Apple’s free iOS5 update to be released later today will bring some substantial new updates to Apple’s existing iPhones, iPads, and iPods, including one feature that could result in a reduction of the wireless industry’s most overpriced feature:  text messaging.

The feature, appropriately named “iMessage” is integrated directly into the iPhone’s text messaging app.  When a message is sent to another iPhone Apple will automatically re-route the message over the Internet, completely bypassing the carrier’s text messaging service. The messaging application will be available on iPads and iPods – although an email address must be used as the “phone number” to send text messages to those devices. 

Cutting the Cord

Apple’s focus of this latest software update is its new (and free) iCloud service, designed to reduce the dependence on a desktop PC for data synchronization and system updates.  iCloud will synchronize photos, contacts, documents, and calendar data automatically between iOS devices and desktop PCs. 

For example, a contact or calendar entry edited on an iPhone will automatically be transmitted to an iPad and a desktop PC or Mac on the same account.  iCloud can also backup iOS devices automatically once a day when they’re plugged in and on a wifi network.

The free service comes with 5 gigabytes of storage space.  Apple does not count apps, music and television shows purchased from the iTunes store in that total, but photos and videos taken with the device as well as app data will eat up that free storage space quickly.  Additional space can be purchased for an annual fee.

A To-Do List and Enhanced Notification System

It’s been four years since the iPhone’s initial release, and Apple has finally introduced a to-do list app called “Reminders.”  It’s a very simple task list that can be set to issue reminders based on locations, such as an alert to buy milk when driving by a grocery store.

The biggest noticeable change on the new system is Apple’s overhauled notifications system.  Text messages and other notifications will no longer ‘halt’ the device with a pop up window, but will rather rotate in a small message at the top of the screen.  When the device is locked it will display a scrollable list of notifications that have come in since it was last unlocked.  Apps can be restricted from displaying notifications on the lock screen through the device settings.

When the device is unlocked, running a finger down from the top of the screen will pull down Apple’s new “notification center” that collects all incoming notifications and emails.  It also displays location-based weather information and a stock ticker.  Tapping on any notification will automatically load the app that created it.  The notification center is configurable to allow only certain apps to display notices there. 

iTunes Match – A “Get out of Jail” Card for Music Lovers

The company that reinvented the way we purchase music has also created an amnesty program for those who may have acquired their music through illicit means.  “iTunes Match” is a new feature in Apple’s iTunes desktop software that will match an entire music collection (including songs purchased or downloaded elsewhere)  to Apple’s authorized music catalog. 

“Matched” songs are replaced with a high quality version (without copy protection) from Apple’s catalog and are made available to iOS devices and desktop computers to stream or download.  Songs not matched are uploaded to Apple’s servers and are also made available to the device.  The iTunes Match service will be available later this month and will cost $25 per year.  Stored music on Apple’s servers will not count against a user’s iCloud storage allocation.

Siri Voice Control Only on the iPhone 4S

The one new feature not available to existing iPhone 3GS and 4 users is the new voice-activated assistant Siri.  That will only be available on the new iPhone 4s, although there is a chance Siri could make its way to the iPad given that device’s hardware similarities to the new iPhone.

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