WWDC 2011 Prelude

What I Know

If I were to publish everything I know regarding tomorrow’s announcements, it would be a short and decidedly unsensational article. What I know are a handful of minor features at the edges. The big picture regarding iOS 5 and iCloud — and how the two interrelate — is an utter mystery to me. These things have been as well-kept secrets as any major projects from Apple in recent years.

iCloud’s expected music storage has of course leaked, but that’s almost certainly the inevitable result of Apple’s dealings with the music labels. Music storage is a feature of iCloud; iCloud is not a music service.

What I’ve Heard, and Believe, but by No Means Know as Fact

The italicized sentence that follows is fourth-hand information, at best, and also the sort of thing that many of you might have already guessed based merely on your own hunches and hopes. But here goes:

Don’t think of iCloud as the new MobileMe; think of iCloud as the new iTunes.

Syncing data between devices tends to work best when there’s a canonical store. I.e. with Dropbox, you might have three, four, five devices syncing data on the same account. The canonical central store, however, is Dropbox’s cloud-based server. With iPhones, iPods, and iPads, the central store for almost all data stored on the devices is iTunes running on your Mac or PC.

With iCloud, that should shift to the cloud. iTunes, the desktop app, currently syncs the following things with iOS devices: audio, movies and TV shows, iBooks e-books, App Store apps, contacts, calendars, bookmarks, notes, and any sort of files shared between iOS apps. All of these things would be better served syncing over-the-air via the so-called cloud.

But even if “iCloud is the new iTunes” really is the right way to frame the service, it will by nature be at least somewhat in conflict with MobileMe, insofar as the major selling points of MobileMe include cloud-based syncing of bookmarks, contacts, calendars, and files. Whatever you think of MobileMe’s value as a $99 per year service today, it is going to look like a worse deal tomorrow if the only thing it has left that isn’t part of iCloud is an email account and (admittedly, very nicely done) web-based interfaces to email/contacts/calendars/files. iCloud may well obviate much of MobileMe simply as a side effect.

But in short let’s just think about the ways that iCloud might be a major, dare I say game-changing, step away from USB tethering between iOS devices and iTunes running on your Mac/PC. Consider just the new out-of-box experience. Rather than “Take this out, plug it into your Mac or PC (after first making sure your Mac/PC is running the latest version of iTunes), wait for it to sync before you actually play with it”, you might get something like “Take this out, turn it on, sign into your iTunes account, and start playing with it.”

If Apple can work out (or, if we can dream, perhaps secretly already has worked out) a deal to allow movies, in addition to music, to be bought and stored permanently in your iCloud account, then the Apple TV 2 suddenly changes from a machine for renting movies into a machine for buying or renting movies. I like to buy movies, so here’s hoping.

What I Hope, Based on Nothing More Than My Own Complaints Regarding the Current iOS User Interface, None of Which Complaints, Though, Are All That Significant in the Grand Scheme of Things

One thing Apple hasn’t done much of with iOS so far is change anything. They’ve added a lot since the iPhone debuted in 2007, but they haven’t changed much. There are a few things, though, I hope they change.

App Switching — There are videos and several reports floating around from over a year ago, when iOS 4 was in development, showing and describing an interface for switching between running apps that shows thumbnails of the apps themselves. Think: like the switching UI for pages in MobileSafari, or the “card”-based switching UI of Palm’s WebOS, or like Exposé on Mac OS X.

What Apple went with instead is an icon-based interface. The basic rules for process life cycles on iOS purposefully blur the lines between launching apps and switching between apps, but iOS 4’s switching UI is effectively indistinguishable from its launching UI. Switching seems naturally suited to an Exposé-style thumbnail UI, which focuses on exactly what you were looking at when last you were in an app. Here’s one of those videos that shows (I believe) an early iOS 4 pre-release build with Exposé-style switching; it looks so good that when the video circulated a few months ago (and because the iPhone 4 shown is white), many people assumed it was a leak of iOS 5.

What Apple shipped in iOS 4 feels a bit more like another launcher, where apps are ordered by most-recently-used, rather than a switcher.

iPad Split Views in Portrait — A split view is something where you have a two-column layout, with, say, a list of messages on the left and the details of the selected message on the right. On the iPad, these split views can behave in very different ways in some apps, and Mail is the one that bothers me. Landscape is fine, but in portrait, the left-hand column is relegated to a popover. So, all you see most of the time is the current message, and every time you want to see the list of messages for the current mailbox, you’ve got to tap the button to show the popover. This makes landscape mode the only efficient way to go through a bunch of emails on the iPad. I’d like to see Mail switch to a layout like Settings, where you see two columns side-by-side in either orientation.

Organizing Apps — I don’t dislike iOS 4’s folder feature, per se. I create folders to stash away apps I seldom use but definitely want to keep. But folders haven’t solved the fundamental problem that it’s a frustrating fiddly painstaking process to organize even just a few dozen apps. I can’t help but wish for a homescreen revamp that’s designed from the ground up for a platform where users have dozens of apps installed, and are adding new ones all the time.