For the first time since 2008, Apple Inc. (AAPL) declined to introduce a new iPhone today at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. CEO Steve Jobs and his team of executives pulled few, if any, surprises on stage, however the software and services upgrades announced today are arguably the biggest leap forward for iOS as a whole since Apple launched the App Store and opened up its platform to third-party developers more than three years ago.
While Apple’s series of announcements about iOS 5 and iCloud were significant, they’re also likely to receive a tempered reception because most of the news fell in line with rumors that were in heavy circulation leading up to today. On the flip side, Apple stirred up the mobile pot some more and likely upped the game for many startups and enterprise-focused incumbents that rely on its platform and massive user base for customers and revenue.
As he introduced Apple’s long-awaited iCloud service and platform, Jobs noted how the act of synchronizing multiple devices has “broken down” of late. “Keeping these devices in sync is driving us crazy,” he added.
“We’re going to move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud,” Jobs said. “iCloud stores your content in the cloud and wirelessly pushes it to all your devices. It automatically uploads it, stores it, and pushes it to all your devices.”
The free iCloud service replaces MobileMe, a service that Jobs admitted was “not our finest hour.” It will be integrated with apps that choose to utilize the service and its features, including background synchronization of contacts, calendar, mail and purchases from the App Store and iBooks that will be automated across all devices via Wi-Fi. iCloud will also give iOS users the opportunity to backup their own content, including photos, videos and work done on Apple’s new documents in the cloud service, which includes the company’s Pages, Numbers and Keynote programs. Developers will gain access to a series of new iCloud storage APIs as well.
“Documents in the Cloud really completes our iOS document storage story. A lot of us have been working for 10 years to get rid of the file system so the user doesn’t have to learn about it,” Jobs said.
iTunes in the Cloud and iTunes Match partner up as the most important and widely requested features of Apple’s iCloud initiative. iTunes in the Cloud will automatically sync songs and albums purchased in iTunes while iTunes Match will search for songs that have been ripped onto iTunes and give users access to high-quality versions of those songs in the cloud. iTunes Match will cost $24.99 a year.
Jobs noted how significant it is that the music industry has agreed to let users download a song multiple times to different devices without hitting them up for a new charge. “This takes minutes, not weeks. If you have to upload your entire library to some service in the cloud, that could take weeks,” Jobs said, leveling some thinly veiled criticism at competing services from Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) and Google Inc. (GOOG) that act more as cloud-based storage lockers.
iCloud will work on devices running iOS 5 and it will carry 5 gigabytes of storage for mail, documents and data backup. Music, photos and video will count separately, but Apple didn’t provide any further details on what storage limits there might be, if any.
iOS 5 coming this fall
iOS 5, which brings more than 200 new features to users (10 of which Apple described as “key”), will be released this fall to all owners of the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPad and the third- and fourth-generation iPod touch devices. The iOS update will also include more than 1,500 new APIs for developers.
First up in iOS 5 is the notification center. After serving more than 100 billion notifications, Apple is preparing to debut a new unified notification center that aggregates all notifications in one place. They will be accessible by swiping down from the top of the screen, similar to how the Android operating system handles notifications. Other features in iOS 5 include a newsstand for magazines and newspapers, tight integration with Twitter, updates to the Safari browser, reminders, new features for the camera and rich-text formatting and message flagging in mail. The Game Center, which now has 50 million users, is also getting some new discovery mechanisms for games and friends.
One of Apple’s larger announcements of the day, iMessage, is a new messaging service that works between all iOS users. Similar to BlackBerry Messenger, but perhaps nothing for Research In Motion Ltd. to worry about yet, iMessage enables users to send text messages, photos, videos, contacts and group messages to other iOS users. The service, which works over Wi-Fi and 3G networks, also includes delivery receipts, read receipts and real-time notification.
“We’re actually building this on the push notification we built, so we know how to scale this,” said Scott Forstall, SVP of iOS software at Apple.
It remains to be seen whether Apple can penetrate further into the business market by introducing iMessage, better security for mail, data backup and storage and other features that most in the enterprise rely on for their day-to-day operations. While most of the features might have an obvious consumer slant at first, which is typical for Apple, there’s little doubt that the Cupertino giant plans to aggressively court more enterprise customers away from BlackBerry and other devices and operating systems.
Another improvement that could help in that regard is Apple’s decision to finally cut the cord for iOS devices. The company is enabling wireless activation and over-the-air software updates for all iOS upgrades going forward. Users will no longer be required to tether their device to a computer with iTunes, a longtime requirement that has surely complicated things for many IT professionals until now.
As it often does, Apple also gave out some statistics that highlight its commanding position in the mobile platform and device space. The company has sold more than 200 million iOS devices so far and iOS represents 44% of the mobile installed base in the United States. Furthermore, Apple has sold 25 million iPads in 14 months and more than 14 billion apps have been downloaded from the App Store in about three years.