Apple seeds iOS 5 SDK, iCloud APIs to developer ranks

Jason ANkeny

If it's early June, it must be time for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) annual Worldwide Developers Conference. The difference this time around is that Apple let everyone know what to expect from the opening keynote presentation, announcing last week it would unveil both its iOS 5 mobile operating system update as well as its long-anticipated iCloud digital media storage platform. But while Monday's WWDC 2011 keynote was short on surprise, it was still long on major new developments across the iOS platform--not only does iOS 5 herald more than 200 new user features, it also brings 1500 new APIs. iCloud touts its own APIs, and pushes Apple exponentially closer to the "post-PC era" that CEO Steve Jobs (returning to the WWDC stage after a medical leave) has been promising for more than two years.

The iOS 5 beta software and SDK are available for download via the Apple Developer portal, with the official rollout slated for sometime this fall. Marquee attractions include Notification Center, a tool to more efficiently view and manage alerts in one place without interruption; iMessage, a new service that lets consumers send texts, photos and videos between all iOS devices; Reminders, essentially a virtual Post-It Notes that syncs across iOS device and integrates with Calendar; Newsstand, a tool to more easily purchase and organize newspaper and magazine subscriptions; and PC Free, which enables users to activate and set up iOS devices out of the box and receive software updates over the air, with no conventional computer connection.

As expected, iOS 5 also brings deep Twitter integration allowing users to sign in once and then tweet directly from all Twitter-enabled apps--among them Photos, Camera, Safari, YouTube and Maps--with a single tap. In addition, iOS 5 features an updated version of the Safari browser including Safari Reader to simplify scrolling and reading as well as Reading List (which stores articles for future access) and Tabbed Browsing. An enhanced Game Center introduces mechanisms to add photos to user profiles, purchase new games from within the Game Center app and more quickly find friends and new games. According to Apple senior vice president of iOS software Scott Forstall, Game Center users now top 50 million: "To put that into perspective, Xbox Live has been around for about eight years and they have around 30 million users," he said.

But iOS 5 is first and foremost about seamless integration with the free iCloud service, which replaces Apple's premium MobileMe. iCloud automatically syncs content on Apple servers for access across iOS devices as well as Macs and PCs--each day, iCloud Backup backs up all of the user's iOS devices over Wi-Fi, storing content including purchased music, apps and books as well as photos, videos, device settings and app data. In addition, Apple's App Store and iBookstore now download purchased iOS apps and books to all authorized devices, not just the unit on which they were purchased. "Keeping these devices in sync is driving us crazy," Jobs said. "We've got a great solution to this problem. We're going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device."

iCloud also touts re-architected and rewritten versions of MobileMe services like Contacts, Calendar and Mail, and boasts calendar sharing with friends and family as well as ad-free push Mail access. "[MobileMe] wasn't our finest hour, but we learned a lot," Jobs said. "We threw away the MobileMe contacts, calendar and mail apps, and have rewritten them from the ground up to be iCloud apps." MobileMe--which cost $99 annually--"ceases to exist," Jobs added.

Also new: iTunes in the Cloud, which enables consumers to download previously purchased iTunes music to all iOS devices at no additional cost. New music purchases can be downloaded automatically to all devices as well. For music downloaded from sources other than Apple's digital storefront there's iTunes Match, which essentially mirrors music files with a 256 kbps AAC DRM-free version culled from the iTunes Store, which now tops 18 million songs. iTunes Match also uploads unmatched music--e.g., albums missing from the iTunes catalog, Led Zeppelin live bootlegs, etc. iTunes in the Cloud is available now; Apple will launch iTunes Match this fall, priced at $24.99 per year. Apple did not indicate when or if it will add film and television content to iTunes in the Cloud.

As in years past, WWDC 2011 doubled as a victory lap celebrating Apple's march towards worldwide dominance: Forstall announced that Apple has now sold over 200 million iOS devices, with iPad sales exceeding 25 million just 14 months after the tablet first launched. "That makes iOS the number one mobile operating system, with more than 44 percent of the market," Forstall crowed. The App Store now exceeds 14 billion downloads, with developer revenues surpassing $2.5 billion, and iTunes sales now top 15 billion songs.

But perhaps the most telling metric arrived just days prior to WWDC 2011's kickoff, when digital research firm comScore reported that iOS is now the second largest U.S. smartphone operating system, leapfrogging Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) fast-fading BlackBerry OS. As of April 2011, iOS accounts for 26.0 percent of all U.S. smartphones, behind Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android at 36.4 percent but ahead of BlackBerry at 25.7 percent (down 4.7 percent from January 2011). It was inevitable that iOS would surpass BlackBerry sooner or later, but it's a milestone moment nevertheless--and with the WWDC keynote stuffed full of announcements guaranteed to make Google and RIM lose sleep at night, it's certain that new milestones are just around the corner. -Jason