Does iOS have anywhere surprising left to go?

We've heard that iOS 8 will be announced at WWDC and we've heard rumors of what will be announced, but there's not much left on our most-wanted list to cross off.

wwdc2014.jpg
Photo by James Martin/CNET

As it has done in the past, Apple will likely introduce iOS 8.0 at its annual WWDC conference in San Francisco.

Tune into CNET's WWDC live show and blog at 9 a.m. PT on June 2.

Yet, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I'm just not that excited. It seems like we're hitting a point where smartphone operating systems are only getting smaller tweaks for convenience rather than ground-breaking new features (iOS 7's redesign notwithstanding). It's enough to make me wonder what's left to add to iOS, or any mobile OS for that matter. The fact is, there are simply not many features left on my iOS wishlist.

The problem is not that Apple, Android, or any other smartphone company doesn't dedicate enormous resources to research and development -- they most certainly do. The problem is that there simply isn't much left to add to these computers in our pockets and purses that don't already exist, and the list of things we desperately needed early on have mostly been crossed off.

What else does iOS desperately need?

Back in the early days, asking what iOS lacked compared to rivals like Android was an easy question to answer. Most will probably remember iOS didn't have cut and paste functionality for far too long. It also didn't have turn-by-turn directions with voice. And those are just two examples.

Google and Apple Maps Apps
The much maligned Maps app did admirably well with turn-by-turn directions against Google Maps, but it was a rare positive. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Apple was roundly criticized for being late to both of those parties, but like everything else iPhone users clamored for, Apple slowly but surely added them to iOS. (Yes, Apple Maps was not a blunder anyone will soon forget, but Apple continues to work on it, slowly making it better with still more improvements rumored to be announced on Monday.)

As for what iOS desperately needs there is simply not much left to add that iOS lacks, besides NFC and the much requested kids mode for handing off to toddlers. Android users might say Widgets are the biggest blindspot for iOS, but that addition would just be another feature to catch up and would soon be taken for granted.

Needs change

Instead, the definition of "need" is probably what will change. For example, Apple established a new "need" when it launched Siri, its useful, but slow-to-evolve personal assistant. Google and Microsoft quickly followed suit by developing their own personal voice assistants. Suddenly, a voice assistant was something everyone needed.

Likewise, Apple could surprise us on Monday with a new software solution in iOS 8 we didn't know we "needed" to have. Or instead, maybe it will be at Google I/O in late June, where Android could gain the upper hand with a new and creative use of augmented reality, leaving Apple to once again play catchup. Or maybe it'll be the real-time translator for phone and video calls that Microsoft's Skype is expected to get later this year. We don't know where the next "need" will come from, but its always a possibility that the big companies will create something we never knew we wanted.

The fact is, we've seen iOS play catch up to Android and we've seen Android play catch up to iOS. But the question is whether there is anything big left that will push operating systems in new directions that will differentiate one smartphone from the other. As CNET's Luke Westaway pointed out, he made the switch recently from iOS to Android, and it was so painless it made him believe the war between Android and iOS no longer mattered.

What the rumors tell us

One reason that makes it even harder for Apple to wow us is that there are thousands of third party developers filling the app stores every day with software that does just about everything under the sun. It makes me wonder how many ideas Apple's iOS 8 team have come up with only to find there was already an "app for that."

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The rumored HealthBook app will help people track their overall health and fitness. 9to5Mac

Digging deeper into iOS 8 rumors, the platform could get a fitness app called HealthBook, a stand alone app for iTunes Music, Shazam integration for Siri, and even some re-imagined Mac OS X apps including Preview and TextEdit. These are all nice additions, but gamechangers they are not. For a closer look at iOS 8 rumors, check out Scott Stein's "What to expect in iOS 8" slideshow.

So the rumors give us some nuggets of what to expect in iOS 8, but when I take a step back, there's not much here to be excited about unless Apple surprises us with something we never knew we needed.

Daring to dream

What I do know is that Apple events almost always have one or two surprises and that there are still at least a few directions iOS can explore. But to be honest, as I've watched new smartphones and OSes come out over the past couple of years, it's felt a lot more like catchup on all sides rather than significant innovation that makes me say, "Finally! That's just what I needed on my smartphone!"

All of this makes me believe that before long we may reach feature parity with our smartphones no matter the platform. At that point, will there still be smartphone wars? Will anyone care what kind of phone you have? Without device makers creating a new need, probably not.

 

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