New operating system is worth the wait
Tomorrow, Apple releases its newest smartphone: the iPhone 4S. But what if you’re not ready to buy a new phone? For those keeping older versions of the iPhone, there’s Apple’s newest product, which became available just yesterday: iOS 5, the free software upgrade for existing iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad devices.
Although nobody had to stand in line at the Apple store, there was still a wait. Download times were epic - well over an hour - but it figures. iOS 5 is almost as significant as the new iPhone. Like the device itself, iOS 5 is a subtle admission that Apple’s dominance in smartphone design needs a bit of shoring up.
Wisely, Apple didn’t settle for a simple facelift. The new software is a substantial upgrade, and since it runs on the venerable iPhone 3GS, last year’s iPod Touch, and the original iPad, the new software will bring even older iDevices up to date.
After all, it’s a little embarrassing to see how easy it is for competing Android smartphone users to track incoming messages. Android creator Google Inc. gave us the “windowshade’’ feature for quickly viewing the latest e-mails, text messages, and missed phone calls, with a top-to-bottom finger swipe. That’s the kind of slick feature an Apple device ought to have, and now it does. The iOS 5’s unified notification service goes a little further too, by letting you add little extras, like constantly updated weather reports and stock quotes.
Microsoft Corp’s Windows Phone 7 devices make it easy to shoot photos even when the phone is in sleep mode. Apple saw the light, and added a quick-shoot feature of its own. Just press the “home’’ button twice, and start snapping.
Then there’s the instant messaging feature that’s built into Research In Motion Ltd’s BlackBerry phones. Forget about costly SMS texting plans; any BlackBerry user can message any other, free of charge. Until this week, anyway, when a mysterious malfunction crippled BlackBerry’s e-mail and instant messaging worldwide.
Apple’s iOS copies the BlackBerry system. Any phone with the updated software can ping any other, any time, no charge. Suddenly, millions of angry BlackBerry buffs have a new reason to switch.
Apple had also fallen behind in integrating mobile devices with the Internet, so along with iOS 5, we get iCloud, a much improved online service that draws even with Android’s cloud-based features, and offers plenty more besides. As with Android, you can add names to your address book or appointments to your calendar, and have iCloud share the data with any iOS-compatible device. Names I pecked into an iPhone 4 showed up on an iPad and iPhone 3GS within minutes. Shoot a picture with tablet or phone, and have those snapshots distributed to your other devices and hosted on the Internet as well. Old news for Android users.
But iCloud and iOS 5 cash in on Apple’s dominance in digital entertainment. Say you purchase a video or music recording from the iTunes store. Your purchase can now be downloaded to your other devices automatically. Launch the music app, and see an inventory of everything you’ve ever bought on iTunes. Click to download them to your phone or tablet. No need to plug in to the computer to sync your tunes; iOS 5 now does it all over Wi-Fi if you wish. Indeed, you no longer need a PC or Mac to use an iDevice. Even future software upgrades will be wireless.
For the iPad, there are new multitouch features. No need to press a button to get to the home screen. Instead, pinch the screen with all five fingers, like you’re squeezing a lemon. To switch from one app to another, swipe upward with four fingers to use the multitasking window, or to the left or right to scroll through your open apps.
Alas, the new iOS 5 for older Apple gadgets lacks the most intriguing new feature of all: Siri, an “intelligent assistant’’ program that responds to speech. That’s reserved for the new iPhone 4S and its beefier dual-core processor. But it’s remarkable that Apple has managed to squeeze so many smart innovations into a software upgrade that will run even on a two-year-old phone. It’s almost as if they were trying to thin out the crowds of Apple loyalists looking to buy new phones. But somehow, I don’t think they will.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.