updated 11:50 am EDT, Wed October 12, 2011
We try Apple's new native iOS 5 apps
Apple's two main companion apps for iOS 5, Find My Friends and AirPort Utility, have gone live just hours before the OS itself is available. We've had the opportunity to try both and to gauge how they work in practice. We'll also gauge whether Find My Friends stacks up well against its main rival, Google Latitude.
Like some of Apple's recent services, Find My Friends relies on having personal info, in this case an e-mail address, before you can add people and get started. Importantly, it doesn't scrape your accounts: even if they already exist in your contacts, you'll still need to request permission. Google already does this with Latitude, but it's nice to see privacy respected here. Latitude does have an edge in detecting use: it will tell you which users are already active on the service, so you know which ones are most likely to answer back.
As with most of Apple's services, controlling privacy elsewhere is kept simple. You can turn off your own location if you like. One edge Apple has over Google is temporary location sharing, where you can coordinate with friends while at a concert but lose that tracking after a certain point in time. It's an admission that many might be friends but don't necessarily want to share their position at all times.
Once in, though, it's surprising how detailed information can get. Find My Friends makes a best-guess estimate of the address, but because location finding is very accurate, it's often right or so close that it might as well be, sometimes getting down to the specific part of a building. That said, it will occasionally show the right pinpointed location but the wrong address.
There isn't much to do once you have people on the map, however. Apart from locating friends, you can send them an iMessage (since you know they have iOS 5) to coordinate events. That's really the brunt of what most of us need, but there's no check-ins or other services, whether run through Apple or a third party like Facebook or Foursquare. We'd like to see more to keep us actively involved in the app, such as tagging places with photos for friends to see.
Navigating around the app itself is very easy, although some might balk at the iCal-inspired ledger visuals, making it a safe download. For now, though, we see it more as a specialized, occasional app rather than something you'll always have running. Latitude itself is sometimes victim to this but has some extra use to keep you coming back more often.
AirPort Utility almost heads in the opposite direction, although that's a good thing in our experience. Apart from a visual topology showing you the devices connected to the same network, it's just as technical as the desktop app. Most start with enough detail for those with just basic knowledge to understand, but they delve extensively into the routing and configuration that you'd expect of a modern router. An AirPort Express will show whatever AirPlay devices are linked up, too.
Ease of use here is thus tied more to your knowledge of networking than Apple's interface, but the end effect is almost more important. Combined with iOS 5, it's a step closer towards that "PC-free" future, as you can now set up one of Apple's routers quickly using nothing but your iPad. Telling a parent or a friend that they won't need a computer may be all they need to know, and experienced users will like having a fallback if a computer isn't an option.