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iOS 5 Cuts the Cord and Addresses Numerous Irritations

Apple’s keynote presentation at WWDC today featured so many announcements involving paradigm shifts that the minds of almost all who heard it, watched it, or followed it on a liveblog are still reeling. Apple announced that iOS 5, due “this fall” (which probably means September or October 2011) will offer more than 200 new features, of which Apple called out 10 in the WWDC keynote. But of that list, the one that represents the most radical change to the entire iOS platform: iOS 5 is going to cut the (USB) cord and allow iOS devices to operate entirely separately from a Mac or PC.

One of the biggest gripes about the iPad as a replacement for standalone devices like netbooks, for example, has been that it can’t operate independently: to set up an iPad, to load it with information, and to back it up in case of disaster, a Mac or a PC running iTunes is required. Hence, folk who wanted to give iPads to aging non-computer-savvy relatives, for example, have been faced with the dilemma of how to set it up and maintain it in a household lacking a computer. Similarly, this will expand the iPad market to those who rely solely on Linux or who simply refuse to run iTunes in Windows, a non-trivial number of people.

That problem evaporated midway through the keynote today when a slide appeared showing a pair of scissors cutting a cable, labeled with the caption, “PC Free.” Starting with iOS 5, an iOS device no longer needs a connection to a Mac or PC to be activated. Instead, all that’s needed is a Wi-Fi or 3G connection in order to contact Apple’s servers.

Nor does the iOS device require a computer connection to obtain software updates. Those, too, will descend in deus ex machina fashion from the cloud whenever necessary. This change, it should be noted, comes with a change in the form that iOS updates have previously taken. Up until now, each software update to an iOS device contained the entire iOS, which typically ran into the hundreds of megabytes in size. Updates to iOS 5, however, will now consist of “delta” updates — that is, only the updated portions of the iOS need to be downloaded, making the update process much faster and reducing the amount of data transferred, a boon to those suffering under limited bandwidth caps.

Although few details were provided, Apple also revealed that iOS will provide a Wi-Fi sync option for moving media between iTunes on a computer and an iOS 5 device. That’s huge, since it will make it far easier to keep iOS devices synced up, even if you prefer to charge from a wall-mounted power adapter rather than from a computer.

Cutting the cord does not just affect iOS activation and updates, of course: certain parts of the iOS experience have also required connection to a computer. One of the most obvious is the Calendar app, which has never allowed users to create calendars but only to use calendars on the iOS device that were previously created on the computer or on MobileMe. However, the Calendar app in iOS 5 will be able to create new calendars on the iOS device. Other similar computer-centric limitations are expected to vanish in iOS 5. The PC Free iOS signals the end of the beginning of the post-PC era: Apple’s mobile devices are now becoming independent, full-fledged members of the computing community.

Along with the major shift away from the computer-required model for iOS, iOS 5 brings numerous other features and enhancements too. In fact, it seems that Apple compiled a huge to-do list of complaints about iOS and set out to eliminate as many as possible.

A brief synopsis of improvements and enhancements: Notifications have been completely revamped to provide a history (new notifications will no longer replace older ones) and have been redesigned to be less interruptive — they now appear at the top of the screen, so you can keep on doing whatever you were doing when a notification arrives, and deal with it when you want. Notifications will even appear on the lock screen. Messaging, formerly only available from Apple in the Messages app on the iPhone, now comes to the iPod touch and iPad, and the new iMessage app includes message receipts, typing indications, and syncing among devices: you will be able to start a conversation on your iPhone and continue it on your iPad. Mobile Safari
gets a host of improvements, too, including tabbed browsing (on the iPad), Reader, and Reading List (also part of Mac OS X Lion) — this last feature, which stores articles that you want to read later, syncs to all your iOS devices, so you can compile a Reading List on one device and read its items on another.

But wait, there’s more: iOS 5 will provide a Reminders app to satisfy those who have created to-do lists in iCal only to find that they were not part of the Calendar app on iOS. What’s more, these reminders are location savvy: a reminder can be triggered based upon where you are, so, for example, you can leave your office, and as soon as you drive out of the parking lot, your iOS device reminds you to pick up a quart of milk on the way home. Mail, too, will see a bunch of improvements, including the option to use rich text in email messages and to search the message contents from the iOS device’s search screen. The Camera app will receive a bundle of improvements as well, including grid lines, the capability to crop and rotate
pictures, and color enhancement.

Still not satisfied? We’re not done yet: although Apple is not offering a Twitter app, Twitter appears to be almost ubiquitous in iOS 5: a Twitter account single sign-on is available in the Settings app, and Twitter integration is included in many of Apple’s supplied apps, including Camera, Contacts, Photos, Maps, and YouTube. Gamers will find new features in Game Center, including profiles, game recommendations, photos, and friends. And Apple has let the other shoe fall in its recent in-app subscription model fuss by including a new app, Newsstand. This app appears on the home screen and provides a central app, similar to iBooks, for managing periodical subscriptions, including the automatic download of new issues as they come

Finally, there are some more nice little system-wide tweaks, including a dictionary available to all apps, custom vibration patterns for different types of alerts, new multi-tasking gestures, and a split keyboard to satisfy those who are thumb-typers on other mobile platforms.

iOS 5 is scheduled to be released in a few months, and will run on the iPhone 3GS or later, third generation and later iPod touch devices, and all iPad models. Although Apple said nothing about it, it’s a pretty good bet we’ll see the iPhone 5 released at the same time.

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