Apple developer's conference: What to expect for iOS, cloud services

Apple iOS 5 and iCloud will be unveiled

Apple this week sketched out the main announcements for the company's annual Worldwide Developer Conference, which starts Monday in San Francisco. It's all about software, but many of the details are still not known, so there's plenty of speculation.

In a brief press release, Apple said the Monday keynote will focus on three main areas: the next release of the desktop/laptop platform, Mac OS X Lion, about which most is already know; iOS 5.0, for its wildly popular iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad mobile products; and iCloud, apparently the first foray into cloud-based services.

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Overall, there's less expectation that Apple will show off, let alone announce, the iPhone 5, but some are still hoping that the company will offer a glimpse of the new hardware.

iOS and iCloud are generating the most speculation because little is known about either one, and much of the most interesting speculation is how these two platforms might interoperate.

Many are expecting that iOS 5, and the Apple devices that will run it, will be much more "cloud-friendly," that is, facilitate smooth use of a range of Web-based services and features.

One example is "over the air" software updates, meaning connecting your phone to a cloud service instead of using iTunes via a cable connection to your Mac or PC.

Other expected or at least longed-for changes, as outlined by InformationWeek's Eric Zeman, include:

- Improved but still limited use of widgets, which can be thought of as "mini-apps" that show a range of constantly updated information, such as weather conditions, without having to first start and open an app. It might not be as easy as it sounds for iOS: "This would be tricky for Apple to accomplish given the current architecture of iOS, but it's not impossible," Zeman writes.

- Improved email: You "should be able to reach into files stored locally on the iPhone or iPad and attach them to emails after the email has been written."

- Improved notifications: Currently, Apple's iOS notifications interrupt whatever task you're doing with a pop-up bubble. "It's an extreme hassle," Zeman says." Related: an unlock screen that provides, at a glance, information about missed calls, emails, text messages and the like.

- Local file handling and management: "As someone who uses the iPhone and iPad for work, one of the most frustrating aspects is the inability to manage local files on the device," Zeman writes. "Granted, iOS does allow users to sync select files from the device back and forth to a computer, but the process is clunky and requires iTunes on a computer to function."

A recent rumor is that iOS will offer some kind of Twitter integration. TheNextWeb's Brad McCarty unpacks that. The basic rumor describes something simple, McCarty says. In fact, too simple: "Twitter integration will allow you to have a 'Send to Twitter' option for your [iPhone] photos. This would use the still-to-come Twitter-owned photo service."

But, McCarty argues, "If you have full Twitter integration then it opens the door to have social hooks built into every single application that ends up on the iPhone. ... Instead of having to rely on third-party services to make your app social, direct integration could completely change the game."

Apple's iCloud services are widely expected to focus at first on letting iOS devices stream their music, and possibly video, purchases from the cloud. But it could go beyond that with improved synchronization and backup services, replacing Apple's kludgy MobileMe service. [See Steve Kovach's "Why I Stopped Blowing My Money On MobileMe And Switched To Google"]

Today, services like those from Amazon and Google require user to upload a copy of their media files to the cloud, what Macworld's Christopher Breen calls a "passive locker" approach. Apple could create an active locker, where the cloud simply stores a database of your purchased media files, confirms you're authorized to use them, and then streams your selection to your iOS device.

But Apple could also create a range of new file synchronization, management and backup features, in effect, a service similar to the popular Dropbox [see MacWorld's review], according to Lex Friedman.

"As I imagine it, I could create a document in Pages on my Mac and save it to iCloud," he writes. "When I go to my iPad, I can open the same document there from iCloud within the mobile Pages app. And as with Google Docs, if I leave the document open on multiple devices at the same time, each of them automatically updates on-the-fly to remain current with whichever version I'm actually editing at that moment."

Making this available to developers, to let them include it easily and smoothly into their apps, would be vital, Friedman says.

There are two other iCloud features that would be desirable, according to Friedman: Google-style calendar and contacts synchronization, simplifying the awkwardness and duplication created by MobileMe today; and cloud-based voice transcription, suggested by Apple's rumored negotiations with voice recognition vendor Nuance, which would simplify text input on iOS devices.

Mac OS X Lion borrows heavily from the UI design for iOS. Many of the new features have been known for months, since Apple previewed the software and made versions available to developers. Many of the key changes focus on bringing a touch interface to the Mac line, and creating simpler, more intuitive ways of viewing, organizing and working with applications, which now can be downloaded from the Mac App Store, itself modeled on the iOS App Store.

Engadget created a detailed breakdown of the new features last February when Apple unveiled the preview. The most recent OS build shown has given hints of some additional tweaks and changes, though little is known about what these will actually be, as shown by this summary slideshow, "10 Secrets Apple Doesn't Want You To Know About Mac OS X Lion." Drawn from various Web sources, it's replete with "probably," "likely" and "it looks like."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

Email: john_cox@nww.com

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