The 5 best features in Apple's iOS 5

From Notifications to wireless OS updates to iCloud integration, good things are coming

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Apple's iCloud arrives at a time when people are surrounded by screens. There's a screen at home, a screen at work, a screen in your pocket, and not all of these devices talk to each other. Syncing and storage services like Drop Box and iDisk give users a central location to store docs online, but using those services requires actually being aware of them, and then manually copying over files for later retrieval.

Apple engineers eyed data and the problem with keeping computers and devices up to date and in sync. The solution they came up with is a collection of services that syncs all data between your devices -- iPads, iPhones, iPod Touches, and Windows PCs and Macs -- without ever doing anything. That's essentially what iCloud does.

The ability to have up-to-date data across all devices, without worry or extra steps, is a huge deal. Some of Apple's apps provide similar functionality now; iBooks, for instance, syncs pages, bookmarks and notes across iOS apps, so no matter how you access the book you're reading, you're always where you left off. In iOS 5, Apple will bring that capability to every app. If you're editing a quick Keynote presentation on your iPhone in the taxi, you can pick up where you left off on the office Mac -- your presentation will already be there when you walk in. Game data will sync, too, so you can launch Angry Birds on the iPad and keep going on your iPhone.

Every bit of data is synced with iCloud and pushed out to other devices, and it's all automatic. You don't think about it or do anything; it just happens.

There's 5GB of storage allocated for every iCloud user, but music, apps, books, and Photo Stream (which automatically syncs photos across your devices) don't count toward the storage usage.

Apple engineers have made past attempts to abstract the file system, sometimes culminating in clumsy results (I'm looking at you, File Sharing to iOS devices in iTunes). It's no accident that the iPhone and iPad lack a user-accessible file system, and with iCloud, Apple may have found a way to justifiably resist adding file system access.

Final thoughts

iOS 5 brings about dozens of welcome changes that users at all experience levels will appreciate and, most importantly, will actually use. Apple consistently shows that powerful new features don't necessarily mean added complexity; the updates that are coming with iOS 5, while not entirely original, reiterate that fact.

Almost as important, the changes solidify the role of iOS in the overall Apple ecosystem and the part iCloud will play in neatly tying together the plethora of devices people use every day.

Fall can't get here fast enough.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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