Wrapping up on Apple’s iOS 5 and iCloud announcement

The WWDC keynote has come and gone and while there was no announcement of the iPhone 5, there was still plenty of Mac OS X and iOS news to digest, including the upcoming iOS update and long rumored iCloud service. Let’s take a closer look at some of the things we learned about iOS 5 and iCloud, both of which can’t come a day too soon if you’re an owner of an iDevice.

Closest to the topic of TMA we’ll of course start with the iOS 5 and the new features, big and small.

1. Notification Center

Hallelujah! Notifications have probably been the most frustrating part of the iOS since the inception of the original iPhone. And with the implementation of Push a couple of years ago they have completely gone down the drain, making it almost impossible to get any sense from the flood of information streaming to your iDevice.

Well, better late than never Apple has finally completely revamped the system, turning the show-stopper modal alerts into non-intrusive banners, which disappear automatically after a few seconds. What’s more, at any moment and from anywhere in the system, with a simple swipe down from the top of the iDevice you can access the Notification Center. It provides convenient access to all of the messages received, grouped chronologically or by the originating app. And on the iPhone and iPod Touch this Notification Center additionally shows the weather and stocks as well.

Also, the lock screen is finally more than just wasted space, with the Notification Center being displayed there as well. And if you’re looking to get right into the offending app, you can do so with a simple tap ‘n swipe on the notification entry.

Probably my only gripe with the Notification Center is the absence of an option to show the calendar entries along with stocks and weather, which is how I currently use my Lock Screen.

2. NewsStand

Essentially the iBooks for magazines, NewsStand is a slap in the face for the dozens of dedicated magazine apps that have flooded the App Store since the iPad went live. It still remains to be seen how much interactivity it allows, but the notion of keeping all my magazine and newspaper subscriptions in one place certainly appeals to me. Not to mention that as new issues become available, they’re automatically updated in the the background. Now if they only arrange deals for publisher outside the US as well, consider my paper magazines dead.

3. Twitter

Ok, here I got caught completely off guard. While rumors of having Facebook support being built directly in the iOS have been circulating for quite some time, having it for Twitter was completely out of the blue for me. At the same time, the way Apple has implemented it, providing seamless integration with everything, from Safari to Photos, certainly deserves attention and respect. And while I’m personally not a big fan of Twitter and feel the craze will pass in a couple of years, if more OS developers embrace the platform as deeply as Apple, it may raise Twitter to a whole new level. Guess it’s finally time to start thinking about that IPO.

4. Safari

The best mobile browser out there has also been awarded with a couple of nifty upgrades. The most noteworthy is certainly the Safari Reader functionality (another slap in the face, this time for Instapaper (TMA Review). This magic button will strip away all of the excess stuff from the article webpage, like ads, widgets, etc., leaving only conveniently formatted text and related images. It will even pull up the whole content of a multipage article and condense it in one single intuitively scrolling page. Oh yeah, you can even save the page offline for later reading as well.

In addition to this huge new feature, owners of an iPad finally will be able to use tabbed browsing, instead of the tiled overview many are already used to. And if you have something to hide, Safari now has a Private browsing mode, with no history kept and no cookies sent (probably inspired by the Jailbreak tweak Covert, since it even turns the interface similarly black).

5. Reminders

The death of about 90% of the ToDo apps on the App Store, Reminders finally brings the functionality that should probably have been shipped with the original iPhone. Personally this is the holy grail for me because Reminders syncs not only with iCal, but… Wait for it… Microsoft Outlook and Exchange! Out of the box! If you read my review of Pocket Informant (Calendar & Tasks) (TMA Review) you might remember the horrible workaround I had to use to sync with my desktop. Well, no more! As with Contacts, Calendars and Mail I will finally be able to sync the Tasks seamlessly with my corporate Exchange server.

As a bonus, in addition to alerting you of a task due based on date, Reminders will be able to do so based on location, i.e. remind you to call your wife when leaving the office, or pick up the mail as you drive by a post office. Not sure how useful this will be in reality, by the feature certainly sounds nice.

6. Camera

After rejecting a previous update of Camera+ (TMA Review) that included this very feature, Apple has added the option of taking pictures using the Volume Up button. Additionally grid lines are now available to overlay on the viewfinder to make it easier to compose the picture, along with the support for pinch-to-zoom and Auto Exposure / Auto Focus lock. But Apple didn’t stop here and added some post-processing options as well in the form of rotating, cropping, red-eye reduction and one-touch image enhancing. Yep, half of the camera apps are now obsolete as well.

7. Mail

The Mail app has also seen a few nice upgrades including swipe to add inbox, full text searching, rich text formatting and… (drum roll)… flagging items, which hopefully also synchronizes with Exchange and Reminders as well. Finally support for S/MIME enterprise functionality has been added too, which should be a welcome addition for all Enterprise features.

8. PC Free

While I don’t quite share the massive excitement about going completely PC Free for the iOS device, what does get me excited is the addition of over-the-air incremental iOS updates. Of course the ability to set-up and activate your brand new iDevice without iTunes might be nice for people without a PC or those purchasing their new device while on the road and without access to the internet.

9. Game Center

One of the most minor updates in my opinion, I was a bit surprised it got mentioned in a separate section. Fans of going social can finally expect to be able to show themselves in full glory with a profile picture and brag about their achievement with overall scores across all games. Finally support for turn-based games has been implemented right into the iOS, simplifying the development of games like Chess or Scrabble.

10. iMessages

Apple’s answer to the Blackburry Messaging Service – iMessages, a built in IM client for all iOS devices including support for features like delivery and read reports and typing notifications. Far from being the SMS killer many immediately started calling it, iMessages may still gain traction if Apple goes cross-platform with it and releases clients for other mobile OSs. Otherwise, users could very well stick with messaging apps like WhatsApp Messenger (TMA Review).

11. “One more thing” times dozen

In addition to the major highlights, iOS 5 has over 200 new user features and here are some of the more notable ones:

  • A separate Music app on the iPod
  • Smart playlist syncing from iTunes
  • Option to speak text selection (Text-to-Speech)
  • Built-in dictionary across the iOS
  • Emoji emoticons
  • Personal dictionary (sounded like something Textexpander-like)
  • Alternate routes in Maps
  • Improved FaceTime video quality
  • Wi-Fi sync to iTunes
  • AirPlay mirroring to the AppleTV (in Full HD nonetheless)
  • Multitouch gestures to control multitasking on the iPad
  • Custom vibration patterns for different contacts
  • LED alarms for incoming calls and messages
  • FaceTime over 3G
  • Airport/Time Capsule set-up and configuration right from the iOS device
  • Custom user-defined gestures
  • Split keyboard for the iPad

Now onto the announcement that has been rumored ever since Apple bought LaLa and started building that huge Datacenter in North Carolina – the iCloud.

Let’s face it, MobileMe is and always was a piece of crap. Trying to sell for $99 per year what Google Sync and Dropbox do for free is definitely not a good business model. Finally Steve Jobs made Apple come to their senses and cut the price down to FREE. But wait, there’s more… Much more in fact!

In addition to the traditional Mail, Calendar and Contacts, Apple has added 6 more apps to the suite. Plus a cherry on top. Let’s take a look at them:

1. Photostream

With the iPhone 4 almost going through the roof as one of the most popular ways to take Photos, Apple has done the next logical step and offered storage and syncing Photos over the air. The iCloud will store photos from the last 30 days and automatically and seamelessly distribute them across all devices connected to the same AppleID, including iOS devices, Macs and PCs. The iOS devices will cache the last 1000 photos with the ability to save them permanently by moving to a local album, while the desktops will store all of them. My only concern is that 1000 photos for an iDevice is still quite significant and might take up to 2 Gb of space, which is not that little on a 16 Gb device, so an option to change this value would be most welcome.

2. Documents in the cloud

A significant upgrade of the iDisk functionality, now the files are not only stored in the cloud, but pushed in the background to all connected devices over the air. But what gets me more excited is the availability of these APIs to the developers, which theoretically could use this functionality to implement real-time syncing of save game and app data across all your devices, finally putting an end to the issue that has been nagging at me ever since the iPad has been released.

3. Backups in the cloud

In the theme of going completely PC Free — in addition to stuff like Wi-Fi syncing to iTunes — Apple is also offering the option to backup your device to the cloud as well. Designed to work when the iDevice is plugged into a power source overnight, this should free many people from the necessity of getting a PC/Mac just to back up your iDevice. I am a bit concerned however about how my iPhone with about 10 Gb of apps will handle the syncing, with my backup on the PC taking up to 2Gb.

4. iTunes in the cloud

A feature long overdue IMHO, you can now browse all of your purchased apps and download them via a handy interface. You always could re-download apps free of charge, but there was never an easy way to understand if you own them already. Now it’s as easy as 1-2-3 and you can even download previously purchased apps that are no longer available on the App Store.

In addition the re-download feature has been extended to iBooks and Music as well, thanks to some hush hush deals that Apple has made behind the scenes.

And last but certainly not least, there’s the revolutionary iTunes Match service. For a meager sum of $25 per year you will be able to scan and match all of your existing music library, not limited to the stuff you purchased through iTunes, and validate it for access through any iDevice. Here’s how it works according to Apple:

iTunes determines which songs in your collection are available in the iTunes Store. Any music with a match is automatically added to your iCloud library for you to listen to anytime, on any device. Since there are more than 18 million songs in the iTunes Store, most of your music is probably already in iCloud. All you have to upload is what iTunes can’t match. Which is much faster than starting from scratch. And all the music iTunes matches plays back at 256-Kbps iTunes Plus quality — even if your original copy was of lower quality.

A few parting thoughts I wanted to share from watching the Keynote. iOS 5 is certainly the most significant upgrade ever, with the word “seamless” coming to mind, even if not spoken out loud when looking at almost all of the new features. Apple has shown that it is not afraid to step on a few toes, killing a handful of apps outright with new built-in functionality and borrowing features from a bunch of Cydia apps. And the theme of downgrading the PC to “just another device” rather than the hub for all your interaction is interesting and in tune with the times. We’ll have to see if Apple has the muscle to pull off this little revolution in the IT market.

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