Editor’s Note: At the point of publication, we are a few hours away from the release of iOS 7 in WWDC 2013. To find out the latest features for iOS 7, stay tuned.
Apple’s iOS (previously known as the iPhone OS) has come a long way – 6 and a half years in the making for 6 generations of iPhones, together with multiple generations of iPads, and iPods. If you’re someone who started out with an iPhone 4 and not know what came before that, then take a trip with us down memory lane to check out the history of Apple’s iOS and the features that were introduced in previous WWDC events.
It might be a long post as Apple has released a lot of updates since the first-generation iPhone. Some might not know how it looked like, but it wasn’t as pretty as the iPhone 5, that’s for sure. We won’t be talking about the design aspects of the device, but rather talk about iOS itself and the improvements significant to the iOS of today.
Coming Soon: Everything You Need To Know About iOS 7
iOS 1: The Birth Of The iPhone 
iOS, then known as iPhone OS, was unveiled at the Macworld event, early 2007. At the time, features of the iPhone were very limited. There wasn’t an App Store, you couldn’t multitask between the built-in apps, move the app icons on the homescreen (until the 1.1.1 update), copy and paste text, attach files to email, 3G and MMS.
However, while other devices were still using resistive touchscreens, Apple revolutionized its iPhone with capacitive touch capabilities, making the whole experience of a smartphone smooth and swift to users.
(Image Source: Lusakatimes)
The capacitive touchscreen made multitouch pinch-and-zoom and smooth scrolling a thing of the future as users experienced it when surfing on the Safari web browser, or zooming and scrolling through pictures on their camera roll. Google Maps was also awesome on the iPhone because of the capacitive touch – zooming in and out quickly had most of us excited back then.
At the time, Apple already had a wide customer base on iTunes who bought music for their old school, touch wheel iPods. Apple then excited the crowd as the iPhone was also called a ‘wide screen touch enabled’ iPod, the first of its kind.
iOS 2: App Store 
Remember how the iPhone had no App Store and all you had were the built-in apps by Apple? Me neither. The release of the App Store in 2008 built into the OS meant that users can browse and then download apps directly on the device.
Apple also used the iTunes accounts so people would just have to enter their ID and password in order to start purchasing apps with the same credit card they use to purchase music on their computer.
(Image Source: DotSauce)
Other features added were Microsoft Exchange support that allowed for push emails, calendars and contacts from other sources and Apple’s MobileMe (already replaced by iCloud). The native Google Maps app also had updates with street view, walking and public transport directions.
iOS 3: iPhone Enhancements 
Compared to iOS 2, iOS 3 was a core update launched together with the iPhone 3GS in 2009. Apple introduced the ability to cut, copy and paste just like how you can do it now, Spotlight search that lets you search for anything system wide, push notifications for 3rd party apps, MMS, voice control, USB and Bluetooth tethering, and the Find My iPhone app. Most of these features introduced then have stayed on the iOS till today.
The native camera app also saw an improvement with video recording and the tap-to-focus feature. Apple also introduced the iTunes app where users could easily purchase and watch content on the phone. This release also allowed developers to create bluetooth and dock accessories through the large amount of APIs released on Apple’s SDK.
iOS 4: Multitasking, Retina & FaceTime 
Recent users probably cannot fathom the idea that iOS could not multitask apps at a point in time. Lucky for them, iOS 4 was when the multitasking bar was born. With this multitasking feature, apps could work in the background allowing users to switch between apps faster, with its previously saved state intact. Other music apps other than the native music app could also work in the background too.
Apple also introduced app folders, custom wallpapers to replace the black background for the homescreen, FaceTime and Retina support for the iPhone 4. Moving from the iPhone 3GS screen to Retina was a big deal as developers had to make apps look good on high-resolution screens.
They also introduced a unified Inbox on the native Mail app for users with multiple email accounts, a less cluttered Inbox with threaded emails, the ability to search text on the Messages app and geotagging photos.
WiFi tethering or Personal Hotspot as we now know was also included in later updates of iOS 4. That together with Game Center, AirPrint and AirPlay were released in the first quarter of 2011.
iOS 5: Notification Center, Siri & More 
iOS 5 was the most impressive update Apple came out with in 2011. The iPhone 4 was already a big hit with its Retina display, that together with the features of iOS 5 blew away any competition. Apple marketed Siri as an iPhone 4S feature.
It was (still) a big hit, bringing voice assistance and information to your fingertips instantly, with voice recognition. iCloud was also released, making backups and setting up new iOS devices easy.
Remember when notifications used to be a mini window right in your face? Well, Apple also released the Notification Center and the sleek notification bar, giving you the choice to interact with the notification while using an app.
The lockscreen also saw improvements with lockscreen notifications where you can quickly swipe the app icon to open the app, and launch the camera app from the lockscreen, like you can do now.
Other brand new features that were introduced include: Reminders app that synced with iCal and Outlook and featured location-based reminders, iMessage, Newsstand, Twitter integration and multitasking gestures with a split keyboard on the iPad.
Previously, syncing your device to iTunes meant you had to wait for it to finish before being able to use your device again. In iOS 5, Apple got rid of that so users could use the device while syncing. The native camera app also saw an improvement, they added basic editing features and users can use the volume button to snap a picture.
There was also the feature of updating iOS over WiFi, alongside Safari Reader, which takes away all the clutter leaving you with just text to read, and rich text-editing on the Mail app.
iOS 6: Apple Maps & Passbook
Before iOS 7 is released to users, this is the OS where most of us are right now. iOS 6 was where we saw the release of Apple’s own Maps app with turn-by-turn voice navigation. As they tried to step out from Google’s shadow, they removed the native Google Maps and YouTube app found in previous versions of iOS. However, Apple’s Maps failed on them and many looked to alternatives before Google Maps was re-released on the App Store.
Apple also introduced Passbook, marking entry into the world of digital wallets and payments with a mobile device. New features also include Do Not Disturb mode, Guided Access, panorama photos on the native camera app and Facebook integration allowing users to update status with a button on the notification center.
The bulk of Apples "200 new features" in iOS 6 were more of updates, which included
- Updates to Siri
- FaceTime over cellular
- Photo Stream over iCloud
- better sharing options throughout iOS
- remodeling of the App Stores
- enhanced Safari with iCloud tabs
- VIP mail on the native Mail app
- more Emoji
- new calling features, allowing you to set a reminder to call back or reply with a text message.