Opinion: Five things to look forward to in Apple's iOS 6

A lot of small tweaks and updates add up to a big win for iPhone and iPad users

iOS 6 is due out this fall. While hardware got a lot of attention at this year's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), the event is still really about software. That's why Apple CEO Tim Cook and other execs offered up a slew of new details about OS X Mountain Lion -- due out next month -- and, more importantly, unveiled iOS 6, the next version of Apple's mobile OS.

iOS 6 will be released this fall, almost certainly in tandem with new iPhones. Much is already known about Mountain Lion, Apple's desktop OS. But iOS 6 is a new arrival, and promises to make iPhone/iPod touch and iPad users very happy when it's released. Apple says there are some 200 or so new features in iOS 6, though many of them are smaller tweaks and updates. But there are still plenty of additions that will change, for the better, how mobile users use their iOS devices.

Here are the five things I'm already looking forward to:

A better Siri

Siri has learned some new tricks in the months since the technology's initial release. First and foremost, with iOS 6, Siri will become available on the latest Retina display iPads released in March. Although iOS 5 allows those iPad users to turn spoken words into text with built-in dictation, Apple's voice assistant has remained an exclusive feature of the iPhone 4S. (iPad 2 owners are out of luck.)

Even better, the Siri service has been tied into more databases, and will have answers regarding movie info and times at local theaters, better knowledge of actors and directors, and access to sports scores, schedules and current player stats. Siri will go beyond simply recommending restaurants based on Yelp and can even allow you to book a table from Siri's visual interface.

Also, Siri will finally be able to launch apps when told to do so. ( Thank you, Siri.)

Apple is clearly trying to expand Siri's reach and is busy making deals with automakers to integrate a Siri activation button in their cars. Marketed as "Eyes Free," the integration deals involve most major automakers, with the notable exception of Ford, which has a license deal with Microsoft. If all goes as planned, this feature should be available in cars beginning in 2013.

Going social

iOS 6 is getting more social. Apple engineers have integrated Facebook more deeply into iOS 6, much as they did with Twitter in iOS 5. You'll now be able to share photos and Safari links on Facebook from within the respective apps using the Share button. Among the updated apps from Apple will be Safari, Game Center, iTunes and the App Store, and by the time iOS is ready to ship, developers will have had time to incorporate Facebook into their own apps, as well.

The Notification Center will also be upgraded to include Twitter and Facebook direct post buttons, and, even better, you can post to both services using Siri.

With iOS 6, Apple has embraced social in a big way. The question of whether it's late to the party compared to the integration with other smartphone OSes isn't up for debate; it is late. But now that these social sharing features are coming, people who frequently use these services will certainly appreciate it.

Note: Facebook integration will also be a part of OS X Mountain Lion, which is now due out in July.

Photo Streams

Speaking of social: I expect Shared Photo Streams to be a hit with families; I know it will be with mine. Here's why: Most of my family lives in the Northeast, while I live far away in Florida. Shared Photo Streams allows you to create groups that are automatically notified when pictures are added, and these photos are automatically delivered to their iPhones or iPads. For instance, I can create a Family group, and the addition of any photos to that Photo Stream group will instantly alert and send those photos to any of the people listed. Being able to immediately share selected photos with my sister, parents and assorted cousins with the tap of a Share button will be fantastic, especially since Shared Photos will be using iCloud, which, unlike MMS messaging, is a free service.

When you first create a Photo Stream to be shared, there are options to create a publicly viewable page of those pictures for family and friends who don't have iOS devices. After you select recipients, a push notification is sent to their phones. They can then view the pictures using the Photos app or, for non-iOS users, on a specially created Web page. It's a super quick and easy way to share photos with family members and friends, and, keeping with the more social theme, comments can be added.

If you have an AppleTV, your pictures can even be transmitted to one that has access to your Photo Stream, so your Apple TV screen saver will always display the latest pictures, automatically.

A better Phone app

In iOS 6, Apple will make several useful enhancements to the phone app. When a call comes in on an iPhone running iOS 5, you can swipe the screen to answer, or press a button located at the top of the phone to dismiss it. For many of us, that means forgetting a call ever took place until much, much later.

With iOS 6, you'll be able to slide the on-screen phone icon vertically for new options: Remind Me Later and Reply With Message. Selecting either produces still even more options, such as location- and time-based reminders under the Remind Me Later button, and a couple of canned messages for quick response under Reply With Messages. And the flourish: a new system-wide Do No Disturb, which can be manually turned on or set to activate during customizable hours.

Do No Disturb does just that: blocks all calls and notifications, ending the annoyingly sudden bright lights of iPhones receiving emails in the middle of the night.

But there are smart touches here that can let some calls through, and you can create a custom group of people that are to be let through no matter what, even with Do Not Disturb turned on. Another nice touch: If a phone number calls more than once within a three-minute time span, the iPhone allows the call to go through, under the assumption that the call might be an emergency.

Better Maps

After keeping it mostly unchanged since the iPhone arrived in 2007, Apple has unleashed a brand new Maps app.

As expected, Apple dropped Google as a backend provider for the maps databases. Instead, it turned inward, using the talent its engineers acquired in an Open Street deal, and forging alliances with other companies that have resulted in some pretty neat tricks in the mapping service.

For starters, Maps gets a cleaned-up interface, with a Directions arrow, an address bar, and bookmarks headlining the top menu. The Maps app itself uses vector-based graphics, ensuring smooth graphics to go along with sharp text. Tapping the directions arrow brings up the Directions Interface, where you can enter start and end locations and get directions for driving, walking or mass transit -- though, according to those who have use the WWDC developer build of iOS 6, the last option seems to be relegated to third-party apps. This may be a step backwards, compared to earlier iterations of Maps, but that will depend on how the feature is implemented in the final version.

The new Maps app works much like the current one and is easy to navigate: double-tap to zoom in, double-tap with two fingers to zoom out, and pinch to zoom. Maps has learned new tricks, and the on-screen maps view can now be rotated and tilted using two-finger gestures.

In addition to a new feature called Flyover, which offers 3D views of some large cities, the new Maps will get enhanced Siri integration. When you ask for directions, Siri guides you with turn-by-turn directions, using an uncluttered user interface that displays driving instructions within illustrated traffic signs. Traffic information is crowd-sourced from iPhones in the area, and Maps is quick to suggest alternate routes if heavy traffic is encountered. As a bonus, Maps will even display what's causing the holdup.

Maps looked impressive in the WWDC keynote, and my sense is that it spells doom for GPS makers.

iOS 6 is full of additions and tweaks that promise to make the user experience for Apple's mobile devices even better. From enhancements like password-free application updates to better social integration, this new version -- which is going to be given away to existing users -- will be a no-brainer once released.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

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