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Eric Zeman
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Apple iOS 5 Features: Notifications, iMessage Lead the Way

Apple added hundreds of new features to iOS in a significant update to its iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch platform.

Fans of Apple's iOS devices have a lot to be happy about. During its WorldWide Developers Conference today, Apple pulled back the curtain on a powerful upgrade for its smartphone, tablet, and media player devices--one that should put the competition on notice. Again.

The first and most important change to the entire operating system is the wholly revised notification process. In a move that mimics Google's Android platform, iOS now provides a drop-down shade at the top of the display that collects all the notifications and alerts a user might receive. The notifications are available from within any application, and can come from services such email, messaging, calendar, weather, Facebook, and more. Even better, notifications also appear on the lock screen. Users can jump from the lock screen directly to the notifying app with a swipe of the finger.

What this new notification system does is rid users of the insanely annoying notification pop-ups that appear in iOS as it is today. This is exactly what Apple needed to do. The biggest bonus of this new notification system is that it should (thanks to fewer interruptions) boost productivity. Enterprise users everywhere can appreciate that.

Next up is the mail program. Apple listened to customer complaints and added a host of new features. Mail enhancements include the ability to compose messages using draggable addresses, a new formatting bar with bold, italics, underline, and indention controls. It also gains Rich Text Formatting support, a better search tool, the ability to flag messages, and support for S/MIME encryption for added security.

One of the biggest surprises of the day was the introduction of iMessage--a BlackBerry Messenger killer for iOS. iMessages uses Apple's push notification system to deliver real-time messaging functions to all iOS devices. iMessage lets users send text messages, photos, and videos like before, but adds the ability to send contact information to a person or a group on other iOS 5 devices over Wi-Fi or 3G. iOS 5 will push messaging conversations to all iOS 5 devices (between an iPhone and an iPad, for example) so conversations can be transitioned from device to device. Other BBM-style features include delivery receipts, read receipts, and the presence to see when your colleague, friend, or family member is typing a return message. Don't worry, IT, it's all encrypted.

Perhaps Safari wasn't on the top of everyone's wish list, but Apple brought some welcome new features just the same. The most interesting is true support for tabbed browsing. Instead of having open tabs appear as separate windows, Safari in iOS will now work as it does on the desktop, with open tabs listed at the top of the page. This means faster switching between open Web pages. Safari also gained a "read-it-later" function, which lets users save articles for reading at a later time. iOS is smart enough to sync that saved article across a user's iOS devices, so it can be read on an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad.

Another surprise is the level to which Apple integrated Twitter. It has baked in support for Twitter across a number of key iOS applications, such as the camera, photo library, Safari, Maps, YouTube, and others. This will let users fire off Tweets faster than before, as they'll be able to do so directly from the app in question (rather than switching to a dedicated Twitter app). What's notable is that iOS 5 doesn't include baked-in support for FaceBook and FaceBook features. Perhaps that would have been the wiser move, but Apple didn't go for it.

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