make it an oft-used app.
7. Tabbed Browsing For iPad Safari. It seems like a minor feature, particularly in light of the iPad’s nine Safari window grid (and eight individual iPod touch/iPhone Safari windows), but tabbed browsing is better. Open a new page—in the foreground or background, now—and it appears as a tab, letting you tap one time to get right back to where you left off, without reloading the page. This is much faster than the grid of pages, with only one compromise: the top of the screen gets cluttered now with tabs, modestly reducing the space for the web page. It’s worth living with.
6. iTunes 10.3 / iOS 5’s iTunes in the Cloud Features. Apple called the announcement “small,” but the newfound iTunes ability to re-download previously purchased music at any time—and from any iOS device—is actually huge. You’re able to re-download virtually any songs you’ve purchased over 3G or Wi-Fi, including whole albums and box sets at a time, while music videos can be grabbed over Wi-Fi. This is a perfect way to recover lost iTunes Store music purchases, and to populate a just-purchased device with songs to start enjoying now, at no additional charge. Books and apps continue to be as accessible as they were before, but new Purchased screens in both the computer and iOS versions of iTunes let you see everything you’ve bought at once for easy re-downloading.
5. Notifications and Lock Screen Improvements. Apart from the relative reliability of Apple’s push notifications servers, the iOS notifications system has been a mess for a long time now. Every notification used to pop up in the center of the screen, interrupting whatever you were doing, and there was no central place to handle all of your notifications at once. The new iOS 5 Notifications Center isn’t perfect, but it manages everything, and offers a nicer-looking interface, too. A tray can be swiped down from the top of the screen at any time in the Home Screen—and some other apps—to look at outstanding notifications and quickly access their associated apps. While the tray is a little awkward on the iPad, it and the addition of tiny, top-of-screen notifications called banners, make it a lot easier to deal with incoming messages and the like.
The related improvements to the Lock Screens of all iOS 5 devices are even more spectacular. A version of Notifications Center provides previews of notifications directly from the Lock Screen, complete with slide-unlocked direct access to their apps, and Apple has given iPhones and iPod touches a special one-touch camera access button, as well. These features turn the previously all but useless Lock Screen into a fast gateway to all of the time-sensitive content on an iOS device, and that’s great.
4. iMessage. The specifics of its implementation are a little confusing—quite possibly because Apple deliberately didn’t launch it as a perfectly formed slap in the face to its cell phone partners—but the end result is incredible: iOS 5 is finally poised to deliver a long awaited and hopefully fatal blow to SMS and MMS. Leveraging the Messages application that was previously exclusive to iPhones, iOS 5 adds the same app to iPod touches and iPads, enabling an Apple ID account (or phone number) to serve as a conduit for text, photo, and video messages between any iOS 5 devices. iMessage adds received receipts and “currently typing” visual cues to the prior SMS/MMS interface, too.
Long overdue since Apple has offered instant messaging features in the free Mac app iChat for the better part of a decade, the iMessage system falls just short of iChat, leaving out a couple of very obvious possible additions: VoIP calling and integrated FaceTime video calling, the latter still hanging out in its own single-purpose app. But for users who have been ripped off by “1000 message” and “unlimited message” texting packages for the last four years, iMessage will make marked reductions in cell phone bills, and we’re thrilled to see it in iOS 5.
3. Free iCloud Services + Synchronization, Including Photo Stream. After years of charging for iTools, .Mac, and MobileMe while rivals such as Microsoft and Google offered similar cloud-based e-mail, contacts databases, and the like for free, Apple is finally bringing completely free and seemingly hassle-free options to iOS users with iCloud. The service will back up at least one and possibly multiple iOS devices for no charge—depending on how much stuff you store on your device—and will provide every iCloud user with a free @me.com e-mail address, 5GB of storage, and invisible background synchronization of everything from contacts to calendars, app data and saved game files. iTunes-purchased music, apps and books won’t count against the 5GB of storage, nor will photos, but other files will; you can pay for additional space if you need it.
While all of these features are awesome, and nearly as long overdue on iOS devices as iChat/iMessages, there’s one stand-out addition that could be truly awesome: camera synchronization. iCloud and a related iOS 5 feature called Photo Stream will let you instantly share your most recent 1,000 photos between your computer and all of your iOS devices, as each will be uploaded in the background to the iCloud, then downloaded to the devices. Photographers will quickly find this feature to be awesome, though a potential data-drainer on the road.
2. Wireless In-Home Synchronization. As fast as Apple has tried to make USB synchronization of iOS devices over the past several years, the process of actually having to bring your iPod, iPhone, or iPad over to a computer is often a pain—unnecessary given the hardware inside, and time-consuming given iTunes’ desire to perform a backup, app-syncing, and other things alongside whatever manual changes you hope to make. So iOS 5’s ability to do completely wireless syncing with iTunes, triggered merely by connecting the device to a power source, is going to be fantastic for users who don’t want to rely purely upon iCloud for backing up their media and the like. Suddenly the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad that charges on the nightstand next to your bed will be able to mirror your latest iTunes additions automatically. As long as it works properly, this should be great.
1. Computer-Free iOS Device Setup and Updating. It’s probably the single most important change in iOS 5—and the one that will impact not just existing iOS users, but the next generation of new Apple customers, too: you won’t need a computer any more to activate and start using your iOS device. The required “Connect to iTunes” activation step has always been a small hassle for some users and a major roadblock for others, particularly people who don’t own desktop or laptop computers (yes, they exist!) but want to enjoy the benefits of an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. These users have either had to find friends or family to lean on for initial activation, backups and/or software updates; some people haven’t purchased Apple’s digital media devices solely because they’ve been tethered to computers.
With iOS 5, that will end. An unglamorous but full on-device activation system will let a user set up everything from the device’s language, country, (initial) wireless network settings, and Apple ID account, optionally enabling computer-free iCloud-based synchronization, and/or full restoration of a prior iOS device’s contents. Massive software updates will now give way to “Delta Updates,” smaller downloads that contain only changes to the prior release. Both app and iOS updates will take place on the device without the need for a computer to be involved.
These features have incredible promise and equal potential for new problems. If delta-updated software isn’t properly patched, it can become corrupted and unusable—a huge potential issue for apps and iOS itself, such that a device could be “bricked” if not properly updated. The patching process can require additional processor involvement for the device. And in a world where computers and cables aren’t required for backups, it’s possible that data could get lost or corrupted on its way to or from the cloud. But if Apple’s committing to these features, we’re thinking they’re likely to be done right.
Honorable Mentions. These improvements just missed the top 10 list. FaceTime tweaks should make videos look smoother on supported iOS 5 devices. The addition of iBookstore content to the iTunes Store in iTunes 10.3 is welcome—hopefully, a Mac and PC reading app will be available, too. Accessibility additions will make iOS 5 devices easier for disabled users to enjoy. Typing shortcuts will make the typing of oft-repeated phrases a lot easier on all iOS devices. And Camera enhancements help with basic editing, previewing, and exposure adjustments.
Disappointments. There were a few obvious misses this time, too. Maps still hasn’t gotten the major overhaul—and turn-by-turn directions—that it could really benefit from, leaving Google Android users well ahead of the curve. Apple’s new Music app for iPads is only a modest improvement relative to the messy prior iPod app it replaces. And the lack of new voice control features for iPhones and iPod touches, say nothing of the continued absence of voice control for iPad, is a glaring omission in iOS 5. Apple’s acquisition of Siri and deal with Nuance appear to be setting the company up for dramatic improvements in the voice recognition and simulation departments, but they haven’t happened yet. And the lack of Twitter-style deep iOS Facebook integration is quite possibly the biggest “why not?” on the list.
Overall, iOS 5 and iCloud turned out to be big news—worthy of their own event—and there’s no reason to fret about the lack of a big simultaneous hardware announcement. The best part of the announcement is that these features will be supported not just for brand new devices, but all third- and fourth-generation iPod touches and iPhones, as well as both generations of the iPad. So while Apple will surely continue to provide incentives to keep buying its products, it’s not freezing out past customers unnecessarily, either, and we’re very happy about that.