Apple's iOS 6 adds several long-awaited features for the iPhone and iPad, including turn-by-turn navigation and FaceTime calls over a mobile network.
During the opening-day keynote at Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC) yesterday, Apple announced the latest version of the operating system that powers its popular mobile devices. Scott Forstall, Apple's senior vice president of iOS, promises that iOS 6 will bring 200 new features, including a tighter Facebook integration, an empowered Siri voice assistant and the capability to conduct FaceTime calls over a mobile network.
Yet, it was Apple's new maps app that was easily the star of the show. Created by the company, the app finally adds turn-by-turn directions, info cards for businesses, a "flyover mode" when searching for an address and a full 3D satellite view that displays buildings, terrain and landmarks. There will be much more, of course, but even at this early point, it's clear that Apple has filled a few gaping holes on our iOS wish list.
iOS 6 will come to the iPhone 3GS, and later models, and to second- and third-generations iPads. For now, though, we'll break down the features that Forstall discussed today.
Apple's voice assistant was the most talked-about feature (no pun intended) when the iPhone 4S debuted last year. It could remind you of a meeting, answer trivia questions and predict if you needed to leave the house with an umbrella. Though in the following months some iPhone users questioned just how effective Siri is, Apple is using iOS 6 to transform the feature from fun novelty into an integral method for interacting with the handset. Oh, and Siri is coming to the iPad, too. Huzzah.
The most notable change is that Siri will now launch apps. In the demo, Forstall asked to play Temple Run and the game launched immediately. And, once you've launched some apps, you'll be able to use Siri to perform some functions, like updating your Facebook status or sending a tweet. While it's unclear whether it will work with every title, this is a welcome addition, even if the list is small to start off. Siri delivering trivia is good for parties, but Siri actually helping you use your phone is a much better arrangement.
On that note, the new Eyes Free features brings Siri into your car. Forstall said that Apple is working with car manufactures like Toyota, General Motors, Mercedes, BMW, Honda and Audi to let you use Siri from the steering wheel. You'll get spoken alerts without the screen lighting up, but the car integration means that you'll be able to use Siri safely and without taking your hands off the wheel. Just remember that you'll have to wait longer for Eyes Free; Apple said its partners could complete integration for new vehicles within the next 12 months.
Apple also lets Siri hook in with more third-party services. Forstall showed how she'll be able to answer sports trivia, like a baseball player's batting average, tell you the score of a recent game and display the start of the football season. It's pretty basic stuff, and it appears to come from Yahoo Sports. The integration with Yelp to show more information about local restaurants (like hours and cuisine type) isn't revolutionary, either, but we do like the tight integration with the OpenTable app (an exceedingly useful service, if there ever was one). To make it happen when looking at a restaurant, just ask for reservations. (How this will work in Australia is, at this point, unclear.)
Rotten Tomatoes gets some Siri love, as well. With your voice, you can find films and showtimes, watch a trailer and research individual actors. A very useful feature for those inevitable, "What else has she been in?" questions.
The addition of language support for Spanish, Italian, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese means that Siri is now optimized for 15 countries. Of course, just how useful she can be in those places will depend on how well Apple can surface a database of local businesses. Yet, it's those little details that Apple remembers, so we imagine that the information will be extensive. But either way, letting more people use a feature is always a good move. And in China, it's a very big deal.
Ever since the first iPhone launched five years ago, we've long complained that Apple's handset lacks turn-by-turn directions, which is why finally getting it is such a big deal. Other phones have, after all, long offered the feature (it's pretty much a staple on Android), but Apple has a long history of sitting on a feature until it gets it exactly right. And, from what we saw today, the company is off to a good start. We liked the bird's-eye view that shows where you are at a given time, and that you get a preview of upcoming turns when two directional points are close together. On the whole, it appears to be very user-friendly. Siri will speak the directions as you go, and you can ask for directions without touching the phone.
The Flyover mode looks like a lot of fun, though we admit its appeal doesn't extend much beyond the "wow" factor. The 3D mode is flashy, too, and should make for a few hours of fun. That said, it will be best for the iPad, unless Apple decides to grant our wish of a bigger display on the next iteration of the handset. Eminently useful will be the ability to rotate the vector-based maps with your fingers, the traffic information and the info cards, which display vital details about points of interest.
Again, Apple didn't invent all of these features, but it did make them unmistakably Apple. Of course, the biggest story here is that Apple has created its own maps solution and done all the cartography in house. We've long suspected some kind of a divorce from Google Maps, and from what we can tell, this divorce will be pretty final.
With iOS 6, you'll have the ability to make FaceTime calls over a cellular network. Sure, we'll take it, even if we're concerned about just how much data the app will use in an era where unlimited data contracts are disappearing quickly. We're also concerned with the FaceTime experience over a 3G network. Indeed, as we understood it, that was the whole reason Apple restricted FaceTime to Wi-Fi when the feature debuted on the iPhone 4. Perhaps the change points to a future LTE iPhone.
On the other hand, we're totally pleased with Apple's decision to integrate your phone number with your Apple ID. So when you get a FaceTime call, you could answer it on your iPhone, iPad or Mac. Sometimes, it's the little touches that really matter.