For most of the 16.4 million Americans with an iPhone 4 or iPhone 3Gs, according to ComScore, as well as iPads and recent iPods, the real news from Cupertino today is what they’ll get for free by downloading the new iOS 5 software.
Here’s what we know about iOS 5 following Tuesdays’ iPhone 4S and iOS 5 announcements…
One of the biggest features is a tie-in to the iCloud online service for backing up data and syncing it among Apple devices.
iCloud works very well–as well as other services already doing the same.
One of iCloud’s biggest benefits is that it syncs music, video, and e-books across devices. How important is this in a world of streaming media (and reasonably affordable bandwidth)? With Pandora or Spotify, for example, there is no need to sync through the cloud. Everything is already in the cloud. And e-book syncing has long worked brilliantly across the multiple Amazon Kindle devices and apps (including for iOS).
Beyond that, iCloud feels, essentially, like an answer to Gmail. Google’s cloud-based email-calendar-contact suite is a tech mainstay. For many people, all you need to hear is their email address up to “@” and you can assume the rest is “gmail.com.” Gmail syncs “out of the box” with Android phones, already far more numerous than iPhones.
It also syncs to iPhones and iPads with the same single click and quick fill-in-the-blank required to set up iCloud. That step also syncs the calendar and notes apps.
None of this takes away from the quality of iCloud. It’s easy to set up and lightning fast on the sync, with emails or calendar items appearing on a second device nearly the moment you lift your finger off the first.
The question remains: Why would users switch, especially if everything they own isn’t just from Apple? iCloud works with Microsoft Outlook on PCs–that’s crucial. But it’s not as elegant or useful for Android phones and tablets.
One ace for iCloud is that it’s ostensibly the only service that Apple allows to sync with the iOS contacts app. Also, iCloud retains the great Find My Phone (or iPad) service that pinpoints your device and allows you to remotely lock or wipe it if stolen.
Welcome to the social, n00b
Beyond Apple’s branded service, “Cloud” includes social networking features. Wallflower Apple started getting social by integrating Twitter throughout the OS. And it’s dead simple to share Web pages, photos or even maps just by clicking a menu item. But once again, this isn’t new.
The Opera mini browser can shoot a web page to both Twitter and Facebook. Twitter is great, but Facebook is a bigger destination for most people to share media today. The Skyfire browser for iOS does those two plus Tumblr and–cue the time-warp music–Delicious.
Sharing options are especially rich on Android devices. This OS uses technology called “intents” that allows an app to say “Hi, I’m here, and this is what I can do.” Android doesn’t have to build in Twitter support. Any Twitter app can just announce itself and become a way to share.
iOS 5 offers three hard-wired ways to share, for example, a photo: email, Twitter ,and Apple’s iOS-only messaging app. But on my cheapo Virgin Mobile Android phone, I counted 11 share options– including Facebook, Picasa, and Flickr. And there could be more if a user installs more share-capable apps.
Even if you stay on iOS, you get much richer sharing options by installing Instagram, which applies artsy filters to cellphone snaps and shares with six networks (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, Foursquare, and Posterous). Instagram also has its own photo-sharing social network with more than nine million users.
The iCloud and Twitter integration will inevitably appeal to a lot of people. They are free, baked-in services that don’t require hunting for multiple apps.
But a lot of people have already hunted for and found Gmail and Facebook years ago. And plenty of the tech-forward folks who buy iPhones also belong to networks like Foursquare, Flickr, and Instagram to name a few.
They will have plenty of reasons to upgrade to the iPhone 5, or at least iOS 5. But iCloud and Twitter probably won’t be among the main reasons.