Apple Raises Garden Walls

New iPhone, mobile OS and cloud service debut, as the company looks forward to a future beyond conventional use patterns.

The launch of the iPhone 4S, iOS 5 and iCloud Oct. 4 was a milestone for Apple. For starters, it fell the day before the death of Apple's founder and board chairman Steve Jobs, who had been the individual most closely identified with the company's success in mobile devices.

Beyond that, however, the company's latest mobile OS shows how hard the company is pushing voice control as a new frontier for the user interface. The purchase of Siri almost a year and a half ago gave Apple a leading position in voice recognition and artificial intelligence that competing platforms such as Android will find difficult to match. Additionally, the company's mobile OS is finally losing its apron strings as of this release, as it no longer requires a Mac or Windows PC for backups, restores or system updates. This feature alone may silence the remaining corporate naysayers.

The iPhone 4S is, cosmetically speaking, a rebranding of the company's iPhone 4. However, if the specs are any indication, the 4S is actually far ahead of its immediate predecessor, with a dual-core A5 processor and significantly improved photography and video features. The image sensor in the iPhone 4S is said by Apple to have 60 percent more pixels than the iPhone 4's sensor. The lens aperture is also larger, at f/2.4, and the new iPhone can record 1,080p high-definition video, with image stabilization and better image quality in low-light conditions. The iPhone 4S is available in three storage sizes: 16GB, 32GB, and new for this model, 64GB.

It was scheduled to become available Oct. 14, and this model will be close to a true "worldphone" with support in the same device for Code Division Multiple Access and GSM networks. At launch in the United States, the authorized carriers will be AT&T, Verizon and Sprint.

Apple's iOS 5, which we plan to review in an upcoming issue of eWEEK, will offer direct access to the Camera and Photos applications from the lock screen, as is currently the case with the iPod application. Twitter will be a built-in application for the first time, and users will be able to use the new iMessage service to share text messages, photos and videos with other iOS 5 devices. The new iOS version will be offered as a free software update for iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, as well as the iPad, iPad 2 and the third- and fourth-generation iPod touch.

Although it's nice of Apple to extend the benefits of iOS 5 to users of the 3GS, I'm not certain how well that's going to work in practice, given the debacle that was iOS 4 on the iPhone 3G. Although the company's engineers have undoubtedly put forth their best efforts on this aspect of the operating system, I have a sneaking suspicion that we may see the "supported" tag disappear early next year, if the real iPhone 5 does, in fact, shake off the manufacturing issues that have been rumored for it.

The free iCloud service was also scheduled to launch Oct. 12, and it's clearly an extension of Apple's walled-garden approach. It will require an Apple device running iOS 5, a Mac running OS X Lion, or a PC running Windows Vista or later. The service will include 5GB of free cloud storage for backup, mail and document storage. Apps, books and audio, and visual media will not count against this limit. Additional storage will be available in a tiered price structure; roughly speaking, the annual cost will be $20 for every 10GB of extra space.

Although executive and other high-profile users have until now been the prime movers behind the deployment of iPads and iPhones in business environments, the new ability in iOS 5 to update over-the-air instead of through a USB connection is expected to make IT's support chores less burdensome. So we're eager to see how well devices running the new mobile OS work with the device-management tools built into the company's Lion Server.

The artificial intelligence and voice recognition features that Apple acquired with its 2010 purchase of Siri will finally debut in iOS 5, and although it's showy, the demos you're seeing in the company's advertisements are less than inspiring. Listing Italian restaurants in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood is about as difficult as finding deep-dish pizza in Chicago.

I'm also kind of put off by this claim of Scott Forstall, Apple's vice president of iOS software: "What we really want to do is talk to our device." I guess that's true, if you're the stereotypical Silicon Valley geek with no social skills. Personally, I've never quite seen the point of voice control unless I'm driving, but it will be interesting nevertheless to see what developers do with Siri.

But one has to remember that all this came about thanks to Apple's success with the iPod, which certainly redefined the market for mobile media players. Even Microsoft, following its failure with the can't-give-them-away Zune, threw in the towel on its attempt at siphoning off customers from Apple's ecosystem.

And in the end, the ecosystem is what it's all about. Anyone who wants to put a dent in the iOS ecosystem has their work cut out for them for the foreseeable future.