It’s been a busy month for three of our favorite mobile platforms. Microsoft launched “Mango” in late September, Apple released iOS 5 on October 12, and Google announced the long-awaited Ice Cream Sandwich on October 19 (the evening of the 18th in the US). Each update offers significant improvements in features and/or UI, but keeping track of all those new goodies can be an arduous task. We’ll give you a look at what’s new on these platforms, as well as some idea of how or if you can get them on your device.
Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) is the only update that hasn’t actually been released as of the time this writing, but Google did hold a launch event demonstrating new features and capabilities in Android 4. ICS will initially be available on the recently announced Samsung Galaxy Nexus, with updates proceeding to other eligible devices at a later date. Presumably Google will follow its policy of updating devices released by partners over the last 18 months.
It seems like we’ve been hearing rumors about ICS since the dawn of time, but it hasn’t been quite that long. Reportedly the major benefit of ICS was the unification of the phone and tablet form factors, but the absence of a tablet demo to this point has been frustrating. The UI sports a lot of elements that will look very familiar to users of Honeycomb (Android 3.x) tablets. The three buttons that are always on display at the bottom of the screen, the app switcher, and even the neon glow around the UI bits are almost identical to Honeycomb. Those of you looking for better ways to organize your home screens will love folders and resizable widgets.
Smartphones are all about communication, and Ice Cream Sandwich reinforces that. Google+ is an integral part of ICS, in much the same way Gmail or Google Voice have been. As Google’s central social networking service, Google+ is going to provide key communication capabilities, such as chat and video calling via Google+ Hangouts.
Undoubtedly the most innovative new feature in ICS, Beam uses Near Field Communication (NFC) to transfer images, contacts, or links between devices simply by touching them together. Beam will require a device that includes NFC hardware. NFC is the same technology that powers Google Wallet, and will become much more prevalent in the coming months.
Camera use was a major area of (ahem) focus at Google’s ICS event. From the start, ICS helps you catch that perfect image by offering a shortcut to the camera app directly from the unlock screen.
The camera app itself has been reworked and provides many upgrades such as continuous focus and zero shutter lag, both of which will help you capture better images using your phone’s camera. Panoramic images are incredibly simple with ICS as well. Simply snap an image, sweep the camera slowly across the area you want to capture, and Ice Cream Sandwich will stitch the images together to make a panorama.
The Gallery app has also been updated in a big way, offering impressive image editing opportunities out of the box. Once your image is perfect, ICS provides an avenue for you to share your image to different social networks or photo sharing sites, as well as using email or Bluetooth.
Google also provides some other innovative uses of technology that can make your life easier. Face Unlock allows you to use the front-facing camera on your device for facial recognition to unlock your device, instead of a pin or swipe pattern. Quick Responses let you respond to an incoming phone call using predefined text messages, a terribly handy solution for anyone who has received an inopportune phone call during an important meeting. ICS makes the problem of monitoring and managing your metered data usage much more intuitive. Using the included tools you can determine when and why spikes in data usage are occurring, and define how individual apps are allowed to use your data.
Arguably the world’s most hyped smartphone platform, iOS 5 boasts a maturity in both platform and ecosystem that everyone else is trying to catch up with. Much of the iOS 5 update simply improves on features that have been available for some time, but Apple certainly has some new tricks up its sleeve. It comes installed on the new iPhone 4S and is available for the iPhone (4 and 3GS), iPad (1 and 2), and iPod Touch (generation 3 and 4).
Easily the coolest new feature in iOS 5, Siri is also the most frustrating because it's (needlessly) exclusive to the iPhone 4S . In its simplest form, Siri is the best mobile voice activation solution on the market, but it’s much more than that. Instead of always listening for specific key words, Siri attempts to translate your words into something the iPhone can act on. The result is a very usable voice interface that allows you to play music, set reminders, reply to text messages, inquire about the weather or traffic, and a host of other uses.
Apple’s second attempt at an integral cloud service, iCloud rains down convenience all over iOS 5. It integrates nicely with Apple’s iWork suite (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) to provide a means of synchronizing your documents to the cloud, or to multiple devices. The iCloud website lets you view thumbnails of these documents, and upload or download individual documents. iCloud also provides quick access to your @me.com email, and lets you manage your contacts and calendar in a central location. At iCloud.com you can "Find My iPhone", which allows you to locate, track, and remotely lock or wipe your device if it gets lost or stolen.
For such a mature platform, notifications prior to iOS 5 were hideous. Notifications would interrupt the app you were currently using, which was especially painful during video playback or key moments in a game. In iOS 5, Apple has taken a major step in the right direction with notifications. Instead of constant popups that demand your attention, notifications appear at the top of your screen, and disappear after a few seconds. A list of recent notifications is visible by dragging downward from the top of the screen, revealing the Notification Drawer, similar to the UI in Android. iOS 5 also offers the ability to display notifications on your lock screen, adding an additional layer of visibility without being obtrusive. Using Settings you can configure notifications for individual apps, indicating when and where an application is able to notify you. You can even revert to the old method of notifications, if you’d prefer.
iMessage is Apple’s implementation of a unified messaging platform. It can seamlessly switch between SMS and chat with other iMessage users. You can even begin an iMessage conversation on your iPhone, and pick up where you left off on your iPad or iPod Touch.
Twitter integration also makes its debut in iOS 5, though you won’t be removing your Twitter app anytime soon. iOS 5 uses Twitter to share photos, links, maps, or videos with only a few touches. App developers also have access to APIs that let them integrate built-in functionality, meaning more socially-aware apps should be on the horizon. What Twitter integration in iOS 5 doesn’t provide is an easy method to interact with your timeline or post a simple Tweet without going through Safari, Photos, or Maps.
There are a lot more less significant features and updates in iOS 5 as well. For example, iPads get a Split Keyboard to benefit thumb typists, and Safari adds enhanced tabbed browsing. Significant AirPlay updates mean you can now mirror your entire screen to an HDTV display with an Apple TV.
Windows Phone is the newest member of this group, and as such had the most room for growth. Microsoft’s Mango update to WP7 launched simultaneously to multiple devices on carriers throughout the world, and did so without any major hiccups. The update will be available to all Windows Phone devices and will become stock on a new wave of hardware arriving in the coming months.
The biggest update in Windows Phone 7.5 is Multitasking. Like iOS, most Windows Phone apps don’t truly run in the background, but Windows Phone 7.5 provides the APIs that developers need to do critical things, like play music or continue downloading files while the application is inactive. You can switch between running applications by holding the back button, swiping through the available options, and tapping on the app you want.
Microsoft’s tagline for Windows Phone is “Put People First”, and Mango improves on that goal in dramatic ways. Already one of the more socially connected platforms with Facebook integrated directly into the OS, WP7.5 also includes Twitter and LinkedIn integration, as well as improving the Facebook support. The “Me” tile can update any of the connected social networks, and you can follow friends through the People hub. Also through the People hub, the new History pivot tracks your interaction with individual friends, both via the integrated social networks and the more traditional means.
The Messaging app in Windows Phone is where you would typically read and send SMS and MMS messages. The Messaging interface itself received some minor tweaks, a rarity in this update, with incoming and outgoing messages being colored differently. The Messaging app is also the home of integrated Facebook chat. Messaging allows you to seamlessly switch back and forth between Facebook chat and SMS, much like Facebook Messages. Voice integration is another new feature of the Messaging app, allowing you to easily dictate text messages using only voice commands.
Windows Phone 7 included one of our favorite mobile email implementations before Mango, and it only gets better. Email in Mango has a threaded view, making it simple to view an entire conversation without searching through your email history. Also new in Mango is the ability to link inboxes. Linked inboxes let you associate two or more email accounts to handle as one, simplifying the task of managing your email without losing the benefits gained by having multiple accounts.
When the search button gets one of the three mandated hardware buttons on every Windows Phone device, there’s a good chance that Microsoft has big plans for Bing in Windows Phone 7. We’ve already covered much of Bing’s new functionality in our piece on Tips and Tricks for Mango , but know that if you aren’t using Bing on a regular basis, you’re missing out. Scout, Music, Vision, and Voice all have new features and use cases that have major potential, and compete favorably against the best Apple and Google can offer.
There are too many new features in Mango to fully delve into here, but some other items of interest include support for custom ringtones, new features in Zune (Music and Video), and the ability to save Office documents to SkyDrive. Mango also offers many new capabilities for developers that you'll see in your apps, such as the ability to pin multiple live tiles to your Start screen.
Regardless of which mobile platform you use on a daily basis, there are some good reasons to be excited about the new things on offer. Each platform has made major steps forward in features and how the UI presents those features.
The real question for many people is if their device will be supported, and unfortunately that often depends on the device. Most Apple devices are eligible for iOS 5, but will miss out on the most innovative feature in Siri. All Windows Phone devices are upgradeable to Mango, partially due to the small segment of the market held by Windows Phone. The upgradeability of Android devices is an entirely new conversation. The general rule of thumb says that popular devices from Google partners released in the last 18 months have the best chance for an upgrade, but the schedule for those devices to receive their update is anyone’s guess.
Which is your platform of choice? What new features are you looking forward to the most? Let us know in the comments!