Apple announced 200 new features and 1,500 new APIs in the next release of its mobile operating system, iOS 5. The biggest changes cut the cable to Macs and PCs, tie it more closely to Apple's new cloud services, and update the UI with real-time interactivity in the form of revamped notifications system.
iOS 5 was unveiled today at Apple's annual Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco, hosted by CEO Steve Jobs. Executives focused on just 10 changes, many of which were greeted with applause and cheers by the hundreds of developers in attendance. But there was a sense of disappointment at Apple's continued silence over the next iPhone.
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Software developers can begin working now with a beta version of the OS. It will ship in fall 2011, and be available for iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPad and iPad 2, and the third-generation-or-later iPod Touch models. And, of course, the long-expected iPhone 5.
The overall UI for iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch devices was left essentially unchanged. But Apple has made some key changes to the underlying iOS plumbing that could have a big impact on the users, by enabling new apps and new app behaviors.
iOS ties in automatically with Apple's new cluster of cloud-based services, called iCloud. iOS apps can create a document that is automatically pushed to other devices in the user's iCloud "account," including Macs, with no user intervention, says Kevin Hoffman, a software developer, and author of several books on programming, who's written apps for both iOS and Windows Phone 7.
A user enters his Apple ID and password, and iCloud will work with the local apps to wirelessly synchronize mail, contacts, calendars, photos, apps, books, music and more across all the user's devices.
"This is huge for developers who don't want to rely on the 'flavor of the month' file sync API, such as Dropbox, and who don't want to set up their own synchronization infrastructure in the cloud," he says.
Dropbox is a popular online backup and sharing service. But compared to iCloud, it's considerably more complex for developers, according to Hoffman. "Today, I have to get a Dropbox developer account and prompt the users of my iOS application for their Dropbox credentials in order to synchronize application documents across multiple devices," he says. "And I have to prompt that user for Dropbox credentials on every device. Further, the file I'm working on with my iPhone won't show up on my iPad until I open the application, tell it I want to open a file from Dropbox, and then load it."
iOS 5 and iCloud sidestep all that, he says.
Hoffman notes that Microsoft previously had a similar capability to iCloud in Live Mesh, but its current status is unknown, he says, and "there's certainly no synchronization client on Windows Phone 7."
Also new with iOS is a single sign-on capability, creating a single locus for users to set credentials for password-protected resources, and a secure API for developers to access those credentials. This "is a huge step forward," Hoffman says. "As an application developer, I'm no longer concerned with how I'm going to prompt the user for their Twitter account password, I can just ask iOS for it and the user can decide whether or not to let my application access that information -- all securely."
The single sign-on feature is a key element in the new iOS Twitter integration. An iPhone user can take a photo with the phone, tap an action button, then tap "Tweet," for example. Users don't need to re-login for every app.
In parallel with the greater cloud integration, Apple has unshackled iOS device from having to be cabled to a Mac or PC. You'll be able to unpack an iOS 5 device, turn it on, see a welcome screen, and start using the device. Starting with iOS 5, software content can be updated, transferred and backed up incrementally and wirelessly, via Wi-Fi Sync and SSL, without having to cable the device to your computer.
Push notifications of emails, missed calls and other updates or state changes will be much smoother for users in iOS 5.
Apple introduced notifications in 2009, via a service dubbed the Apple Push Notification System (APNS), which let iOS apps register with a server to receive remote updates, such as a new tweet on Twitter, an item added to newsfeed, or a challenge from an online game player. APNS sends the update directly to the registered iPhone. The update can trigger a sound, show a text message, or prepare an iPhone app to launch in response.
But every such notification interrupted whatever task the user was doing. You have to acknowledge the interruption before doing anything else.
In iOS 5, Apple introduces the Notification Center, which will consolidate all notifications, and can be accessed by swiping a finger down from the top menu. The drop-down screen shows missed calls, voicemails, text messages and push notices from the iTunes-based App Store.
"It looks to be primarily an improvement on the functionality for the enduser experience," says Michael Richardson, co-founder and engineer at Urban Airship, a Portland, Ore., software company that offers a software-based service to simplify deploying push notifications, in-app purchasing and other capabilities for mobile apps. "It's much easier for users to deal with."
At this point, Apple has not released the complete documentation for Notification Center, so Richardson doesn't know if it will include new features in addition to the new user interface. Airship's enterprise customers especially would like to see support for read receipts and guaranteed delivery, and an increase in the current notification payload size of 256 bytes, he says.
Notification Center behaves more like the notification system devices running Google or Palm's webOS (now acquired by HP), according to Hoffman.
Other iOS 5 changes highlighted by Apple in Monday's announcement:
• A new version of the Safari Web browser, with Safari Reader, which can bring a newspaper article onto a single page, and lets you email it, or bookmark and return to later on another iOS device or a Mac; and full tabbed browsing for the first time.
• iMessage: the iPhone messaging client will be available now on iPad and iPod touch, for sending text, photos, videos, contacts, and doing group messaging; the encrypted messaging can work over 3G or Wi-Fi connections.
• Reminders: a task management system that lets you group tasks together, and assign time- or location-based reminder alerts. You can be reminded to call someone when you leave a given location, for example. Reminders are viewable in iCal and Outlook, and are updated automatically.
• Improved mail client: adding features such as rich-text formatting, control indentation, draggable addresses, flagging, among other changes; also support for S/MIME to encrypt emails, a feature enterprises will welcome; an onboard dictionary is now a service in iOS 5.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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