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Why iOS 5 is a big deal

This week's iOS 5 update isn't a few tweaks here and there. It's a rethink of how iOS fits in with Apple's other products, as well and how iOS can scale to more devices in the future.

commentary While most of this week's attention is going to be on Apple's new iPhone 4S and how it sells, the most important thing to come out of the company is a new version of its iOS software, which arrives tomorrow.

iOS 5, which made its debut at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June, marks a turning point for the company's mobile software. Yes, it's largely a collection of tweaks, improvements, and fiddling with a tried and true formula, but it's also one that--for the first time--breaks iOS devices apart from computers running Apple's iTunes software and goes further to try to unify the devices into the same family.

That vision is miles away from where Apple's iPhone journey started and a response to the fact that iOS has long since rocketed past the company's computers in popularity, with devices like the iPad growing to compete directly. No, this isn't a "Mac OS X is dying" post, as much as now is a very good time to point out that what may seem like just another software update is something much bigger in the grand scheme of things.

The "PC Free" era
For the last four major versions of iOS, stretching all the way back to the original iPhone, Apple has demanded that users plug into a computer--be it a Mac or PC--to sync music, ferry over data, and grab software updates. Now those features are built into iOS itself.

Of course, if you have a computer, you can still plug in your device and continue to use iTunes, but Apple's big idea is that these devices now stand on their own, right out of the box. That's further augmented by a new wireless sync feature built into today's iTunes 10.5 software update and iOS 5 that lets users continue to sync with their computer as they always have, but without the wires.

To get to the "PC free" era, as Apple's calls it, the company's gone through each built-in application to make sure it can function fully without the need for a computer running iTunes. Apple laid the groundwork for that in previous system software updates, letting users download content from the iTunes Store directly onto devices. But where that was largely a ploy to encourage people to make more content purchases, this move takes the decoupling approach system-wide to make the hardware more appealing to those who wish it exclusively. That amounts to things like letting users delete media that's been synced over from a computer, as well as editing photos that have been snapped on the device.

In order to make what could be considered a sacrifice of decoupling it to iTunes, Apple's tied it to something else: iCloud. That's Apple's new cloud-based service that both stores and ferries files from one iOS device to another.

Launching tomorrow alongside iOS 5, iCloud does many of the same things as MobileMe (the service it's replacing), while adding new hooks like:

  • A back-up service that can store near-full copies of your iOS device on Apple's servers for safe keeping
  • The capability to re-download previously purchased content from any one of Apple's digital stores
  • A feature called Photo Stream that transfers photos from one device to another in the background
  • File storage for app developers to keep certain files, like documents or application settings

Collectively, the service acts as a safety net for some of the things consumers originally needed a computer for when using these devices, something Apple is banking on to be attractive for users with one iOS device, or many.

Giving notifications another go
Perhaps just as important as the iCloud integration is how iOS 5 changes the way users get work done on Apple's mobile devices, albeit in a subtle way.

iOS 5's notification center.
iOS 5's notification center. Jason Cipriani

Largely gone are the notifications that would pop up and completely take over the focus of whatever you were doing on the phone. You can still have those if you want, but the new default is a considerably smaller banner that folds down and gives you information from that app, then folds back away a few seconds later to reveal the portion of the application you were using when it came in.

These banners have been sized so that you can continue to use the application's menus even when they fold down, letting you continue to do whatever you're doing, or tap them to hop straight to the app you just got a ping from.

Joining the new notification banners is a new pull-down menu that lets you see a rundown of these messages in case you missed one, or want to come back to it later since you were using another application. This ends up creating a new multitasking workflow, letting users check for new updates from applications without leaving the one they're on. To Google's credit, it got here first with Android, and iOS users now get to reap the same productivity benefits that system brings.

All this may seem like a minor visual change, but it has a marked effect given that mobile apps on iOS still demand to be used on screen one at a time. For instance, if you're inside a news reading app and you get a new e-mail, you can swipe your finger down the screen and get the same kind of preview you'd get looking at your e-mail inbox. Third-party app developers also have the same opportunity as Apple to put those notifications right in front of users too.

Bringing it all together
With iOS 5, Apple's also taken additional steps in unifying the iOS platform, bringing what is largely the same version of the software to all its recent model devices at once.

If you think back to what it's been like for GSM and CDMA iPhone users with iOS 4, CDMA users have been left out of several software goodies. iOS 5 represents a different approach, with all users with recent models getting the same version of the software (minus things like Siri, which is an iPhone 4S exclusive). It remains to be seen whether that updating habit will continue in the minor software updates to come, but Apple now gets to start with a clean slate across all its devices.

iOS 5 features working on the iPod Touch, the iPad and the iPhone.
iOS 5 features working on the iPod Touch, the iPad and the iPhone. Apple

Further playing into the idea of one big platform is iMessage, Apple's new messaging protocol. Like Research In Motion's BlackBerry Messenger platform, iMessage is a proprietary client that uses data to let iOS users send messages to one another, just like the iPhone's SMS app always has. For the first time, this lets iPod Touch and iPad users message through a first-party application, while acting as an alternative for iPhone users who previously had to go through carrier-supplied SMS and MMS services in Apple's SMS app.

While iOS users could have picked up third-party messaging apps, and IM clients, iMessage is special in that there's the basic promise that everyone with iOS will have it. Like iCloud, it's also a reason for users to lock into Apple's system, and stick with it since they have the potential to save money on text messaging fees.

With all these things put together, iOS represents a formidable update. While it's not quite the sea change that was iOS 4's multitasking update last year, it goes just about as far in giving those with existing iOS devices new ways to use them and takes those last few steps in making iOS a stronger standalone platform, something that's going to be very important if other devices join the iOS family later on down the line.