iOS 5

Last Monday, Apple showed iOS 5.1 Here are some of the highlights.

Apple Finally Fixed Notifications

It took a long time, and three different mobile operating systems that did it better than iOS, but Apple finally got around to fixing notifications in iOS 5. Basically, iOS 5 sports Android’s notification system, with a few enhancements.

It’s impossible to evaluate a notification system without actually using it. There are so many tiny nuances involved. On paper, what webOS and Android do sounds very similar. In reality, notifications on webOS work beautifully, while notifications on Android, well, mostly just work.

Like on Android devices, in iOS 5, you drag down from the status bar to see a list of notifications.

Apple does seem to do a few things right that Android does not. For example, Android fills the phone’s status bar with icons for individual notifications. In theory, that sounds like a good idea. It should enable you to simply glance at the status bar to figure out what kinds of notifications are waiting for you. In reality, the bewildering list of inscrutable icons has the main effect of making it almost impossible to find the icons you actually want to see, like your wifi strength. I have no idea what four out of five icons in my Android phone’s status bar even mean.

On the other hand, Apple can’t do something right that webOS handles perfectly. When you get a new notification on webOS, the app you’re using shrinks to make room for the notification. That way, notifications never cover any part of the app you’re using. Many iOS apps can’t shrink,2 so Apple can’t do that. Instead, new notifications do cover parts of the UI, the same way they do on Windows Phone 7.

At any rate, Apple’s current notification system is so abysmal that the only direction they can go is up. There is no doubt that notifications in iOS 5 will be a huge improvement over iOS 4. I’m guessing the update will put iOS in second place behind webOS when it comes to notifications, with WP7 now bringing up the rear.

Lock Screen

Apple also went ahead and made some improvements to the Lock Screen. It’s now possible to jump from the Lock Screen directly into an app that has a pending notification. Also, double-tapping the home button will allow you to jump directly into the camera app, similar to WP7.

This is useful, but the lock screen could still do more, like showing the next upcoming calendar entry.

Clearly a huge improvement over the current lock screen, though.

Twitter Integration

iOS 5 has system-level Twitter integration. I’m not sure I understand what Apple’s goal is here. Perhaps it’s a US thing, but of all the iPhone owners I know personally, a grand total of three are on Twitter. Everybody is on Facebook. This is clearly a huge win for Twitter, but I’m not sure what Apple gets out of it.

Perhaps it’s just a first step towards a system similar to something bigger. Other smartphone operating systems can pull information from all kinds of online services, and aggregate them into a single view. There are some anemic first glimmers of something like that; for example, the address book can now update your contacts’ pictures based on their Twitter account’s picture. This is a far cry from the kind of social network integration that systems like webOS and WP7 offer, but it might be a first tentative step towards something similar, which might explain why the OS level Twitter integration even exists.

Tabs in Safari

This is something else I don’t get. Safari already has tabs. In fact, it has beautiful thumbnails of your open websites, which make it easy to identify individual sites, and switch between them.

Apple replaced that simple, beautiful, easy-to-understand, high-bandwidth UI with a row of text labels that show the first few words of the titles of about four open web pages.

Why? Simply to cut the one tap required to enter the zoomed-out view? The trade-offs involved don’t seem to make sense.

Reminders

I don’t think task lists are a good way of tracking open tasks, but as far as task lists go, Apple’s Reminders app contains some neat ideas. I particularly like the «remind me of this task when I leave this area» feature.

I hope it allows different iCloud users to share the same list. Pretty much the only thing I use task lists for are groceries lists, and it would be extremely cool to be able to have a shared groceries list for everybody living in the same household.

Synchronizing Pictures

One of the most immediately useful features of iCloud is its ability to automatically synchronize3 pictures between different Apple devices. No longer do you have to attach your iPhone to your Mac to copy pictures over. Instead, pictures will be uploaded to iCloud as soon as they are taken.4 iCloud stores your pictures for 30 days, and synchronizes them down to all of your other devices as soon as it sees them.

This is a pretty fantastic feature, and makes something that is incredibly tedious5 a lot more convenient. It’s also Apple at its best: taking something that already exists, but is not used by many people, and turning it something that is simple to set up, and has immediate benefits for everybody.

iMessage

Geeks love to complain about SMS. They take great joy in explaining exactly how much it would cost to send an MP3 file at the same rate per bit as a text message. They love telling you how dumb people are for paying 20 cents for a text message when they could just send an email for free.

What they don’t get is that people don’t mind paying for convenience. Sending a text message requires no thought at all:

  • There’s no setup required. You insert a SIM into a phone, and you’re done. You can now send and receive text messages.
  • Everybody who owns a cell phone can receive text messages, so you don’t have to worry about which service to use to reach somebody. SMS always works.
  • There’s a text field. And a keyboard. You type text into the text field. You hit «send» when you’re done typing. No formatting. Not enough space to even think about salutations or greetings.
  • It’s pushed to you. You don’t need to check for new text messages. You don’t need to think about them at all. They come to you.
  • If you receive a text message, it’ll be short, and it’ll show up on your phone’s screen without you even unlocking the thing, so there’s almost no investment required to read a text message.

That’s worth 20 cents to people. If you want to compete with text messages, you don’t just need to be cheaper. You also need to be just as simple and convenient.

Fortunately, iMessage hits almost all of these points. You can’t send iMessage messages to everybody, but you don’t have to worry about that; the phone will figure it out for you. If it can use iMessage, it will. If it can’t, it’ll send an SMS.

So from a UX perspective, iMessage is great.6

Next up: group calls for Face Time, iMessage support in Mac OS X. Then, the end of iChat.

Document Storage

There still doesn’t seem to be a workable way of managing more than a few documents, and it’s still hard (or sometimes impossible) to move files from one app to another. But at least we won’t have to use iTunes to copy files to and from iOS devices anymore.

That alone is a huge improvement over iOS 4.

Music

Apple’s music service is a music service designed for the vinyl, cassette tape, CD and Napster generations. It’s for the people who actually value owning music. And it’ll do well with that audience.

But in my experience, it doesn’t offer anything that most kids would find particularly attractive. Kids who have grown up with the Internet have different priorities. They don’t want to own music. Instead, what’s more important to them is instant access. They watch whatever the currently popular talent show is on TV, and see a performance they love. They don’t want to wait for the CD to appear in iTunes. Instead, they go to YouTube and listen to the exact performance they loved, because somebody recorded it and uploaded it within hours or even minutes.

A lot of people use YouTube as their music player.7

It’s free, it has a huge selection of music, it’s always current, it has live performances you can’t buy anywhere.

To these people, the idea of owning a music track doesn’t make much sense.

So Apple’s new music service is great for most people, but I suspect it’s not something that’s particularly attractive to younger audiences. I’m guessing that a very different kind of service will eventually own this market.

What Changed Since My WP7 Review?

With iOS 5, Apple will improve or fix at least four of the problems I mentioned in my Windows Phone 7 review.

  • There will be a vastly improved notification system
  • The App Silos are at least slightly improved, thanks to iCloud
  • It’ll be possible to access the camera quickly from the lock screen
  • It’s now possible to use the camera’s LED light as a text message notifier

A lot of things in iOS still need work, but iOS 5 is clearly a huge step forward. The improvements to the notification system alone will make this worth the wait.

How Did I Do When I Reviewed iOS 4?

When Apple previewed iOS 4, I wrote a similar article about it. Here’s what I thought back then.

I Liked the Folders

I still think that the folders in iOS are pretty much the best way folders can be implemented.

But in reality, I’m using them less than I thought I would. Well, technically, I have a lot of folders on my iPhone, but I mainly use folders to hide apps I rarely use. Then, I access them via the «Search iPhone» feature, rather than looking for the correct folder. In fact, I have no idea where most of the apps on my iPhone even are. It seems that I’m not the only person with this problem, because Neven Mrgan has created a mockup of a solution to this problem.

The first three screens on my iPhone, the ones with the apps that I use all the time, have no folders.

I Wasn’t Sure About the Task Switcher

I wrote that

Basically, the task switcher is a tiny version of the Springboard that shows what amounts to a random selection of your apps in essentially random order.

I think I was right. I use the task switcher, but only to go back to the previous application. For example, when I open a link from mail, I use the task switcher to jump back to Mail.

Every time I want to use the task switcher to go back to an app I’ve used some time ago, it ends up being buried deeper than I thought, and I end up swiping four or five times until I find the app. Sometimes, I miss the app, because so many of the icons look so similar (I think I mainly identify apps by their position on the home screens).

Every time this happens, I end up feeling that it would have been faster to just make the home screen roundtrip, rather than search for the app in the task switcher.

I still think webOS does the best job with its multitasking UI, and I wish Apple would just do multitasking in iOS the same way.

Of the two things I mentioned that still required more attention, notifications are getting fixed in iOS 5. File management gets some improvements thanks to iCloud, but it seems obvious that Apple is essentially committed to ignoring file management on iOS devices.8 If you need to create a lot of Pages documents, well, I don’t know, delete the ones you think you might not need in the future?

Hierarchical file systems suck. It’s a good idea to hide them from the user. But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to simply offer nothing in their place.

Conclusion

iOS 5 is shaping up to be a fantastic update for iPhone owners, but if you were hoping for Apple to leapfrog the competition once again, this is not it. It took a long time for somebody to respond to the iPhone in a credible way, but both Microsoft and Palm have done exactly that.

In some ways, iOS 5 is still behind the competition (multitasking, for example). In others, it has finally reached parity (notifications). And there are yet other areas where it has jumped ahead of what everybody else is doing (automatic OTA synchronization of pictures between iOS and Mac devices, for example).

Whether you pick iOS, webOS or WP7: you’ll probably have a good experience, and each of the system offers at least some neat things that you can’t find on any other system.

It’s great to finally see the competition heating up.


  1. I haven’t used iOS 5. All of the stuff in this article is public knowledge. All iOS 5 screenshots are from Apple’s websiteback

  2. Some apps can shrink vertically, and might do so when you get a notification. Thanks to Drarok for pointing this out to me. back

  3. For some reason, Apple doesn’t want to use the word «synchronize». Gruber thinks it’s because there’s only one official data storage, the one in the cloud: «As Jobs put it on stage, iCloud’s data is “the truth”. This means no conflicts or merging.» But I don’t understand how having cloud data avoids conflicts. Say I take my iPad and iPod Touch with me on a train ride. I change a calendar event on my iPod Touch, but it doesn’t push the change to Apple, because the iPod Touch doesn’t have 3G. Later, I change the same calendar event on my iPad, which does push the change to Apple, because there is 3G in my iPad. Now, I arrive at home, and my iPod Touch connects to my wifi, and pushes its change to Apple. Clearly, now there actually is a conflict.
    Apple’s «truth data» doesn’t prevent conflicts. back

  4. Presumably, there’s an option to temporarily opt out of that, depending on what it is you are taking a picture of. back

  5. A friend of mine never connects her iPhone to her PC (this is very common). She filled it up with pictures and movies she took, until many of her iPhone’s features eventually stopped working, because there simply wasn’t any free space left. back

  6. I do think that Apple is missing an opportunity here. They’re trying to create a competitive advantage by only allowing iMessage to work between iOS devices. Instead, they should be preventing other OS vendors from doing the exact same thing to them. As more and more users of feature phones will switch to smart phones, operating systems like Android will very likely quickly gain market share at the low end. If Google introduces a proprietary SMS replacement, odds are that Apple will soon be the one with the phone that’s incompatible with the messaging system used by most people (this, by the way, is probably one of the reasons why Microsoft bought Skype, rather than trying to compete with its own, proprietary solution).
    By opening iMessage to third-party devs, even on other operating systems, iMessage might become the de-facto replacement for text messages. Apple can either be the leader, or they can wait for somebody else to be the leader. Right now, they seem to be opting for the latter. back

  7. And yet, I haven’t found a single YouTube iPhone app targeted at people who use YouTube to listen to music. Rich Collins points out that such apps would violate YouTube’s TOSback

  8. And leaving it to individual apps, which will create a situation where different apps have vastly different ways of managing files. back

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