Exciting and Ambitious



The USB cable had a good long run, but its usefulness and convenience is breaking down.

I don’t just have an iPod with songs on it any longer. I have an iPhone, an iPad, and a Mac, and all three of them have all sorts of similar content. If you use more than one computer or device, then over-the-air syncing is extremely convenient.

While browsing Twitter on my iPhone, if I come across a link I want to read later I can just send it to Instapaper. Later that evening I can sit down on the couch, pick up my iPad, and the article is there waiting for me. And this is just one of hundreds of examples of the convenience of using the cloud. Emails, photos, documents, music, notes, to-do items, and ebooks are all prime examples of things we want to share and sync across multiple devices.

The iPhone, announced in 2007, was always meant to be more than a widescreen iPod with touch controls, more than a revolutionary mobile phone, and more than a breakthrough Internet communications device.

Smartphones in 2007 were somewhat smart (they could do email and barbaric Internet), but they were not easy to use. And regular, or dumb, phones were easier to use, but they didn’t do a whole lot.

iPhone was designed to be a device that was very smart and very easy to use. Smarter than the smartest smartphone. Easier to use than the most simple dumb phone. This is a hard position to keep because the smarter (or more capable and feature-rich) a device gets the harder it is to maintain its ease of use.

The launch of the App Store in 2008 made the iPhone significantly “smarter”. That was the intention — Apple wants the iPhone and iPad to run desktop class mobile applications. The more our devices work and function as miniature computers (which is what they are), the more important it is that they work side by side with our actual computers.

That side-by-side functionality started with iTunes and the USB cable. You could plug your iPhone into your computer and sync your music, photos, videos, podcasts, contacts, calendars, notes, Safari bookmarks, and email accounts.

In 2008, MobileMe came along, and for $99/year you could ditch the USB cable at least for syncing contacts, calendars, bookmarks, and email.

But the .Mac re-brand and re-launch to MobileMe was disastrous in some ways. In an internal email to Apple employees, Steve Jobs said, “The vision of MobileMe is both exciting and ambitious.”

Over the past 3 years in its current state as “Exchange for the rest of us,” MobileMe has been neither exciting nor ambitious.

What about owning an iPhone is less exciting than having to plug it in, launch iTunes, sync the info, and then eject it every single time you want to get info in sync or transfer over new music?

But now, with iOS 5 and iCloud, we no longer need the USB cable.

In fact, if there were another way to charge the iPhone 4S, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the new phones came only with earbuds. But the cable will be there — if only for the purpose of charging the phone.

I cannot help but wonder if iCloud is what MobileMe was meant to be. MobileMe earned a sour reputation right off the bat. As they say, if you don’t like what people are saying, change the conversation. And so we now have iCloud as the MobileMe successor. It’s better. It’s free. It’s more exciting. It’s more ambitious. It still uses the @me.com email addresses.

iCloud is ambitious and exciting in a way MobileMe never was. This is the foundation, the cornerstone, the hinge, the linchpin, and the future of where Apple is headed. Lion + iOS + iCloud = Apple’s development plans. Their desktop and mobile hardware and software offerings will be unified via iCloud.

On a less dramatic tone, I am very thankful for iCloud because I am tired of plugging in my iPhone and iPad in order to sync them. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I plugged either of them into my computer. I mean, who goes through those iTunes hoops any more? Average consumers never did in the first place unless they had a specific reason (such as to transfer a new album or movie onto their iPhone), and even us nerds gave up on it a while ago.

I sit at my desk for hours every day and my iPhone rarely gets plugged into my laptop. Persnickety power users are surely the most motivated of all to plug our iDevices in and keep things in sync, and yet even we have given up on the chore of syncing.

Ever since App Store purchase became available as over-the-air downloads (regardless of what device the app or song was purchased on) I stopped having any reason whatsoever to plug my iPhone into my laptop.

If I buy an app on my Mac, my iPhone and/or iPad will download it as well. If I buy a song on my iPhone, my Mac will download it as well. If I buy an app on my iPad, my iPhone will download it.

Moreover, since I use MobileMe, my contacts, calendars, and bookmarks are synced. And several of my most-used apps use a web service to sync their data over the air across multiple devices. Apps such as 1Password, OmniFocus, Reeder, Instapaper, and Simplenote.

iCloud promises all this and more. Photos that you take with your iPhone will show up in your iPad’s photo library. Music that is on your laptop will be available to download on your iPhone or iPad. Documents that you’re working on in Numbers will be accessible on your Mac, iPad or iPhone.

“Last Century”

Yesterday I re-watched Steve Jobs’ January 2007 keynote. Something struck me about it when Jobs was demoing the phone app on iPhone he called the number keypad as “last century”. He said:

“If I want to dial the phone, if I’m real last-century, I can push keypad here, and I can dial a call.”

A few minutes later as he was re-capping the phone app and listing the features again, naming them out he again called the keypad as last century:

“Favorites, last century, visual voice mail.”

As if Jobs was annoyed that he couldn’t remove the keypad altogether.

Instead of being “last century” and dialing our calls, Apple wanted us to scroll through our contacts list. They wanted us to tap on names and phone numbers to call people. They wanted us to find restaurants and shops using Google maps and to tap on their contact info to call them. They built the best phone app on any mobile phone — it was one of iPhone’s original killer apps.

Today, iPhone’s “last century” element is the USB cable.

New iPhones will still ship with a USB cable in their box, but Apple doesn’t want you to use it. The only time you should be plugging your iPhone into the cable is to charge the battery. Apple wants you to set up your device wirelessly and let everything sync wirelessly.

What iPhone made the keypad in January 2007 is what iCloud will make the USB cable today: “Last century.”

iMessage

Even iMessages is building on the idea of synced information. Except it’s not syncing media or documents, it’s syncing conversations. You can have an iMessage conversation with someone while reading your Instapaper queue on your iPad, and then continue that same conversation on your iPhone when you’re out of the house. This is something that up until now only Twitter DMs seemed to handle (a DM thread is accessible from the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac), which means the next step will be, of course, iMessages for the Mac.

What else is so fun about Apple’s new messaging service is the fact that you can have delivery confirmation, read receipts, and see when the other person is typing. Alas, for me this means that if I get a text message that I’m not ready to reply to yet the other person will still know that I’ve read it. No hard feelings, okay guys?

Notifications

Other than Siri, the new notifications system may be the most exciting and notable front-end feature to iOS. Put another way, notifications in iOS 5 rock.

For the past 4 years iPhone users have had to suffer through a sub-par notifications system on the iPhone. If a text message comes up, you’re in trouble. If you have a handful of calendar reminders, your phone becomes locked down until you clear all of them. It’s been insufferable.

The new notifications not only work much better, but they look much better as well. There are 4 new or different user interface elements:

  • The single-notification window that appears on the lock screen is now black instead of blue, and it has a gradient across the very top of the box instead of the curved bezel.
  • If additional notifications appear while iPhone is locked, then the notifications get smaller and form an unordered list on the lock screen.
  • Notifications that come when you are using your phone “roll in” on the top of the screen for a few moments, and then roll back out. The animation is really quite nice.
  • And there is an entirely new notification pane which houses all your notifications, upcoming events, current weather, stocks, and more. This is accessed by sliding down from the top of the screen.

The new notification system and its accompanying UI elements are great. I think that the look of the lock screen with a few notifications is very cool. And I love the design of the notification slide-down pane.

But a word of caution: don’t overdo it. The temptation is going to be to sneak into the Notification Settings and turn on every app. But my suggestion is to keep it clean. Keep it down to only what’s helpful to you and keep it so that the notification panel doesn’t turn into the new time sink for the Just Checks. Don’t play the notification panel.

When I first installed the beta of iOS 5 a few months ago I turned on just about every notification I could. New emails, @replies and DMs on Twitter, SMS messages, iCal alerts, missed calls, OmniFocus items, and more — all of them were showing up as notifications. I wanted my Lock screen and notification panel to be well stocked.

After enjoying it for a day or two I had to turn nearly all of them off so I could have my life back. It was fun while it was new, but now the only things which alert me are Twitter DMs, SMS and iMessages, phone calls, upcoming meetings, and location-based reminders.

Location-Based Notifications

This is where things get fun.

You can set a notification to remind you of something when you arrive at or leave a place. Set a reminder that tells you to buy some AA batteries when you arrive at Walmart. Or, set a reminder that tells you to swing by the post office when you’re leaving your house.

The update to OmniFocus taps into the location-based API in iOS 5 and you can set the same. Assign a location to a context in OmniFocus and all items assigned to that context will become due upon arrival to or leaving from that location.

Miscellany

Text Expansion Shortcuts

Under Settings → General → Keyboard → Shortcuts you can set up custom shortcuts.

So, for example, typing the letters “omw” will expand to “On my way”. It does not instantly expand like a TextExpander snippet would, but rather iOS treats your shortcut like a misspelling and offers to auto-correct it to the expanded text. Hitting the Space bar launches the expansion, hitting the “x” in the popover box dismisses it.

Faster Camera Access

Double click the Home button from the Lock screen and — in addition to the iPod controls being where they always have been — a camera icon now shows up to the right of the “slide to unlock” slider. Tap that icon and you are in the Camera app. Boom. It is a significantly faster way to get to the camera.

The New Round Toggles and Other Graphical Interface Changes

There are more new design elements in iOS 5 than any previous version of iOS.

  • New look of notifications on the lock screen and the new Notification Center
  • New rounded toggle buttons
  • Camera icon when you double click the Lock screen
  • Blue talk bubbles used for iMessage messages
  • Siri microphone icon on the keyboard
  • Tabs in Mobile Safari

To me, all of these new or modified elements are a welcome change.

What struck me when thinking about the new look of the toggle switches and other new elements in iOS 5 is that this version of the OS has the most new UI elements of any of its previous siblings. Though the iPhone 4S does not have any physical design changes to it, the operating system installed certainly does.

iOS 5 and iCloud mark the next chapter in Apple’s mobile operating system. The groundbreaking and revolutionary new features shipping from Cupertino this week are signposts of Apple’s course for the next several years.