WWDC: Why this year is different

For one thing, Apple's already announced what's coming: iCloud, Lion and iOS 5

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iOS 5

Typically, Apple rolls out new iOS versions around the same time, if not on the same day, as new iPhones. Whether Apple will stick with that policy with iOS 5 remains to be seen. The company may simply preview iOS 5 and announce that it will ship later this year along with the next iPhone. Or it could announce an earlier ship date for existing iOS devices. In either case, it makes perfect sense for Apple to introduce iOS 5 at WWDC so developers can gain insights about new technologies they can bring to their apps.

What can we expect in iOS 5?

Speculation has so far focused on two major features. One involves Twitter integration, something that arose as an option for sharing files directly from a device, presumably with Twitter's upcoming baked-in photo sharing. If Twitter integration is built into the Camera and Photos apps, it will likely be at a system API level that could allow developers to take advantage of it in any photo- or camera-related app. Integration could even go deeper, with new Twitter-related options in other apps like Safari or third-party apps.

The second, and more interesting, hoped-for feature is a new homescreen addition that expands on the multitasking capabilities in iOS 4. Video out of Vietnam suggests that Apple is planning to add a specialized screen (similar to the existing search screen) that includes thumbnails of every running application. That would allow a user to switch between them more seamlessly and could allow applications to perform a wider variety of tasks in the background.

Apple has always been critical of full PC-like multitasking, though, because of its effect on processing power and battery life. But the company may be changing its tune on the concept, now that it's designing its own processors.

Another, similar idea is for a new homescreen similar to the Mac OS X Dashboard, something that shows a handful of widgets that require only basic processing power and display data directly on the homescreen -- much like widgets on Android phones.

Both of these possibilities would be attractive additions to iOS. One major criticism of Apple's mobile OS -- especially compared to almost every other mobile platform -- is that it still relies on a static array of icons as its primary interface. That forces users to launch or switch to each app in order to view any useful information or perform any actions.

With Android, webOS and Windows Phone 7 all pioneering a way of getting real-time data directly from the homescreen, Apple's approach has begun to look outdated. So I think we'll be seeing some changes along these lines.

Even if Apple chooses not to go whole hog with multitasking, it's almost certainly going to have to expand what apps can do in the background. That could mean support for additional background tasks, better task completion, expansion of the Apple notification service available to developers, or a combination of them all.

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