My first week with iOS 5 hasn’t been earth shattering, but it has been ground breaking. What Apple has accomplished is reducing friction in the user experience. They prove time and time again that they can repeat this action, which is more than competitors can claim.
The biggest difference in daily usage comes with Notification Center. It has its share of rough edges, but it has distinct advantages over the modal dialogs that have been frustrating users since the dawn of the push notification. The messages feel much more like notifications and less like interruptions. The new system might lack originality, but the notifications work as promised, making this a big leap forward. The lock screen notifications pose some privacy issues. They are configurable, but not to the degree of what content they will display. Mail notifications in particular could use more granular control.
Apart from Notification Center, the changes are so well considered that you almost forget they exist. The geek inside wants to tinker and fine-tune the experience, but it’s unnecessary because ‘it just works’ was more than hyperbole.
Wi-Fi Sync was an omission that had gotten more glaring as each year passed. Although, it isn’t enabled in the beta, tethered syncing also gained improvements indicative of how the experience will work wirelessly. Your device can now be freely operated while syncing, and a rotating icon in the status bar alerts you to the reason your phone isn’t responding quite as quickly. Otherwise, this is iTunes syncing as usual, so not much to talk about here.
The new iMessage protocol is almost completely transparent. When messaging other iOS 5 devices from your phone, messages are automatically sent with iMessage. They bring the benefit of delivery and read receipts, as well as typing notifications to indicate the recipient is working on their response. If you aren’t rocking an unlimited text plan this could significantly undercut the number of text messages you send each month. SMS is basically relegated to a fallback for messaging people without iPhones. iMessage is an incredible feature that you will hardly notice.
And then there’s iCloud. Also transparent, but undoubtedly the most revolutionary piece of the WWDC keynote pie. iCloud isn’t one entirely new and cohesive piece of technology. It’s a smattering of Apple tech both old and new that completes a larger overall picture of your digital life in the cloud.
Device syncing is nothing new to a MobileMe user. Confidently updating a contact or calendar event, and seeing that change ‘instantly’ propagate to another device has been experienced by anyone willing to pay $99/year for such a novel service. What is new with iCloud is that this functionality is available to all developers with the new APIs. Apple has already demoed document syncing with iWork, and we’re going to see apps big and small taking advantage of iCloud to improve their experience across multiple devices.
Managing media has always been a sticking point of syncing with iTunes. Your computer, as your digital hub, stored all your media which you would then pare down to get some desired subset to sync onto your iPod, iPhone, etc. Now with the apparent flick of a switch we can delete songs off our phones, and download them again if we wish. This is true of songs, books, and apps from their respective stores. Not only can they all be downloaded again free of charge, but a list of previous purchases is maintained, so you can always reclaim something that you have previously purchased. This doesn’t seem to be true of movies or shows purchased on iTunes, but that doesn’t mean an agreement for such a thing couldn’t be reached in the future. iTunes Match enables you to treat all your songs in this manner (for $24.99/year), regardless of whether they were purchased with iTunes. But I think Apple is right in assuming this feature will only be necessary for a smaller percentage of users.
Photostream is one of the newer pieces of the puzzle. As our iPhones and iPads take more and more pictures, Photostream soaks them up and parades them across your iCloud account for you to view and copy to your other devices as you see fit. It shows the last 30 days of images (up to 1000) from all your devices. The limitations seem fairly straightforward given the large amounts of data required for storing digital photos, but I could see people being willing to pay for a solution in the future that would make this more flexible.
Cloud backup is possibly the most revolutionary pillar of iCloud. This is what enables PC Free to be a key feature of iOS 5. Your device settings, app data, and Camera Roll get backed up to the cloud from which you can restore the data to a new iOS device wirelessly next time you drop your phone in the lake. This is largely possible due to the fact that Apple already stores your music, books, and apps on their servers. Those things excluded, Apple gives you a 5GB limit of data for your device backups, with evidence that more will be available in the future at a price. Right now, my iPhone 4 backup is about 1.9GB, the majority of which is the 516 items in my Camera Roll. To contrast, my iPad is a mere 252MB, as I have a first generation unit with no camera.
While also subtle in how it affects day to day use, there is a feeling that overtime the advancements of iCloud will have an ever widening impact. Not only painting a new experience for the iPhone and iPad, but broader strokes that change how we think of, interact with, and design the next generation of software.