I was at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June, 2011 when Steve Jobs introduced iOS 5, and I've been running the beta version on my iPhone 4 and iPad 2 ever since. As an iPhone app developer, I'm under Non-Disclosure, so in my iPhone Life article in the September- October 2011 issue, I had to stick to publicly announced features. Now that I've had some extensive hands-on time, and iOS 5 should be out by the time you read this, it's safe to at least offer my impressions. Specifically, iOS 5 is a welcome refinement to Apple's mobile operating system.
Four years ago, the iPhone was magical and changed the definition of what a smartphone should be. The next year, the jump to iOS 2.0 gave us the App Store and unleashed the iPhone's potential, thanks to third-party developers. A year later, iOS 3.0 added much needed features like copy/paste and MMS. With iOS 4 multitasking was finally delivered. Now, iOS 5 offers finishing touches suitable for a mature operating system that's no longer of "pre-school age."
The new iCloud service enables what Apple calls the "PC Free" era. Nobody has been able to buy an iOS 5 gadget and unbox it yet, but the experience promises to be dramatically better. Previously, users needed to connect their new iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to a Mac or PC and configure it. Now, new iOS 5 devices will ask for your iCloud account information and automatically download your settings, preferences, apps, music, and more!
I've been able to "restore" my iPhone 4 to factory new (iOS 5) configuration and try this out; it is very cool. There are still some settings that might not be remembered properly, but I'll chalk that up to the beta process and give Apple a chance to work on those issues.
Additionally, I've been able to leverage the "Delta" updates feature. Instead of downloading and installing an entire new OS, only the changes, or "deltas," from the currently installed version and the newer version are downloaded. This makes over-the-air updates possible, and more importantly, practical.
Wi-Fi syncing means I have been able to stay updated without physically tethering my iOS devices to my Mac. Syncs are no longer marathon sessions, because syncing happens throughout the day. You can enable this feature to happen automatically when your iOS device is plugged in to A/C power and within Wi-Fi range of your computer. My Nokia used to do something similar via Bluetooth three years ago, so I'm glad to see this refinement!
iCloud is free, and it's no wonder. Not that there isn't value… indeed iCloud is incredibly valuable. And that's the point. Once you have all of your content (contacts, apps, music, movies, books, etc.) on Apple's servers, why would you ever leave for a competing platform? Technologically and financially, it's so much easier to stay in the Apple ecosystem. That's why iCloud is free, at least for the first few gigabytes.
Apple needed to address notifications, and they did a solid job with the new iOS 5 Notification Center. Instead of being interrupted, especially in a heated gaming session, a notice drops down, similar to an iAd, and then fades away if you ignore it. Or, you can touch the alert and go to that notice's app. Notification history is accessible anytime by dragging a finger down from the top center of the screen. You can then go directly to a particular notice's app by selecting it. It has taken some getting used to because text messages, voicemails, and other notices are all in the same ‘bucket.' For example, I didn't realize that I was getting text messages from a friend because I had set the same 'ringtone' for both texts and voicemails. I kept checking voicemail and did not see any messages from him. Once I realized he had been sending texts, all was well.
In fact, that brings up one of the major new features of interest to me: custom ringtones for more than just phone calls. Email, SMS, and similar alerts can now have their own ringtones! Naturally, Apple makes it easy to buy ringtones from their new iTunes Tone Store! Fortunately, you can create your own using a variety of sources and assign them to all kinds of events. Full disclosure: my most popular app, Ringtones Uncensored ($.99, app2.me/3490), lets users create talking ringtones using Text-to-Speech, so this has been the number one request from users! You could have a text message notice that actually speaks "Todd, you have a text message from Steve!"
Speaking of text messaging, Apple's new iMessage may finally make me a believer in texting. I always recognized the benefits, but I never wanted to commit to an SMS plan because I didn't think I would send enough texts to justify it. Now, Apple has their own iMessage system, which works with all iOS 5 devices and can send to SMS devices as well. And it's free, at least between iOS 5 systems! Because of this, I will be gifting my iPhone 4 to my wife when the iPhone 5 comes out, and we will likely become frequent texters!
I like that you can see when your contact is typing a response, similar to BlackBerry Messenger and other chat systems. I imagine Apple will merge FaceTime, iChat, and iMessage, but for now, you have to determine the right tool for the job. FaceTime offers audio and video between iOS and Macs, but no texting. iChat offers audio, video, and typing but is only available for Macs. iMessage is text-only (plus multimedia attachments) and works on iOS only, with support for messaging between other phones via SMS. It would be nice to have one solution for real-time audio, video, and text that works across Mac, iOS, and other phones.
Apple has refined the built-in Camera app, starting with how you launch it. You can access it directly from the lock screen, so even if you have a password, you can take a picture without waiting to enter your PIN. Photographers will tell you that the best camera is the one you have with you, and since the iPhone is the source of so many of the world's photos, this will make a lot of people happy. I was really looking forward to this feature but it didn't seem to work for me. Then I read that you have to double-click the circular Home button while the phone is in lock screen mode in order to enable that feature and even then, it's temporary. This was not intuitive, and I'm surprised you cannot configure this permanently in the Settings or Camera apps.
The folks at Tap Tap Tap are probably not too happy that Apple copied their lead and enabled the Volume + button to act as a shutter release, but it's a significant enhancement. Tap Tap Tap's flagship product, Camera+, added that feature through a backdoor, and the app was pulled because it violated Apple's Human Interface Guidelines. The Windows Phone has this feature, so Apple was wise to include it.
Do you know that little AirPlay symbol? It looks like a rectangle with a triangle inside, pointing up? You should start to see it a lot more, in apps like Netflix, and even games. IOS 5 lets you send your screen or videos to an AirPlay-enabled device, like an Apple TV. This is Apple's Trojan horse that opens the door to console-style gaming.
There are a bunch of additional refinements in iOS 5 including Game Center tweaks, Newsstand, Location-based Reminders, Twitter Integration, Safari Enhancements, Accessibility Improvements, and even an iPad Split-Keyboard. Check out the September-October 2011 issue of iPhone Life for a discussion on those topics.
Keep in mind that iOS 5 will be available in the Fall 2011 and will support a subset of iOS devices. Specifically, the iPhone 3GS, iPod touch 3rd generation, original iPad, and newer devices can run iOS 5. iPhone 3G and older devices are left out.
Sure, iOS 5 borrows a lot from Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, and others, particularly in notifications and messaging, but the same is true of car manufacturers, football teams, and toaster ovens. As Steve Jobs says, "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." It's worth noting that he stole that line from Picasso.