Imagining iOS 5

Back on March 1, I tried to imagine what we'd see in iOS 5. Unlike preview years, however, there was no iOS 5 event in the spring. Instead, Apple will now be previewing iOS 5 in June, at WWDC 2011. As in this monday. So I'm revisiting my list, updating it with the latest news and rumors, and wondering what Apple could do that'll be big enough to make us forget the lack of a new iPhone introduction this time around.

So what will iOS 5 bring? We'll give you our want list, after the break.

Apple ID activation (via iCloud account?)

Right now before you can use a new iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad you (or the store where you bought it) have to tether it to iTunes on Mac or Windows and "activate" it. How 2007. Android just needs a Gmail address. webOS just needs a Palm profile. Facebook phones (you know they're coming!) will just need your @facebook.com address. Apple has millions and millions of iTunes IDs, Apple IDs, and MobileMe IDs. Let us use those -- or better yet, unify those first and then let us use our unified Apple ID -- an iCloud ID perhaps -- to activate our iOS devices.

Moreover, just like when you login to MobileMe for the first time on a new Mac, let iOS immediately check the iCloud and download our preferences. Let us type in that ID and get our mail, calendar, and contacts accounts, Wi-Fi setups, and all our other Settings synced down to our device.

If we lose our iPhone or iPad, or simply update to a new one, we should be able to login with our Apple ID and immediately have our phone restored to a personalized, working state. Sure huge media, apps, games, etc. will still require iTunes tether to sync, but give us a basic on-device, online way to start.

(Seeing as how the facial recognition login is still likely a few years off...)

Untethered firmware updates (via Airport/Time Capsule?)

Wireless sync and software updates are the dream. Zune tried with the former and Android and webOS already do the latter. The size of iOS updates -- the entire firmware re-installed each time -- require such a solid internet and power connection that tethering to iTunes is often the right choice.

But rumor has it Apple might be using their Airport Extreme + hard drive combo, Time Capsule, to stage firmware updates. Since they're plugged in and on ethernet, much like the Apple TV, they could presumably load up and make firmware updates available on-device, like Apple TV already does.

Even more interesting would be a trickle update, where tiny binary files containing the just the updated bits would constantly become available when online. A bad trickle update could kill your device, so there's a lot to be concerned about still, but that certainly seems like a better future, and one Google's Chrome experiments with today.

Contact and status aggregation (and Twitter integration?)

Once we have the one Apple ID to rule them all, we need a saner way of handling all the other IDs and accounts. Facetiously I'd say just copy webOS' Syngery. Seriously, however, between email, IM, Twitter and Facebook status, contact information, and all the different online stores with often conflicting data it's annoying and unworkable to keep them all sandboxed and separate. We've been asking for this on iOS for years now as well.

If we know a contacts online account, let us enter it. Then pull in their profile information and status, silo it so it stays internally separate, but present it back to us in a unified view.

Facebook is presenting email, IM, SMS, etc. in a unified Facebook message system now and while it's still a little kludgy it shows how the boundary between different communication forms are breaking down. Apple is great at "hiding the pipes" (the backend data sources that bring information into their apps) and showing the user only a single clean, consistent UI. They're doing that now with unified inbox in Mail -- regardless of which account an individual message is in, we see them all in the unified inbox. It would be great to see Apple expand this not just across email accounts but across protocols.

If I bring up Leanna, let me see her latest emails, Twitter and Facebook status, IM's, SMS, etc. all as "messages" (hey, let 3rd parties hook in so I can see Foursquare, Instagram, etc. if she offers them and I approve them on my device.) Then thread them and let me reply back to them automagically using the proper protocol.

We've heard rumors now that Twitter will be deeply integrated into iOS 5. An additional way to share photos, perhaps. A communication protocol to peer email and SMS, potentially. iOS' answer to BlackBerrys BBM, even. That's all fine for Twitter but Twitter isn't the sum total of internet chat. We need more.

App state sync (via iCloud?)

Taking it one step further, right now if we use an app on iPhone and then go and use the same app on iPad -- even if it's a universal binary -- there's no persistency of state. Unless the developer is syncing on their own or with a popular web service like DropBox, there's no way to get to your latest data from different devices. Apple could provide a consistent method for doing this.

We've asked for it before when it comes to games -- let Game Center sync our game progress between devices. If we get to a certain level in Infinity Blade on iPhone we want to pick up iPad and keep going from that level. But really, a general app state sync API would be even better. When iOS saves the information locally, push it up to the cloud and the next time the app is launched on any device, check the cloud for the latest state.

Given Apple has now announced they'll be showing off iCloud services, but haven't uttered a peep about what those services will include, it could be a logical fit for state syncing too. (Like the Data Center, until we know what it's for, it's for everything, right?)

App store upgrades

Originally I wanted App Store trials, subscriptions, and upgrades. To be able to download an app or game, try it for a short period of time, then decide to buy it and if the developer offers a really compelling upgrade, pay for it without having to buy a whole new "2" app would be fantastic for users and developers alike. Over time, with freemium and $0.99 apps with in-app purchases the need to demo has lessened for me. And Apple has already announced subscriptions -- to much controversy -- but upgrades are still needed.

iTunes knows what apps we’ve bought. We know it knows because when we try to buy a paid app we’ve already bought, iTunes tells use we’ve already bought it and that we can download it again for free. Why can’t the same system be used to determine, for example, that we’ve already bought Tweetie 1 and hence we can download Tweetie 2 at an upgrade price. Apple could allow developers to set that upgrade price in iTunes Connect, an extension of how they can set universal sale prices today. We’ve seen some strange screens pop up that seem to indicate Apple is at least experimenting with the idea, but why not pull the trigger? Again, it’s more overhead for Apple but the customer experience boost would be enormous.

Note: With Lodsys now filing suit against developers for using in-app purchase as way to upgrade from free/lite to full apps, the need for real, App Store handled demos is back.

File handling

iPhone iPad files appSimilarly, it's still vexing to try and get your documents onto iOS, to make sure you have the latest version, to be able to edit it and seamlessly save it back to the device and cloud. For years we've asked for a Mobile Finder app, or more recently a Files app, that would work like a system-wide repository for documents the way Photos works for videos and images.

Most users don't need file system access the same way they don't need everything running in the background all the time. What they need is the functionality file access provides in a way that's robust and usable on mobile devices.

In that way a Files.app would give us access all our documents the same way we go to the Photos app or call up the picture picker in a 3rd party app today. (Yes, pretty much what Apple does in the online-only iDisk app.)

Good on-device handling is only one piece of the puzzle, however. We need to be able to round-trip the documents from our Windows or Mac PC and our Google or iCloud. Right now we can do some of that, sort of, in a painful and convoluted way. Apple is addressing some of this in the new Mac OS X Lion preview with AirDrop -- a way to move files between Macs as easily as iOS moves video and print jobs with AirPlay and AirPrint. There are also hints of improved WebDAV-based sharing in OS X Lion Server. But that all still sounds disjointed and overly complex.

Something that combines the Files.app idea with AirDrop, supported on iOS, Mac, and PC, and able to sync with a far more robust, speedy, and reliable iDisk or WebDAV would be grand. While I don't expect Apple to include support for DropBox, Box.net, Google Docs, etc. letting the user configure them in a WebDAV-like manner would be outstanding.

Open Files.app. Add a sync source if you want one and have one. Let any app, including iWork, Docs to Go, QuickOffice, etc. open, edit, and save back the files. And keep them in sync. (Oh, and add similar cloud sync options to Photos.)

And again, this is the place for a nebulous, "let iCloud handle it" comment. Going from Keynote on Mac to iPad to iPhone could be transparent under a system like that.

System-wide Voice Control

Apple introduced basic VoiceControl a couple years ago in iOS 3 for iPhone 3GS letting us place calls or play music. Google trounced this with system-wide voice commands in Android starting with the Nexus One last year. Apple needs to take the lead back here. There are lots of rumors that Apple will use their SIRI acquisition to bridge the gap but SIRI isn't voice control any more than it's a search engine. It uses voice recognition to tie into popular, existing search engines to provide basic, intelligent services for users. Steve Jobs has called it Artificial Intelligence. SIRI could be a robust extension of voice control and a way to "synergize" multiple sources of online data, but Apple needs to deliver the underpinnings and that's new, home-grown tech.

With rumors of a massive Nuance partnership at work, it looks like the people who bring us Dragon Dictate could be making this a reality. Finally.

Elegant notifications

Apple's current badge, sound, and popup notification system -- virtually unchanged since 2007 -- is so unwieldy that it's difficult to imagine Apple built it knowing 3rd party apps and push notifications were in the pipeline. Android is less obtrusive but can become messy quickly, webOS far more elegant, and while Jailbreak has offered several interesting alternatives for iOS, none of them seem like an Apple solution.

And we need an Apple solution. The status quo is untenable. If you're on the phone or playing a game and one -- or so help you many -- popups appear you have to view them immediately or dismiss them forever and you can't even hang up your call or do any basic screen command while that model dialog remains on screen. It's like being a prisoner. And if you dismiss it out of annoyance you may not even remember what it was for later, and you have no workable way of finding out.

More than just a better system for staking and packing notifications, we need a better way to interact with them. Like Ally said, BiteSMS for Jailbreak runs rings around the current iOS Messages app. That might not be the model Apple implements, but it should be the spirit.

It's the last truly gaping, galling deficiency in iOS. It's the last huge item other mobile OS use to poke fun. It just has to be fixed. Fortunately Apple hired the man who designed the webOS notification system so that's reassuring.

It took 3 years for copy/paste, 4 years for multitasking -- 5 should be notifications.

We've heard Apple is working on it. Apple hired Rich Dellinger, the guy who architected notifications for webOS almost a year ago. My guess is we'll get it, but we'll get it on Apple's terms -- meaning just like how multitasking wasn't the traditional method but addressed a lot of user facing issues, iOS 5 notifications won't be like Android or webOS or Jailbreak, but will address a set of common needs.

Theme Store

Georgia said this well; Apple doesn't need to do themes the way Cydia or BlackBerry does. At least not at first. They could provide their own set of 4-6 themes to start the same way they offer templates in Keynote or Pages. They could sell them in a Theme Store and once the process was hardened, slowly open it up to 3rd parties.

There's a lot of money to be made in themes. Apple likes money. Users like themes. It's simple math, even if implementing it is complex.

I don't think we'll see it in iOS 5 but hey, we'll need something to look forward to for iOS 6...

Apps

iWork for iPhone... got dropped in a PR this week. iMovie for iPad and GarageBand came with iPad 2, as did PhotoBooth. There aren't a lot of signature Apple apps missing from iOS anymore, with the notable exception of a real iPhoto or Aperture for image editing.

Apple will be sticking with Google for Map Data but we could see a new Maps app, using Google new vector tiles and Placebase and Poly9 or other differentiating technology would be great. Even at the amazing pace Apple has updated and released a lot of the iOS apps there's still so much that could be done with the built-in and App Store apps that we could easily fill another post. (And likely will!) but this is another area to watch come iOS 5.

A new weather app -- one with landscape mode for more details -- would be good as well. Anything left untouched since iOS 1 really needs some attention...!

NFC, maybe in a discreet mobile payments app, could appear but that feels more like a fall and iPhone 5 announcement.

Conclusion

Like we said in Imagining iPad 2, while Apple is secretive they're also cyclical and subject to the laws of physics and economics, which means they're somewhat predictable. This year's iOS will fill some gaps, shave off some rough edges, surprise and delight us with a few killer features, and disappoint us with a couple inexplicable misses.

If Apple shows off iOS 5 tomorrow our guess is 2011 will be the year of notifications, cloud, and a lot more. What are your guesses?