Apple takes baby steps with iOS 5

Just as promised, Apple unveiled iOS 5 today at the keynote address of the company's 2011 Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. CEO Steve Jobs opened the event, but he turned to Scott Forstall, Apple's senior vice president of iOS, to show off 10 of the promised 200 new features for the iPhone 4,iPhone 3GSiPad, and iPod Touch. Developers will get their version of iOS 5 today, with customers receiving the update this fall.
Though not every predicted feature came to pass, the update includes long-rumored additions like a better notifications system and wireless software updates. Some of the new features are cool, and a few were a long time in coming, but the update remains incremental when compared with previous iOS updates. That's not to say that the additions aren't useful, but most are relatively small.

Notifications
Forstall started by announcing this update, which drew a lot of applause from the audience. Instead of the current system of pop-up menus that interrupt your work, a new Notification Center will combine messages, missed calls, app updates, a stock ticker, and the current weather in a single place. You can access it by swiping your finger downward from the top of the screen (sound familiar?) and notifications will appear on the lock screen as well. You then can jump directly to the related feature for each notification and delete items by tapping the small X next to each line.
Though not exactly original--the pull-down menu has long been a hallmark feature of Android--the ability to see all notifications in one place is nonetheless welcome. Since the first iPhone's debut four years ago, the iOS notification system has remained largely unchanged. It's simple, yes, but the current application is unusable until you dismiss the message, and several messages in a row quickly became annoying. So it's about time we got this change.

Newsstand
This app will bring together magazine subscriptions in a central place. The concept is similar to iBooks, even down to an icon that looks like the periodicals shelf at your local library. As you subscribe to a publication through a new channel in the App Store, new issues will be delivered in the background, eliminating the need to manually grab them when they publish.

Twitter
Thankfully, users now will be able to post photos to the social networking service without leaving the image gallery or camera application. It's a nice change given that it will end the need to take a photo, switch to the iPhone Twitter app, and then post the photo. You'll be able to add a location, sync Twitter with your contacts list, and tweet directly from YouTube, Safari, and Maps.

Safari
The mobile version of Apple's Web browser will get the Reader option that was announced at the 2010 WWDC. As you'd expect, it will streamline multipage articles in an RSS-like view while stripping out ads (but leaving photos). You'll also be able to e-mail the entire text of a Safari page to a contact (presently, you can send only a link).
In other Safari news, tabbed browsing will come to the iPad at last and you can bookmark a Web page on a Reading List list for future perusal. The latter feature can be synced between multiple Safari devices and should work very similarly to browser add-ons like Read It Later and Instapaper.

Reminders
This handy addition will let you store multiple to-do lists with dates for each event and categorize reminders by location. So, for example, if you have a reminder of "Call home when I leave work," the app will use GPS to note when you're on the move and send the reminder. Reminders can be shared between devices and sync with iCal on the Mac with CalDAV, and on Windows with MS Exchange.

Camera
iOS 5 will add a shortcut on the lock screen that will launch the camera immediately, even bypassing the lock code. You then can use the volume control to snap the photo. Inside the camera you'll get grid lines, pinch to zoom (instead of using the slider bar at the bottom of the screen), autofocus, and the ability to change the exposure and add granular controls.
After taking photos, you can edit your shots with crop, rotate, and red-eye reduction. Also, one-click enhancements from iPhoto will add quick color correction. Though we welcome these additions, Apple is late to the photo-editing party as this functionality has long existed on basic phones. We'll have to see how Apple makes it all work when iOS 5 is available, but we doubt it means the demise of third-party apps like Photoshop Express.

Mail
Coming to the mail app are rich text formatting, better indent control, flagging of messages, and the ability to drag addresses between to, cc, and bcc lines. Also, you now can search within the body of a message instead of just in the from, to, and subject lines. Thanks for that.

'PC Free'
Arguably the most notable change, "PC Free" will bring over-the-air software updates and device activations. So as on Android, Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry OS 5 devices, you'll no longer have to plug your device into a computer or even own a computer at all. The updates will serve only the changes, so they'll be shorter, and you'll be able to sync, back up, and restore your device using the new iCloud feature. You'll also find new features within apps, like wirelessly editing photos, managing e-mail folders, and creating and deleting calenders.

Game Center
Additions for gamers include profile photos, achievement point comparison, friends of friends, recommended friends and games, support for turn-based games, and a way to buy games directly from Game Center.

iMessage
Apple takes a shot at BlackBerry with this instant messaging app that will work across all iOS 5 devices. As with BlackBerry Messanger (BBM), you'll be able to exchange unlimited text messages, photos, and videos with your friends, family, and colleagues. Also, your messages won't cost you anything and they won't count against the monthly allotment of messages form your wireless carrier.
Other features include group messaging, an indicator to see if someone is typing to you, delivery and read receipts, secure encryption, and conversation syncing that is pushed to multiple devices. iMessage will work on 3G and Wi-Fi networks.

What else
Forstall quickly mentioned a selection of other updates. They will include new multitasking gestures for the iPad, hourly weather forecasts, Wi-Fi sync with iTunes, a split keyboard for the iPad, a new iPad music app, an iTunes ringtone store, AirPlay mirroring for the iPad 2, a personal dictionary, alternate routes in Maps, Emoji emoticons, and custom vibration patterns.

A big deal or no?
Compared with previous WWDC keynotes, there's no escaping the fact that this one was quite low-key. Unlike in the last three years, we didn't get a new iPhone and we still have no clue as to when the iPhone 5 (or is it the iPhone 4S?) will get here. Even when you consider the software only, iOS 5 isn't terribly exciting either. Sure, it adds some welcome features that will benefit users, but it's not quite the whopper that iOS 4 or even iOS 3 was.
What's more, even the most die-hard Apple fans have to admit that some of the new features simply bring the iPhone in line with options we currently see on other smartphone operating systems or in third-party apps. On the other hand, Apple has always excelled at taking existing features and creating a different user experience and that may be the case here.
Indeed, we'll have to use iOS 5 before we give a real assessment of its features. There may be more spectacular changes that Apple has yet to announce, but we don't see iOS 5 as a reason to switch to iOS if you haven't done so already. We'll stop short of saying that we're disappointed, as even Apple doesn't have to wow us every time it has an announcement. It's just that you tend to get your hopes up for events where Jobs is scheduled to appear.


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