Apple supplemented its new laptop announcements and forthcoming update to OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion with plans to release iOS 6 in the third quarter of 2012 — we’re guessing October, to coincide with a new iPhone model. The new mobile OS version comes with what Apple counts as 200 new features, including a dramatically modified Maps app, smarter Siri integration, and a welcome Do Not Disturb mode. According to Apple, iOS 6 will work with the iPhone 3GS and later, the fourth-generation iPod touch, and the second- and third-generation iPad. It’s nice to see the iPhone 3GS being included in one more big iOS upgrade and, although not entirely surprising, it’s noteworthy that the original iPad will not run iOS 6.
Maps and Directions -- It has been clear for months that Apple would abandon Google’s mapping software and support for the Maps app, despite a working relationship that dated back to iPhone OS 1.0. Apple even advertised for new employees to work on its mapping service. But the new Maps app is more expansive than expected.
To start with, Apple’s new maps are vector-based, rather than being bitmapped images. Google constructs maps as pictures on a server and feeds out image segments; Apple sends vector data to its devices, which then build the maps. This is a classic split in the two companies’ philosophies. Apple says (and the demo shows) that this makes zooming and panning faster. It should also mean that much less data is transferred, as using vector data is a far more compact method of representing an area, especially as the user switches among different levels of magnification.
If you imagined hearing a loud groan during the Maps presentation, it was the sound of dozens of GPS satellite-navigation app makers picturing millions of dollars in lost sales due to the turn-by-turn directions feature that Apple has added for iOS 6. But our own Glenn Fleishman has reviewed nearly 20 of them for Macworld over the last 3 years, and he feels there’s a lot of room for improvement — which is why it makes sense for Apple to step in here.
Apple says it’s integrating traffic conditions that are anonymously crowdsourced from iOS users who are also using Maps while driving to provide updating information about the best route. (Google has long done exactly this as well.) Many GPS navigation apps include traffic or offer it as an add-on, and rely on the same sort of traffic update information. But Apple’s Maps will be available to everyone at no cost, which could instantly provide Apple with an extremely large pool of traffic data from the day it launches. (Android has offered free turn-by-turn directions since 2009 in advance of most third-party navigation software for that platform.)
Maps adds some lovely eye candy in the form of Flyover, which Apple derived from aerial photography. Major cities around the world can be viewed as interactive 3D images. It’s an interesting way to explore a city, and a great demonstration. In practice, one wonders how much it will be used routinely, but we can imagine visitors planning a visit to a new city by spending evenings rummaging through flyovers. Several firms, including Microsoft, have offered spectacular 3D and interactive aerial views before, but this is the first time we know of this approach being available so extensively in a mobile app. (Google announced just a few days ago that it would be bringing interactive 3D visuals to Android in the near future.)
Apple has also put Yelp reviews and results onto its maps as clickable pins along with other local information. (Yelp and Google have a long-standing dispute about the use of Yelp’s information in Google’s local results, and the use of Yelp results in general searches. Apple will dramatically boost Yelp’s reach with this inclusion.)
A Smarter Siri -- Siri, introduced in beta form with iOS 5, controls an iPhone 4S with speech when, for example, you want to compose a text message, set a timer, or place a phone call.
Siri gets smarter in iOS 6 and expands its reach beyond just the iPhone 4S to the latest iPad — sorry to those who were hoping for backward compatibility with the original iPad, iPad 2, and the iPhone 4. Siri in iOS 6 also understands many more languages and can run in a new “Eyes Free” mode; this is invoked via a button on the steering wheel in certain new cars. (So yes, if you want to be completely up to date, you’ll have to buy a new car that’s compatible with your cell phone.)
The iOS 6 Siri update gains access to more information, such as sports statistics and scores for baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer (nothing was said about worldwide results from the only sport Adam follows, distance running). Fortunately, as thinking about sports can work up an appetite, Siri can also help you satisfy your hunger more effectively, with access to much more restaurant information, via Yelp and OpenTable, so you can look for nearby places that feature outdoor seating and then book a reservation.
If you are using Siri in iOS 6 with the new Maps app, you can ask for a destination — such as a nearby restaurant — and Siri directs you there. And if you want to follow dinner with a movie, Siri can provide access to movie showings, trailers, and reviews. For film buffs, Siri can find movie trivia, such as when a movie was released and who directed it. You’ll also be able to speak to Twitter and have Siri tweet what you say, post a Facebook status update, or add a comment to your Facebook wall.
Perhaps best of all, Siri can launch apps upon your spoken command. App hounds who have filled their devices with hundreds of programs can now bypass the iOS search screen to easily launch an app that’s stashed away in the fifth folder on the seventh Home screen — or that might not be showing at all if the screens are maxed out!
Auto manufacturers that Apple announced as already committed to delivering eyes-free Siri integration in the next 12 months include BMW, GM, Mercedes, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Toyota, Chrysler, and Honda. Languages that Siri will support under iOS 6 include Korean; English/French for Canada; Spanish for Spain, Mexico, and the United States; Italian; Italian, French, and German for Switzerland; Mandarin for Taiwan; Cantonese for Hong Kong; and Mandarin for mainland China and Hong Kong.
Do Not Disturb and Phone Reminders -- A new Do Not Disturb timer in iOS 6 adds an option to pick a range of time to suppress vibration, keep the screen from lighting up, and silence any sounds on your iOS device. Anyone who sleeps with such a piece of hardware nearby will appreciate Do Not Disturb’s tranquility. This feature will also be welcome to certain students, especially younger students, who want to have their iPhones in their backpacks, but need to ensure that they are completely silent during class to avoid confiscation.
For iPhone users, the Do Not Disturb feature does not mean that you’ll miss truly urgent calls, though: if the same number calls you within 3 minutes of a blocked call, it is passed on through; that bypass can be disabled, too. You can also allow numbers in your Favorites list in the Phone and Contacts apps to make noise or vibration, even when all others are suppressed.
Further, the Phone app offers more options related to the calls that you don’t answer even when you’re willing to be disturbed. You can respond to an unanswered call immediately with a text message, including some preset ones (including custom presets: “I thought I told you never to call me while I’m being John Malkovich!”), or set a reminder for returning the call. And that reminder can include a geofence, so you’ll be alerted when you leave a meeting room or building.
Passbook -- The new Passbook app aims to bring order to your collection of virtual movie ticket purchases, boarding passes, loyalty cards, and more — at least those that include 2D barcodes that you need to present to scan for admission or purchase. Passbook can present and keep track of such items by both time and location, showing you, for example, your boarding pass information on the iPhone lock screen when you arrive at the airport. You can expect a number of vendors to turn up in Passbook as time goes on, as it requires some sort of integration, almost like a mini-app or widget.
Passbook could be a signal that Apple intends to incorporate near-field communications (NFC), a wireless technology for exchanging information at extremely short distances, such as by waving a device near or tapping a device on some kind of reader. Android added support for NFC in previous releases, and some Android phones include NFC hardware. However, without the commitment and integration of major retailers and other companies, like airlines, NFC won’t take off. Passbook could be both an indication of what’s to come and a precursor of announcements from Apple partners.
Enhanced Sharing -- Those who can’t resist sharing every facet of their lives will appreciate the integration of Facebook into iOS for posting pictures and updates from within various apps, just like Twitter. This would seem to be the death knell for Ping, Apple’s music-oriented social networking service that never really got off the ground — a statement Tim Cook more or less agreed with in an interview at a recent tech conference.
More interesting is the new Shared Photo Streams feature. You can pick photos you’d like to share, and choose friends with whom you want to share. After that, your friends will receive push notifications about the shared photos, and the photos will appear in an album in the Photos app and on Macs in iPhoto and Aperture.
It will also finally become possible to attach photos and videos directly to messages from within the Mail app, rather than forcing users to initiate the process from the Photos app.
For those who like to share in real time, FaceTime gains the capability to work over cellular data connections as well as Wi-Fi. About time.
Safari Improvements -- Safari in iOS receives a few interesting improvements, including iCloud Tabs, which enables you to view tabs open in other copies of Safari on your other iCloud-connected devices. Safari’s Reading List will be usable offline, which makes it significantly more useful for anyone who commutes on the subway or who wants to catch up with stored articles on an airplane.
When viewing Web sites in landscape orientation, you’ll be able to show them full-screen, without the device’s usual status bar at the top. And for sites that have their own iOS app, Safari can automatically pop up a banner informing visitors of a developer's app, and a single tap will take them to the App Store to download it. If the user already has the app, tapping will switch to it, in exactly the same state as the Web site was.
Guided Access and Accessibility -- With the new Guided Access feature, touch input to an app can be limited to only certain areas of the screen, and the new Single App mode disables the Home button, forcing the user of the device to remain in a single app. For teachers using iPads in the classroom, we predict that these features will be popular for keeping students on task. For example, students using a Multi-Touch textbook authored in iBooks Author could be restricted to just the iBooks app. And, with Guided Access, students could be blocked from tapping the Library button in iBooks in order to switch out to the iBookstore or any other titles available in the iBooks library.
Other accessibility related changes include VoiceOver support added to the Maps app, and a “Made for iPhone” program for creating and marketing iPhone-compatible hearing aids.
Lost and Found -- A new Lost mode added to Find My iPhone lets you send a message to your missing iPhone that lets whoever found the phone call you with a single tap. “If they’re nice,” said Apple’s Scott Forstall while demonstrating the feature. Currently, Find My iPhone lets you send messages, lock your device, or wipe it. The Lost mode tracks the phone (it sounds as if it enables Find My iPhone if it’s off, although that’s unclear), locks the phone with a new four-digit passcode, and provides a pop-up menu with a prominent green Call button that the phone’s current possessor can tap to reach you.
Find My Friends will also add notifications based on location, with Apple providing the excellent example that a parent could be alerted when a kid leaves school or arrives home.
That’s It… For Now -- That’s our brief rundown on the most touted of the 200 new features that iOS 6 will deliver when it is released in a few short months. Given that developers at WWDC received a beta of iOS 6, however, we suspect more details about it will emerge in the days and weeks to come.