Apple's iOS 5 and the cloud

Apple's cloud strategy starts to recreate the mobile user experience

With iOS 5 and iCloud, Apple is re-orienting its mobile devices. Subtly, its shifting the locus of the "mobile experience" from the personal device by itself, or as an adjunct to a personal computer, to a networked personal device leveraging cloud-based services. In some respects, it's catching up to Palm's webOS, Google Android, and Microsoft Windows Phone 7, as a range of pundits have argued. But that's not the point.

The point was made in a startling admission by Apple CEO Steve Jobs talking about his company's first iOS cloud service, MobileMe, introduced almost exactly three years ago as an Internet service for pushing email, contacts and calendars from the cloud to the family of Apple hardware products. In his introduction of the iCloud services, Jobs said told his audience that iCloud will store all their content off the device, wirelessly push it to all their devices, and be an automated service that's completely integrated with all their apps.[See "Three things you need to know about Apple iCloud"]

And then he said, "You might ask, why should I believe them? They're the ones that brought me MobileMe." At which point, according to one liveblogger, "huge cheers" broke out. "It wasn't our finest hour," he said. "But we learned a lot." And indeed they have.

There aren't many companies, let alone many CEOs who are willing to introduce a new product by acknowledging the failures of its predecessor. The reason it's important now, is that Jobs, and Apple, explicitly acknowledges that they as well as their customers are still part of the process of figuring out what the terms digital, mobile, Internet, and the cloud mean when used together.

So, the point of Apple's iOS 5 changes coupled with the new, free iCloud services is that Apple's move in this direction is erasing or at least weakening a boundary -- between personal mobile devices and the wider world --  in a way that's going to be highly intuitive and effective for millions of iOS users and thousands of iOS software developers.

The new Notification Center is a case in point: apparently Apple hasn't changed the underlying Apple Push Notification System that makes remote alerting possible. But it has dramatically changed the way iOS users receive and interact with realtime alerts. For the first time since 2009 when push notification was introduced, the iOS user experience isn't "broken" by an interruption that suspends whatever the user is doing and forces him to acknowledge the alert.

Now, alerts are brought to the user's attention in a way that lets users see what the alerts are about, and act on them based on what importance or urgency the user decides is relevant. I'm not sure of the details of all this yet, but on the surface it seems somewhat similar to what Microsoft introduced with its Live Tiles, each of which represent an application and can show on its "surface" that updates, alerts, changes are pending, without having to open the app.

The "PC Free" feature, which technically is the "PC and Mac Free" feature, now cuts iOS 5 device free from having to rely at all on a personal computer: iOS software updates can be delivered directly from the cloud to the iPhone or iPad or iPod touch, via a SSL-secured Wi-Fi connection. And, smartly, they can be delivered incrementally -- only the code or content that's changed is downloaded.

Apple is also leveraging the "network effect" of multiple types of mobile devices running the same OS, with iMessage: a messaging client extended from the iPhone to iPad and iPod touch with iOS 5, so any and all of them can share messages and content easily.

iCloud replaces MobileMe, redesigning its calendar, contacts and mail applications and adding new ones including App Store, backup and "documents in the cloud." The latter is used not only by Apple's various document-creating apps, but also by third-party apps that output documents and want to have them stored on iCloud.

Again, that's not new in and of itself. It's how Apple can leverage its device OS, and the apps that run on it, with its own cloud-based services on behalf of the enduser. 

The cloud services and Notification Center and the other changes mentioned above somewhat obscure the fact that Apple apparently has made very few changes to the iOS UI, where as developer Kevin Hoffman has said, the individual, standalone app is still the "main unit of work." I think Palm's webOS and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 show that the app-centric UI has some inherent limitations that are going to become more apparent as the enduser's mobile digital world becomes more complex. And Apple's moves toward greater app integration and reliance on the cloud are an early attempt to deal with those limits and reshape the user experience.

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