As impressive as it was for Apple Inc. to sell four million new iPhones last week, millions more users will be affected by another release: iOS 5, the latest version of the operating system that runs every iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
I've been testing the software and a lot of its claimed 200 new features for a couple of weeks and find it generally impressive. But unlike the iPhone 4S, with its breakthrough Siri voice-based personal assistant, iOS 5 feels more catch-up than forge-ahead.
Many of the new features -- secure texting, tabbed Web browsing, pull-down notifications -- may already be familiar to users of devices running Google Inc.'s Android software, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Phone 7 and Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry. As usual, Apple's contribution is to polish the concepts, making them seamless and painless.
That doesn't necessarily extend to setting up iOS 5, which wasn't as smooth as it should have been. When I updated my iPad 2, my Mac continued to display a "Restoring iPad apps" message long after the iPad itself was telling me that everything had already been installed.
At the end of the process, I was presented on my Mac with an obscure, Windows-worthy error message. The new software finally appeared on the iPad, more than an hour from when I started. After that, things got a lot better.
Demoting the computer
The importance of iOS 5 is the way it reduces the personal computer's role as hub for all your digital devices, the vital middleman for transferring and synchronizing information. Now, it's just one more spoke on the wheel, while the hub becomes iOS 5's new iCloud feature.
ICloud automatically stores your content and data on Apple's remote servers, where they are accessible by all your enrolled devices. Take pictures with your iPhone and a new feature called Photo Stream will automatically push them up to the cloud, then down to your iPad, where they will pop up almost immediately. Documents, apps, media and contacts work the same way.
The iCloud service is free and replaces Apple's paid, problematic MobileMe. You get five gigabytes of online storage free, and can buy more; photos as well as content purchased from Apple's iTunes Store and App Store don't count against your storage limit.
In my testing, iCloud generally performed well, and it was liberating to be cut loose from the computer. When I took a photo I liked, I no longer had to e-mail it to myself or rush back to sync devices and ensure that I had a fail-safe copy.
About the only downer was the difficulty I had migrating my existing MobileMe account to iCloud; even days after the launch of iOS 5, I continued to run into a "please try again later" message, blaming the volume of requests. I didn't think MobileMe was that popular.
Among the other new features of iOS 5, a couple stand out. One is iMessage, which allows you to directly text other iOS 5 users. For those using an iPhone, the service is fully integrated with the device's existing text app. And iMessages don't count against any message limits in your wireless-phone plan. In addition, iPad and iPod touch users also can use those devices to text iPhones and each other.
Then there's the Notification Center: Swipe your finger down from the top of any screen, and a windowshade-like overlay displays your alerts and reminders. And Twitter users will appreciate the ability to tweet directly from within Safari as well as the camera, photo, YouTube and map apps.
One thing I couldn't try was iTunes Match, which the company says will launch later this month. For $25 a year, Apple will scan your entire music library, looking for tunes you might have ripped yourself from a CD or downloaded from some source other than iTunes. If Apple has the same song, you'll get access to it on all your devices via iCloud; if not, it will upload your copy of the tune and give you full access to it.
Though it isn't being billed this way, the service is essentially offering absolution -- at a nominal cost -- to people who have illegally downloaded music. And they'll get access to Apple's high-quality versions even if their originals were of lower quality. It's a way to gain a benefit and assuage a guilty conscience at the same time.
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.