Another year, another iOS. As in times past, Apple uses their annual developers’ conference to unveil a slew of new toys, apps, and services for their mobile platform. And, if history is any indication, most of them will get their influence from other players in the industry. We’re all for improvements, and even if some other players did get there first, we like to see a platform work on its weaknesses (I seem to recall folks cheering for Google Music, a notable hole in Android). But if you’re a little curious just where Apple got all those brilliant ideas, we’ve rounded them all up here.
What it is: Since the dawn of time, Apple’s notifications have been more than just an iSore. They’ve been rude, obnoxious, cantankerous and all-around just a bad house guest. They interrupt whatever app you’re in, demand your attention until you’ve either dealt with or dismissed them, and if you want to see them later, they disappear without a word. Well all that’s changed with the new Notification Center. It takes the form of a pull-down shade (even on the iPad, curiously) that holds all of your notifications. The shade can even hold a widget or two (though don’t look for developers to add much there). Additionally, you can now see some of your notifications on the lockscreen and optionally slide any of them to jump straight to the app that wants your attention. Swipe a text message to go to the SMS app, a missed call to go to the dialer, etc.
Where it’s from: Largely Android, with a bit of influence from WebOS. Outside of custom ROMs, Android hasn’t yet enabled the ability to dismiss individual notifications (it’s either a clear all or check them one-by-one affair), though WebOS has. This mechanism aside, the notification shade is all but a perfect replica of the pull-down panel that’s been present in Android since 1.0. The lockscreen notifications are somewhat new, though third-party apps exist that could do this for some time.
What it is: If you ever wanted to limit the people you could message to just iOS users, Apple’s got your back. In what seems to be a sort of hybrid of texting, IM, and group chat, you can now send a message not only to anyone with a phone number, but anyone with an iPod Touch or iPad. Yes, you read that right. Unlimited free texting to iPods and iPads. Of course, it doesn’t work outside of iOS, but the principle is sound. You can group chat and see when people are talking, and even share photos, videos, and even your location.
Where it’s from: Blackberry Messenger, with just a pinch of AIM for flavor. The rest of the world has been blissfully unaware of why Blackberry fans love BBM so much, but now…well, they still don’t care. Except that they can use essentially the same service on their iOS devices. Unless they don’t use iOS devices, in which case they’ve got one more service to ignore.
What it is: A location-aware to-do list. Awesome! While no one has exactly been screeching about this being a glaring omission from iOS, it is kind of surprising that a digital reminder service isn’t native on the one device you’re always carrying capable of giving you reminders. You can enter locations so your phone can, say, remind you to pick up milk when you’re at the grocery store. Sounds cool, right?
Where it’s from: Of course, the reason that no one’s really been clamoring for this obviously useful feature is because it’s been done to death. Particularly by one very helpful web-based to-do service, Remember the Milk. Of course, there’s no end, really, to the services that have also had some form of reminder or another. Astrid, Locale, heck Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, has alluded to this idea, though it’s been deemed a bit more creepy when he does it.
What it is: Now you can sign in to Twitter directly in your Settings app. After that, the entire OS can access Twitter. Tweet a photo directly from the Photos app. Tweet your location directly from the Maps app. Tweet a video you’re watching from the YouTube app. If the idea of Twitter is to share what you’re doing, it makes the most sense to be able to access Twitter from whatever you’re doing.
Where it’s from: Android is the most relevant entry that comes to mind, though WP7 will also be integrating Twitter in the upcoming Mango update. Android actually has a more comprehensive “Share with” feature that allows just about any app to plugin to any relevant app for sharing (attempting to share a photo from the Gallery app on Android, you’ll get roughly 200 bajillion options ranging from DropBox to Gmail, Twitter to Facebook). One could argue that providing a framework for any service to plugin is superior to playing favorites, but we’re not here to get into a flamewar, now are we?
Camera Button, Sort Of
What it is: A shutter button! Woo! Now iPhone users can use the volume button on their device as a makeshift shutter button! This is kind of a no-brainer and simultaneously kind of an out-of-left-field kind of feature. The iPhone has always both benefited and suffered from its lack of physical camera button. It’s a simple method for taking pictures, but it can be difficult to use if you’re not looking at the screen, or if you need to focus on your subject. The ability to use a physical button makes all kinds of sense.
Where it’s from: The rejected apps bin! That’s right, one of the earlier places we’d seen this exact idea was none-other than formerly-pulled Camera+ app. The reason cited was that using the volume button for something other than its intended use would “potentially result in user confusion.” The app was pulled until the feature was removed (though they tried to sneak it back in later). The Camera+ app is feeling the bitter sting now as it sits back and watches the OS it serves use its feature. In general, I don’t think much of the aping going on here is that big of a deal, but this one kinda irks me. It’s pretty damn harsh to toss a developer out for implementing a feature you rip off in your next OS update. Cold, Apple. Real cold.
Wireless Setup And Restore
What it is: This one is perhaps best defined by what it isn’t. It isn’t plugging your iDevice into iTunes the moment you unwrap it. It isn’t connecting to iTunes to perform a system update. It isn’t connecting to iTunes to perform a backup. Instead, it’s doing all of these devices entirely over the air (OTA). It’s handy, it’s easy, it means you can be up and running with your contacts downloaded to your iPhone before you make it to the parking lot. And it’s a dream…
Where it’s from: …if by “dream” you’re referring to the HTC codename for the G1, the “HTC Dream”, the first Android phone to feature this, um, feature. And also the first Android phone. The feature has existed on other phones in the past (WinMo 6.5 even had a MyPhone app for syncing contacts that wasn’t quite as seamless, but close), but Android is, again, the most relevant example of cloud-based setup, system updates, and data sync.
What it is: Hop on a WiFi network and your iDevice will instantly recognize your desktop with iTunes installed and start syncing your music, photos, and videos. Voilà! No USB cables required! This somewhat duplicates the features of the iCloud (which is an entire other subset of features we’ll get to) and it’s unclear just how it will work, but nevertheless, if all you have is a desktop and an iPhone, all you’ll need to do is go home to get started on that sync process. Wonderful, huh?
Where it’s from: doubleTwist which is, ironically enough, the software suite that aims to mimic the function of iTunes in the iOS world—that is, desktop sync—on Android. With Amazon MP3 store and Android Market integration built right in, doubleTwist has functioned as an almost perfect iTunes stand-in. Of course, partaking in the most sincerest form of flattery isn’t the only way doubleTwist likes to ride Apple. You may also remember that DVD Jon, co-founder of doubleTwist took out an ad right next to a SF-based Apple store, inviting any passerby to come enjoy freedom from iTunes. Apple was obviously not pleased, but apparently they found something to like in DVD Jon’s work.
Of course, all of that is just what’s in iOS 5. Apple’s brought a whole new suite of services called
Calendar, Contacts, and Email
What it is: You’ve used it, you know it, you love it. It’s cloud-based data-sync. All the data that’s important to you is now synced across all your devices. Not just iOS devices, but Mac OS X, too. What’s unclear is if there is a web-based client that will allow you to check your email or add a contact from a non-Apple computer or device. Admittedly, if the latter feature is lacking, a bit of the luster is lost (it would be a bit more difficult to live on a Windows machine than on a Mac, for example), but nonetheless, if you own an iPad, an iPhone, and a Mac, you will never be without an up-to-date batch of data.
Where it’s from: Gmail. It’s basically Gmail. There’s really no getting around it. Admittedly, Google Contacts and Google Calendar are somewhat newer than Gmail, but they all tie into the same service. And sure, Microsoft has made their own version, as has Yahoo!, but let’s face it, guys. It’s Gmail. It’s….it’s just Gmail, ok?
Apps, Books, Documents, and Backup
What it is: With apps, you can now see any and all apps you’ve downloaded on other devices and, with a tap, download them to any other. Your books can be downloaded to any device, and even your page will be saved and synced across devices. iWork will auto-save all of your documents and sync them. And then the Backup does exactly what it’s name implies, and a thorough job of that. It will even backup all your app data. Though it sounds like it prefers to do this over WiFi. It’s unclear if the backups reside on your own personal machine, or if they simply prefer to get to Apple’s magical floating servers in the sky via WiFi to spare you on your carrier’s data caps, but either way, the process should be largely invisible.
Where it’s from: Largely Google again. The apps and data backup in particular are trademark Google. On the books front, however, Amazon has also gotten into that game with their WhisperSync-based Kindle cloud system. Bookmarks, notes, etc. are all synced between Kindle devices, be they actual Kindles, an iPhone, Android, or desktop. In this way, Kindle still manages to stay one step ahead of Apple, though for iBooks users, this is certainly a good start. Oh, and lest we forget, cloud-based document editing lives on in Google Docs, Office 365, and a host of other cloud services.
iTunes in the Cloud
What it is: Ah, yes, the one we’ve all been waiting for. Finally Apple’s foray into cloud music streaming. Since the various services are all fairly new, let’s break this down. First off, any music you buy from iTunes will automatically appear on any registered device with that account. Since iTunes is present on not just the suite of iOS devices, but also Macs and PCs, this makes it very likely you’re going to have access to something that can play your iTunes music if you have any. And no more worrying about taking up space on your device. As long as you stick to iTunes, you’ll essentially never have to store music locally again, if you don’t choose to.
The other part of this, of course, is non-iTunes songs. This is where things get somewhat dicey. For $25/year, you can subscribe to iTunes Match. This service will scan your library for any music you didn’t acquire through iTunes, but that iTunes happens to have. This includes ripped CDs, MP3s from Amazon, and possibly even pirated music. Apple never mentioned any piracy caveats, and since they have deals in place with the four major labels, they (assumedly) don’t need to deal with the murky legal waters Amazon and Google are in, so it’s entirely possible this service will mean you can now legally stream that music you illegally downloaded, and pay for it at that! Poetic justice to the RIAA, I suppose.
A few things are still unclear, however, in regards to iTunes Match. For starters, how it determines which music is or is not permitted (certainly Apple won’t simply allow you to fake a match to every one of their 18 million songs for $25/year). It’s also unclear if you can continue to stream your music to your devices if you stop paying for the service. You’ll obviously still have your local copies (assuming you don’t delete them), but if you need to keep paying the subscription fee to get access to your own music, that may be kind of a downer.
Where it’s from: This is perhaps the most tenuous connection of all, but the closest analogies currently on the market are Google Music and Amazon Cloud Player. Except, there’s an even more accurate analogous service: Lala. Purchased by Apple way back in 2009, the service provided virtually the same concept: scan a library, match music, stream anywhere. Apple took Lala off the shelves, though, shortly after buying it. Much to the dismay of their users (yours truly among them).
While many of the other features Apple’s released with this new update have their obvious origins in other services, this one is perhaps the least clearly related to any others. On the one hand, it’s obvious that Apple’s been working on this for a while now. On the other hand, it’s arguable that all of these services are ripping off everything from Napster to Rhapsody, all the services that began the digital music revolution in the first place. We’ll cut Apple some slack, since they were visionary enough to begin work on iTunes way back in 2001, which was certainly more forward-thinking than the music industry probably would’ve liked to have been. Still. What we saw at WWDC was an iteration. A good iteration, but still a mere iteration. And, frankly, at $25/year to stream music you already own, a questionable value.
So, that about covers it. Now, to be clear, not everything Apple did at the WWDC was completely derivative. And it’s fantastic that it’s all here! After living for two years on Android, I have had a hard time considering any other platform. The notifications, the cloud sync, the effortless data transfer. It was wonderful. With this new update….well, I’m still pretty heavily invested in Android, but for the first time I don’t think I’d consider an iPhone totally outside the realm of possibility. Kinda like how a feel about skydiving. I’m not saying I’d close the door entirely….though you’ve certainly got a lot of work to do to convince me.
Kudos to you, though, Apple, for fixing all those holes. There’s no shame in borrowing concepts from other companies, right? Just don’t be bothered if at the next Google I/O there’s a friendly “Cupertino, start your photocopiers!” banner. ;)