iOS 5 full review - Page 3

iMessage, you message, we all message!

When Apple first released the iPhone, there was a lot of speculation about why the company didn’t include an instant-messaging app. After all, it includes its own IM client, iChat, on the Mac. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that including an IM app would have detracted from one of the wireless carriers’ cash cows: text messaging.

With iOS 5, Apple has evidently decided that its position is no longer as tenuous as it was back in 2007. In this update, the company has introduced a system called iMessage, which lets you freely send messages—text, image, video, a location, or contact information—to anybody else on an iOS device, free of charge. That’s because iMessage sends its payload over the device’s data connection (Wi-Fi or 3G) instead of over the control channel of the cell phone’s voice connection, as SMS does. And because you’re already paying for a data plan, those bits and bytes will only count against your cap for that, rather than against your SMS limit.

In essence, that makes messaging virtually free—as long as you’re conversing with a fellow iOS device owner.

What’s clever about how Apple implemented iMessage is that it built the feature right into the existing Messages app. So there’s no having to explain to your less technically savvy friends how they can send you a free message instead of an SMS; it’s all done automatically.

In its traditional attention to design, Apple uses subtle cues to differentiate between sending an iMessage and a standard text message. When you add a contact whose phone number and/or email address are associated with iMessage, their contact bubble and the Send button will appear in blue; if you’re just sending a plain old text message, they’ll be green instead.

Any phone running iOS 5 which also has iMessage enabled (Settings -> Messages) will automatically have its phone number associated, much in the same way as FaceTime. In addition, also as with FaceTime, you can add other email addresses where iMessages can reach you.

However, while you can send a message to multiple iMessage recipients or text message recipients, trying to mix and match ends up falling back on the lowest common denominator. So, if you send to multiple phone numbers, and even one of them isn’t associated with iMessage, you’ll end up sending SMS messages to all of them. If you include an email address among your group, that contact will get an email message instead.

There are a few other nice additions to iMessage, besides the whole “replacing SMS” aspect. For one thing, because this is a smarter, more modern system than text messages, it can add features like the ability to tell you when a contact has received and even read a message. (If you’re squeamish about having others know just when you read their messages, you can deactivate that option in Settings -> Messages.) As in iChat on the Mac, you’ll also get a little word bubble with an ellipsis in it while the other person is composing their message.

Overall, iMessage is probably not something the wireless carriers are thrilled about, but it’s hardly a new idea. RIM has been doing a similar thing with BlackBerry Messaging (BBM), and Android users can get similar functionality with Google Voice, Google+’s Huddle features, or third-party apps—some of which are available on the iPhone, too.

iMessage is not quite a replacement for instant messaging or text messages, but the fact that Apple has combined the two into one app, rather than creating an iMessage app that’s completely separate, is a smart move, and one that may hasten the demise of SMS.

While this all may be a poke in the eye to carriers like AT&T and Verizon, it also encourages messaging fragmentation by raising the old standards problem. When all your friends have different smartphones, will we still be reliant on SMS and MMS to send our messages? Or will we have to rely on email or a third-party solution? Or, hope against hope, can all these various manufacturers and software developers find a way to live together in harmony?

By the way, I wouldn’t bet on that last one.

Remind me

The announcement that Apple would, at long last, add a to-do style app to its iOS raised concerns from some that Cupertino was pulling a Sherlock on a field dominated, to date, by third-party app makers. But given the application’s extremely bare-bones and inconsistent nature, I think those developers have little worry about.

Reminders seems straightforward enough: Create a task you need to do, specify how you’d like to be reminded, and you’re done. Surprisingly, though, Reminders ends up being perplexing, with a superfluous feature or two, an occasionally strange interface, and a general impression that every time you launch the app it’s muttering “Who am I? What am I doing here?”

Take, for example, the option to add a priority to tasks. While you can add a ranking of Low, Medium, or High to a task (in addition to the default None), doing so appears to have no effect whatsoever on the item in question. It’s not reflected in the list of tasks or the order of the tasks, and you can’t filter for priority at all; that priority does, however, show up in the Calendar Web app for iCloud, as well as in iCal on your Mac if you sync your reminders via Apple’s rechristened Web-based service. So why not on your iOS devices?

Much of Reminders seems to be built around two ideas: First, filling that longstanding gap for syncing tasks from iCal to your iPhone; and second, location-based reminders. This latter feature is a clever one, even if Apple’s not the first to roll it out. Basically, the idea is that if you want to reminded to do something at a particular place—say, remembering to buy stamps while you’re at the post office—you can input that location and, when you arrive there (or depart the scene), your iPhone will display a notification.

Sounds great, in theory, and it works—albeit it with some caveats. The biggest, in my opinion, is an inability to specify a location that’s not associated with a contact (or that’s not your current location). So if, in the aforementioned example, you want to remind yourself to buy stamps at your local post office, you have to add a contact for that post office. It’s clumsy and bizarre, especially given the far superior interface that iOS’s Maps app uses for a similar process.

You also can’t manually reorganize items in a list—nor do they change position based on the time you set for the alerts; they’re always in the same order that you add them.

All in all, Reminders may be sufficient for the most basic task-tracking, but anyone who seriously relies on managing their to-dos will probably want to turn to a third-party solution for now.

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