iOS5: Thieves in the Night



Yesterday saw Apple unveil iOS5, the next update for the iPhone and iPad, and as usual there was much anticipation surrounding the event. I remember last year, before the iOS4 update, thinking that Apple would either announce things that would have the OS catch up to the competition – widgets, navigation, multitasking etc – or it would continue in its own fashion, so I was disappointed but not surprised to see that very little really changed in the software, especially regarding widgets and the ‘we don’t trust the user to close things and we don’t want them to realise the battery is terrible’ multitasking. This year brought more than disappointment, though, for it saw Apple continue with its special brand of advertising – copy the competition and claim it as unique.

Firstly, let’s look at those numbers they proudly mentioned.

“To date we have sold over 200 million iOS devices.”

Okay, good starting point. Nothing wrong with that figure at all.

“That makes iOS the number one mobile operating system, with more than 44% of the market.”

 

Surely not. 200 million iOS devices? Nokia sell over double that each and every year. Odds are the marketshare mentioned is US-specific, because worldwide Nokia is number one as a handset market with 24%, while Apple has 18%, and of the 400+ million handsets sold from Nokia the majority are running Symbian, which has a world marketshare of 25%, compared to iOS’s 18%. So no, iOS isn’t the number one mobile operating system unless you look at a very specific demographic. The problem with this is that the USA makes up a very small percentage of worldwide mobile phone usage, which is precisely why Nokia has small impact there but is the world’s largest handset manufacturer. By focusing only on the USA for the keynote, Apple demonstrated a false opinion that the American market is larger or more important than the rest of the world, even though the cellular market, in terms of data speed and carrier relations/tower sharing, is much behind that of a lot of Europe.

 

“We’ve created a whole new category of device with the iPad.”

 

No, the iPad is an internet tablet, which Nokia invented with the 770 in 2005 – which, incidentally, also supported Flash. The iPad is a massive iPhone, rather than something specifically designed for the internet in the way the 770, N800 and N810 were, and the N900 continued.

 

With that cleared up let’s look at the, ahem, “new” features.

 

Notifications. These had to change, anyone who has used an iPhone will be more than happy to state how annoying and obtrusive the current notifications are when watching a video or playing a game, so a new method was expected. What wasn’t quite so expected though was the blatant Android rip-off that has been implemented in iOS5 – the pull-down status bar with a list of what you missed. Yes it’s nice and easy, but WP7 has a nice and easy version too, as do Maemo 5 and Symbian, both of which can also be bolstered with a widget. What makes it worse is Apple’s typical noise: “We have built something that solves some of the current problems.” – No Apple, you have stolen something that solves the issue, you haven’t really “built” anything.

 

Notifications are also visible from the lock screen (like Symbian and Android) and you can access them from the lock screen (like Android and Symbian with the Bubbles app). There is one distinguishing feature here, though: iOS doesn’t let you clear all the notifications, so you need to manually close them. In other words, Apple stole the usefulness of Android’s design and then removed one of the most important and convenient parts. Way to go Apple…

Twitter integration. This is good, sort of. You sign in through Settings and then the details are saved, even to apps that want to use it with permission. This allows you to tweet links, map locations, photos and the like from the OS. Sounds great, and it is, although it’s odd that Facebook isn’t given the same treatment. And while this is a nice inclusion, Twitter isn’t as integrated as WP7 will make it in the Mango update. Oh and Twitter contacts in your address book can be updated, like they can in Android and Symbian, but it doesn’t actually take advantage of you having Twitter friends like WP7 does.

 

Another bold statement follows:

 

“Safari is the best mobile web browser out there.”

 

I’ve used Safari on the iPhone. To put it bluntly, it’s pretty crud. I won’t talk about the lack of Flash, the actual usability lacks in my opinion. Put this up next to the N900’s MicroB and Safari gets a good kicking – MicroB plays Flash, it lets you copy text and images, it renders pages like your desktop computer, and it’s much easier to navigate. Safari on the iPhone feels like a baby browser, MicroB is the real deal. Going back to Flash for just a second, how can anything be deemed the “best” when it doesn’t let you access the whole web?

 

Now, the new update brings Safari Reader, which is located in the status bar and if you tap it it removes everything but the story text. Pretty neat, but let’s not ignore the fact that if you double-tap text in a browser already it focuses only on the text, so nothing exactly revolutionary. It’s then said that you can email not just the link but the contents of the page – now, this is good news but MicroB let users do this back in 2009. The only real difference is when you are reading a multi-page article, Reader will put it into one streamline view, which is a nice touch. The other thing added is a Read It Later function, so you can save a page to read later – much like, say, bookmarks on every other browser, or Read It Later on Firefox which can be used on Maemo 5 and Android and then picked up on the computer.

 

Then comes tabbed browsing. About time, Opera started doing this how long ago? Firefox was released on Maemo 5 in 2009 and that came with tabbed browsing too. Welcome to the past Apple, we missed you.

 

iOS5 also brings reminders. Yes, every other OS also has reminders. The only difference really seems to be you can set a location reminder, so when you leave a certain place you’ll be reminded to do something. A nice touch, not sure how often people will use that and it seems pretty minor, but Apple are masters of that. It also syncs across devices, much like pretty much every other OS, which let you sync your Google Calendar across devices and computers.

 

The camera has also got an update. This should be interesting, given how outrageously limited the camera currently is with no settings to speak of. What’s new? There’s a camera icon on the lockscreen, and you can use the volume key to take a photo, but only in the camera app itself. Compare this to WP7 where the dedicated camera button will wake the device so you can take a photo at a moment’s notice, or Nokia’s having long had dedicated camera buttons while the volume buttons zoom in and out, much more intuitive and akin to a real camera, whereas the iPhone has the user fumbling, trying to keep it steady with one hand while the other pokes the screen. In the update, if you tap and hold a certain part of the image it will automatically adjust the settings to maximise that section, and you can edit photos from the device – so the iPhone still lacks massively in the camera department, with anaemic settings options and no option to set different modes manually. There are just 6 letters and 1 number to consider here: Nokia N8. And every other device that lets you edit photos on the device itself.

 

Mail got an update, you can now search the contents of a message. Once again, the N900 was offering this in 2009, and you can flag messages, which other phones already let you do. And there’s a dictionary built in too, like Windows Phone 7 except Apple’s actually lets you hit ‘define’ to get a definition. Apparently people use words they don’t know the meaning of – is that an insight into the average iPhone user?

 

The new keyboard is pretty neat, just grab it and drag up and it splits in half, with each half on either side of the screen for easy thumb typing. This is a nice addition, but once again Android already had it. It’s really only useful on tablets though, as it’s not difficult to type with your thumbs on a phone already.

 

Next is “PC-free”, for people who don’t have computers. Before you get too excited, this is what the rest of us simply call “wireless”, and is anyone else troubled by the announcement that now you can use your phone without a computer? I don’t know about you guys, but I have yet to own a phone that needed to be connected to a computer to set up. There are also now over the air (OTA) software updates. This is new to Apple, but Maemo 5, Symbian and Android already offer it.

 

Game Center is then introduced, basically explaining how many games the iPhone has (100,000) and how many users (50 million) and how it’s more social now, as well as letting you play turn-based games.

 

Then there’s iMessage, which is Apple’s take on BlackBerry Messenger. Basically iPad and iPod users will get the same messaging service, and messages will be synced across all your devices. iMessage will know when someone is eligible for iMessaging.  This seems to be a carbon copy of Skype’s IM, if you have Skype open on your phone and computer both get notifications, just as if you’re logged onto MSN in multiple locations. So this again isn’t something new, it’s just Apple’s foray into IM. What is much more appealing is WP7’s new feature of noticing who you are talking to regardless of how – Facebook, Skype, SMS etc, and putting it all in one conversation thread. The “new” messaging service also offers delivery and read receipts, like my Nokia 3210 was doing almost a decade ago.

 

Part of the PC-free deal also means you can wirelessly sync your iTunes – just like WP7 syncs to Zune and Android wirelessly syncs too. Another ground-breaking initiative from Apple.

 

That’s the keynote talk about iOS5 in a nutshell, and what it really shows is Apple’s lack of creativity in the mobile market. In 2007 it changed the phone game with the design of the phone, but it has never been ahead software-wise. The first iPhone did less features than the Nokia N95, and it still lacks some of those basic but important features. It took 3 years just to allow folders and wallpapers. Video calling has been around for many years, so Apple gave it a new name and limited how it could be used and sold it as something new and revolutionary in FaceTime. While other phones were allowing widgets, Apple refused (and still hasn’t budged on this). While Symbian allows live multitasking and retains the crown as the battery king, Apple still doesn’t really allow multitasking (app pausing isn’t the same thing) and still has terrible battery life. Other systems allow eBooks to be read, so Apple gave it a new name and a fancier interface and once again called it something new.

 

If anything, iOS5 shows that Apple is running out of steam and ideas for software. Borrowing so heavily from Android and other systems is a stark message to consumers that it doesn’t really know how to differentiate itself, that the success in 2007 was because the package was pretty and that’s all the iPhone has ever really had going for it. At no point has an iPhone user managed to demonstrate what that phone can do that various others can do, including much older devices. When you break iOS down, as a software system it is little more than an app launcher. Peter Skillman, Nokia’s new smartphone design chief, was quoted in in September 2010 saying “If a user wants to walk from the kitchen to the dining room in her house, she simply walks through.  It does not work like that in mobile–you have to go through the front door to get to the kitchen.  iPhone has a home button which works like a go-back-to-front-door button.  This is not a model that human beings are used to.  People are spatial.” Microsoft have worked to utilise a new model (even outright stealing the ‘front door’ analogy in the Mango conference), but Apple has done nothing. The home screen remains as static and boring as it ever did, widgets remain elusive, and it’s still a case of closing one, opening another.

 

I don’t expect iPhone sales will dwindle from this, if anything the user experience will be better than it has been on the iPhone to date, but I hear quite regularly people saying the iPhone is boring, hasn’t changed enough, isn’t matching the competition, that Apple takes existing features and give them a new name. The latter hasn’t really been done much this year (excluding iMessaging and PC-free), which in itself just goes to show how little has really been implemented. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see consumers getting more frustrated with Apple – the company that changed how we use mobile phones in 2007 but, despite good sales and a pretty package, has seemingly let go of the pulse since then, just making existing things a bit prettier than they are elsewhere – and thus spending their money on other operating systems, notably the ones that actually are advancing mobile technology. Apple today made noise about OTA updates but hasn’t even introduced turn by turn navigation, the former being something that should have been implemented at least 18 months ago and the latter is something that is increasingly important and offered elsewhere.

 

I was never really convinced Apple belonged in the mobile market – the adverts are all great, but picking up a device and trying to do something (‘hey, where are the camera settings?’ or ‘no sorry I can’t Bluetooth this photo’) didn’t match the hype. With iOS5 continuing this trail of disappointment, I’m now firmly convinced Apple have entered a market they don’t know what to do with. And before the fanboys chime in with sales figures – that’s not the point, if it were, you’d all be using Android and Symbian, considering they’re the top worldwide operating systems, or using Windows PCs because that’s the most popular. While iOS5 was supposed to make a mockery of Windows Phone’s Mango update, it’s actually ended up with Apple borrowing a number of features. What the other companies need to learn from this is that marketing really pays off – if, for instance, Nokia made fun adverts about how much more Symbian does than other systems, it would probably get more sales. Rather, Apple is stamping out in commercials how the iPhone does this and that, so consumers think that the other companies don’t, else they’d mention them.

 

This article has deliberately not mentioned the iCloud unveiling because it is a separate entity to iOS, however what I will say is that while Jobs and co. made a great effort to talk up iCloud and how it syncs everywhere at once, they neglected to mention that this is precisely what a cloud service is – Google does it, Dropbox does it, SkyDrive does it. However, iCloud only syncs the last 1,000 photos, to save battery apparently, while SkyDrive uploads everything and DropBox will take what you throw at it within the space you have. Perhaps when the rose-tinted sheen has worn off, people will look back at iOS keynotes from 2008 and realise them for what they are: taking existing things, giving them a fancy name and shiny design and claiming them as revolutionary.

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