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iPhone 4S is a hit, but iOS 5 is more important

Stuart Dredge argues that iOS 5 is much more important than the iPhone 4S thanks to voice recognition and iTunes Match.

Remember when Apple CEO Tim Cook didn't unveil an iPhone 5 at the company's 'Let's Talk about iPhone' event? Many frustrated tweets at the time suggested the iPhone 4S was a letdown, but one million pre-orders in its first 24 hours suggest that Apple, once again, has a firm handle on the demand for its devices.

The device will be in the hands of those million pre-orderers -- and heaven knows how many others -- this Friday. They'll find the same design, but a better camera, faster processor, nippier cellular connectivity, and if they splash out for the most expensive model, a nifty 64GB of storage.

The consensus from the first wave of US reviews seems to be that it's a no-brainer for iPhone 3G and 3GS users champing at the bit for an upgrade, a strong contender for the contracts of people due a switch from a non-smartphone, but possibly something iPhone 4 owners can afford to skip until the actual iPhone 5 is launched next year.

The iPhone 4S will sell like billyo, either way. But the big deal this week isn't really the hardware: it's the software. iOS 5 is about to be let out into the wild, and it provides a big leap forward through features like Siri, iCloud and to a lesser extend iMessage, NewsStand, Twitter integration and wireless syncing/updating. When it comes to changing how we use our phones, it's the software developed by Apple, Google, Microsoft and RIM that's going to have the biggest impact in the next 12-18 months.

iCloud and iTunes Match 

A lot of the discussion around iCloud has focused on its music aspects: storing songs you've bought on iTunes on Apple's servers to access them from various devices, and (if you pay) using its iTunes Match option to do the same for all your other music too. The demos shown so far hint at it being the slickest cloud music service by far -- admittedly compared to clunky competition -- although us Brits will have to wait for the latter until Apple signs the necessary licensing deals with music labels and publishers.

But what has struck me so far is how iCloud will be making its presence felt across a range of iOS apps and features. The new Photo Stream option is intriguing, keeping your pics synchronised across devices. Apps and iBooks too: the idea of not having to even think about synchronising is what's powerful here, and I think it's going to become the norm across all the smartphone and tablet platforms. iCloud's impact on gaming shouldn't be underestimated either: it seems Infinity Blade 2 will be using iCloud to sync saved games across devices too, so you can switch between iPhone and iPad at will. Again, this should become a standard.

Siri and rival systems 

Siri feels like a risk, but an important one. Voice commands are already part of iOS, and have been since the iPhone 3GS. They've not been one of Apple's successes, it's fair to say. Voice control has been something of an elephant's graveyard for enthusiastic technology industry execs promising a future where natural language is a key interface between humans and computers. It has traditionally not lived up to expectations.

Apple's Siri -- and also Google's previous and continuing work on voice interfaces, along with the work of specialists like Nuance -- feel like a concerted effort to crack this challenge. Well, to crack the challenge of making voice control actually work, then address the secondary challenge of whether we actually want it. Early reports suggest Siri has the goods on the first of those. The next 12 months of iOS and Android (and their competitors) should provide an answer to the second one too. If Siri is as good as Apple claims, of course, it's also a pretty powerful selling point for the iPhone 4S.

Other new iOS 5 features shouldn't be looked at in isolation from what Apple's rivals and other developers are doing. iMessage is just one of a clutch of messaging apps looking to kill off text messaging and go a long way beyond it - with BBM, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Kik all pushing messaging in new and interesting ways.

Apple's NewsStand will sit alongside Google's similar efforts to create a new (paying) audience for magazine and news apps, while you can't hail the deep integration of Twitter into iOS 5 without recognising what Microsoft did with Facebook in Windows Phone 7. The competition between these platforms and services is going to change the way we communicate, consume entertainment, and send postcards of the Parthenon to our nans.

I don't get Cards 

Okay, I'm not really sold on Cards, Apple's new digital-to-physical card printing-and-sending service. It seems a little expensive and… niche. If it was cheaper and a feature in Instagram, maybe I'd be more interested. And Find My Friends (or presumably more accurately: Find My Friends Who Have iOS Devices) doesn't on the face of it appeal any more than Google's Latitude did when it first came out. Like most iOS users, though, I daresay I'll be trying these out to see if I'm wrong.

Cutting the cords to the computer still feels like a really big step forward -- and a necessary step to catch up with rival devices and platforms. I've heard more than one person pining for iOS 5 so they can minimise their use of the desktop iTunes application to synchronise, backup and update their iOS software.

All this is why the release of iOS 5 feels like a bigger deal this week than the iPhone 4S going on sale, whatever the merits of the handset. It's great that the hardware is getting better all the time across the various smartphone platforms, but the software running on that hardware is evolving even faster.