Tuesday, October 11, 2011, 11:27 pm PT (02:27 am ET)
In-depth Review: Apple's iOS 5 mobile operating system
While work on Notification Center was an area where Apple needed to catch up with competing mobile platforms, other aspects of iOS 5 are entirely new. iOS 5's new Reminders, however, is not really one of them.
In fact, Reminders itself serves as a reminder that while adding Exchange Server support to iOS 2.0 as one of its first priorities, Apple completely ignored the To-Do app, something that has been a key feature of mobile devices that even predates the smartphone; To-Dos were on the Palm Pilot, and of course, Apple's own Newton MessagePad from 1993. Exchange Server called them Tasks, and Apple now refers to them as Reminders.
How To-Do reminders managed to escape Apple's attention, not just on the iPhone, but also in its MobileMe push messaging efforts, for so many years remains a mystery that can only be explained by the fact that Apple simply lacked a To-Do app to put the feature at the top of.
A better explanation is that Apple prioritized its push notification efforts to perfect email, calendar and contacts, branching out to add cloud-connected Notes only recently. Apple actually added some desktop support for To-Dos in Mac OS X Leopard Mail, but that functionality, which was sort of complex and awkward, has since been removed from Lion's version of Mail.
The new interface for to-do events on the Mac, iOS 5 and MobileMe's replacement iCloud is now consistently named "Reminders." On iOS 5, Reminders now get their own app. What's coolest about this new app is that you can set single or recurring reminders based on a time and date (which work a bit like fancy, named Alarms in the Clock app), but you can also create Reminders that go off when you approach and leave a set location.
Referred to as "geo-fencing," the new feature is a clever application of the GPS in the iPhone. There's no way to set a specific location's accuracy, so the alerts only go off when the phone senses that you've come (or gone) within a few blocks of your set target. That means it won't remind you to get your keys before you leave the threshold of your house, but it will go off if you set a reminder to get groceries at the shop you drive past on the way home from work.
The new Reminders app presents both a list view and a calendar view, which is searchable if you're trying to track down a specific event. It appears Apple wanted to separate the functionality of Reminders from Calendar events, an engineering decision that seems typical of Apple. This is a little thought provoking, as both the desktop Mac iCal and MobileMe/iCloud calendars integrate Reminders into the rest of the calendar interface.
Doing that on the small display of the iPhone might result in an unnecessary complex interface, but it's harder to explain why the iPad offers the same split-app functionality for Calendars and Reminders. iOS 5 does, however, finally deliver a full suite of Mail, Contact, Calendar, Notes and Reminder items that are all iCloud synced in a way that works with both Mac OS X apps and Microsoft Outlook on Windows PCs.
After beating Microsoft at its own game by being a better mobile client to Exchange Server than Windows Mobile/Phone, Apple has next taken it upon itself to usurp RIM's crown in messaging savvy. Hidden in iOS 5's SMS/MMS Messages app is a new capability to chat over standard IP networks. SMS and MMS are the mobile industry's standards for sending short text messages or multimedia messages (such as pictures) between mobile clients.
There's a couple problems with these standards, starting with the fact that they're not really free. Carriers can charge per message fees, and typically make a big chunk of their subscriber fees by charging for packages of text messages, often at a price far higher than voice or generic data.
Apple's new iMessage recognizes when you're sending a text, photo, video, map location or contact to another iOS 5 user and, rather than sending it as a mobile telephony SMS/MMS, encrypts it and sends it directly over the Internet. That means iMessages can now be sent to and from devices even if they lack a mobile data plan (such as a WiFi iPad or iPod touch, and potentially a Mac or PC) or if they lack service (such as the iPhone when operating on WiFi without the backing of a live mobile data connection).
Don't expect the new feature to save you a lot of money unless you give up standard SMS altogether, because the carriers have responded by making their SMS/MMS plans a new one size fits all affair, where you will now pay the same amount even if you send fewer messages thanks to iMessage. It might save you some money if you regularly text other iOS 5 users internationally, however.
Apple launched the original iPhone with Mail features intended to shift users from MMS to standard email, only relenting a year later to support MMS. However, iOS 5 still doesn't give Mail users the ability to attach photos to email without a rather awkward and non-intuitive copy and paste routine.
Think of iMessage a bit like the chat version of FaceTime: an Internet-based version of a feature that was formerly tied to mobile networks. In addition to potentially being cheaper, iMessage is also faster, encrypted, and offers indications when the recipient is typing and when your message was read on their end, similar to Apple's existing iChat.
Apple is fortunate to be releasing the new feature in iOS 5 just as BlackBerry users worldwide are growing enraged by RIM's latest service outage that has knocked out access to its BlackBerry Messenger and email. It appears that iMessage works similar to FaceTime, using notifications to set up connections that subsequently work directly between the two clients over the Internet.
That could be a significant advantage over RIM's centralized architecture, where a single point of failure problem has knocked out service for many users for a hours at a time on several occasions now. At the same time, iMessage syncs your messages across devices, making it appear to be connected to Apple's broad iCloud initiative and certainly making it susceptible to suffering embarrassing outages of its own.
Apple has yet to prove that it can operate its cloud services with dramatically better reliability than Google, Microsoft, RIM and even its own faltering attempts to launch MobileMe two summers ago, but it does appear to be taking the launch of iCloud very seriously as a core future strategy.
On page 3 of 4: iCloud, Backup & Cut the cord
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