@ WWDC 2011: iOS 5, PC Free, 25 Million iPads Sold To Date

The second act of Apple’s WWDC 2011 involved its iOS operating system, now installed on over 200 million devices on the planet according to iOS head Scott Forstall. Forstall took the reins at the Moscone Center to discuss the new software and also provided some new updates on sales: Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) has sold 25 million iPads.

Forstall ran though a bunch of statistics about iOS services, such as 130 million iBooks having been downloaded through the iBookstore. Apple has also paid out $2.5 billion to software developers, he said, drawing a cheer from the crowd of 5,200 developers assembled for the latest word from Apple. Around 225 million people have accounts with Apple’s iTunes Store and App Store, providing quite the audience for those developers.

New notifications system: iOS 5 was called “a major release” by Forstall. The first enhancement he announced — a new notifications system — drew a sustained cheer from the crowd, acknowledging what was probably one of Apple’s biggest problems with iOS. The old notification system was very jarring, forcing the application you’re using to stop in its tracks when you get a new notification.

Notifications Center is the name of the redesigned system. Android users will recognize the design: new notifications are accessed by swiping down from the top of the phone’s homescreen, which is exactly how Google (NSDQ: GOOG) implemented its notifications system. “Notifications are no longer interrupting,” Forstall said, showing off how the notification will move unobtrusively to the top of the screen when it is received unless the user wants to act right away. Selecting a notification from the notifications home will take the user right into that application to see the new message or alert.

Going PC free: The largest response to anything introduced in the iOS portion of the keynote was a feature called “PC Free,” which means that Apple is finally ready to walk the walk on the “post-PC era.” New iOS devices can be configured without having to connect the device to a Mac or PC, and new software updates will be sent over-the-air, eliminating another weak point within Apple’s mobile strategy.

Like BlackBerry Messenger: Apple also moved to erode one of Research in Motion’s remaining selling points by introducing a new messaging system that connects all iOS users without having to use SMS text messaging, similar to RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger. It works over both 3G and WiFi, and is likely to raise a few eyebrows at wireless carriers who make huge margins selling text-messaging services for the iPhone. It’s called iMessage, and is built into the existing SMS Messaging app.

Managing digital subscriptions in Newsstand: Forstall showed off several other new features, including one called Newsstand. There will be a new hub in the App Store for finding new magazines or newspapers, and a new section of iOS that collects all your magazine titles in one place. The system will be able to download new issues in the background so it can be read offline.

Twitter integration: As many had expected, Forstall also announced a deeper integration of Apple’s iOS and Twitter. Twitter is now integrated with the iOS Camera and Photos applications, letting you tweet a photo without having to open the Twitter app. News articles can also be tweeted directly from the operating system without having to open the application, and Twitter photos can be used as background for contacts.

Safari updates: A few news-friendly features were added to Apple’s mobile Safari browser as well, at least from the reader’s point of view. The Reader feature that Apple offers for Safari on the Mac will now be available for iPhones and iPads, meaning you can read a news article without having to see those pesky ads alongside the content. As with the photos and camera features, items being read in Safari can be tweeted.

Camera updates: The iPhone 4’s camera sends more photos to Flickr than any other device, Forstall said. Apple would like to see that grow even larger, and in iOS 5 you’ll be able to access the camera from the phone’s lock screen. Photos can also be edited on an iPhone or iPad through the camera application without having to upload the photo into another service.

Ergonomic keyboard: Apple introduced a new version of virtual keyboard inside the iOS Mail application called Thumbs, which basically separates the keyboard down the middle to make it easier to type with thumbs on opposing edges of an iPad or iPhone. Other updates in the Mail app: rich-text formatting, indentation control and ability to search the entire contents of messages.

Developers will be able to check out iOS 5 today, but consumers will have to wait a little longer: Apple would only quote “this fall” as a shipping date. The new operating system will support the iPhone 3GS and later iPhones, both iPads, and the last two versions of the iPod Touch.