The two leading mobile smartphone operating systems, iOS and Android, have been revised to let developers create new kinds of apps. Apple recently released iOS 5 in conjunction with the debut of the iPhone 4S. Also recently, Google introduced Android 4.0, otherwise known as Ice Cream Sandwich, along with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone, which will ship with the OS.
Each mobile OS offers its own set of improvements. Android 4.0 is arguably a more significant update in terms of the degree to which it improves the platform, but iOS 5 has plenty to offer as well.
Both updates include a long list of changes and additions. Apple says iOS 5 has more than 200 new user features and more than 1,500 new APIs. Google doesn't provide a similar count, but its latest version of Android is ambitious and compelling.
What follows are highlights of the features of most interest to developers.
Apple iOS 5
- Cloud API: Third-party developers can create applications that store and back up data in iCloud. This makes using the same app on different iOS devices easier because application files don't have to be transferred from your iPhone to your iPad, for example. It also reduces the risk of losing data if a device is lost since it's no longer stored on the device.
- Automatic Reference Counting: ARC makes it easier to manage memory in an application. Users don't notice good memory management, but they certainly notice when it's bad and the app crashes. If ARC can reduce crashes, then developers will embrace it.
- Storyboards: This new iOS 5 feature simplifies the process of creating apps with multiple menu screens. Users won't notice this feature either, but iOS developers will. If you're making an app with a lot of screens, Storyboard should speed up development.
- Newsstand Support: Publishers that want to sell content through Apple's Newsstand app will welcome the fact that developers can now write Newsstand-enabled apps. It remains to be seen how many publishers are willing to surrender 30% of their revenue to have their content offered through Newsstand, particularly in light of the HTML5 apps developed by the likes of the Financial Times to circumvent Apple's toll booth.
- Better AirPlay: AirPlay lets iOS devices stream audio and video content to AirPlay-compatible TV and audio equipment. iOS 5 adds the ability to let apps mirror iPad 2 content on a nearby Apple TV device. This makes buying or renting iTunes video content using an iPad 2 far more appealing.
- Core Image Framework: These APIs give app developers a set of nondestructive filters that can be used to manipulate video and still images. The framework supports various filter effects like color changes, gradients, and transformations, as well as face and feature detection. These filters use both CPU and GPU processing power, so they're fast.
- GLKit: The set of APIs is designed to make OpenGL ES 2.0 apps, with their accelerated graphics, easier to build. Suffice it to say that faster is better as far as graphics are concerned.
- Twitter Framework: This framework handles Twitter user authentication and makes it easy to integrate Twitter messaging into apps.
- Message UI Framework: This framework has been updated to add support for iMessages, text messaging that can be sent between iOS devices without incurring carrier text messaging charges.
- Unified UI Framework: The new, more attractive Android UI is unified across device form factors. Android developers finally can write for Android devices as a whole rather than phones or tablets separately.
- Social API: This gives developers a way to store social data from multiple social networks, including contacts, profile information, status updates, and photos. Social networks may or may not provide the information. If they do, the user must grant permission. A new People app uses the API to set up contacts as social connections.
- Calendar API: This API simplifies the process of adding calendar services to apps. A shared database lets apps add and manage events, alerts, and reminders. This could be useful when creating an app to make restaurant reservations or one to determine whether friends are available to attend an event.
- Visual Voice-Mail API: Android's Phone app supports new visual voice-mail features, including the ability to access incoming messages, voice transcriptions, and audio files from multiple voice mail service providers. The Phone app can be integrated with developer apps to allow additional manipulation and organization of the visual voice-mail inbox.
- Android Beam: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus and other near field communication-enabled Android phones can use Android Beam to share information about their apps with each other when the phones are in close proximity. By bringing one NFC-equipped Android 4.0 device within a few centimeters of another, a user could exchange contacts, configure a multiplayer game, initiate a chat session, and share an Android Market link, among other things. Android Beam can switch over to Bluetooth for large data transfers; the advantage of Android Beam is that it doesn't require manual device discovery and pairing.
- Face Unlock: Facial recognition is often deemed to be creepy, but Android 4.0 uses it as an optional way to unlock the screen. Users can also use a PIN or pattern tracing to unlock their devices.
- Enterprise Enhancements: A new VPN API makes it easier to create Android 4.0 apps that rely on secure connections. It also lets administrators remotely disable the camera on managed devices, a necessity in certain kinds of work environments.
- Hardware Accelerated 2-D Graphics: Android 4.0 supports accelerated 2-D operations like scaling and rotating, and accelerated rendering of UI components. Speed means happier users.
- Improved Media Effects: With hardware 2-D support comes various new camera features that can be accessed in apps. These include continuous focus, image zoom, custom metering regions, and face detection. Hardware acceleration also brings advanced filtering and image transformation effects that can be used on still and video images.
These are just some of the features that will interest developers in iOS 5 and Android 4.0. If you're writing mobile apps, make sure to explore the documentation thoroughly. There's a lot more to see.
Thomas Claburn is a staff writer for Information Week and can be contacted at [email protected].