WWDC: The 5 things that caught my eye

Yesterday we were treated to a sneak peak inside Cupertino's kimono. But what did it all mean?

June is all about torrential, fun-killing, humour-sapping rain here in the UK. But over the pond in sunny San Francisco it's all about WWDC -- the tech-fest where Apple plays its poker hand in front of a packed and slightly sweaty hall of iOS developers, to show them its thinking for the coming year.

So where is Apple going? Here's my digest of WWDC -- flagging up the five most interesting announcements, probing what they tell us about the fruit-flavoured one and where it might be heading.

1. Apple Maps opens fresh front in Android war

Why is Apple expending so much effort -- and pouring licensing money into TomTom's coffers -- on maps, when Google does such a great job already? Firstly, this is the latest front in the ongoing war between Apple and Google. Steve Jobs, the former Apple CEO, expressed his desire to " go thermonuclear war " on Android. Fortunately the end of the world is not an option in business. Replacing your deadly rival's mapping app with your own is.

But maps are also now too important to leave to a serious rival, so Apple not only needs to kill its Google Maps dependency but develop its own innovative mapping features. Location-based services are increasingly where the most exciting mobile developments are taking place, so Apple is signalling it will have a very active role in this space in future.

Microsoft is also in the frame here. In recent years, Ballmer and co have used their own Bing Maps but now -- via Nokia -- it has access to $8bn worth of mapping smarts. Location, sat-nav and traffic and transport apps are a big focus for Nokia's Windows Phone effort so again, Apple is looking to close down a rival's advantage.

2. iPhone 3G S: too important to leave behind

One of the most interesting announcements to come out of WWDC is that iOS 6 will be coming to the cheapest iPhone Apple still sells -- a device that's nearly three years old (the proverbial 'Ice Age in technology terms').

The iPhone 3GS currently retails for £319 SIM-free -- putting it in the same price bracket as many mid-range Androids, which is exactly why Apple still needs it. Android has gobbled up the majority of the smart phone market in no small part because there are loads of highly capable and affordable models to choose from.

The 3GS' continued existence allows Apple to keep a toe in these mid-range waters so Google can't own the entire lagoon. Could an iPhone nano be on the cards at some future point? It can't be ruled out.

Publicly updating a three-year-old device is also excellent PR for Apple -- it will please 3GS owners while also rubbing salt in Google's Android fragmentation wounds. (There's pain for Microsoft too, since it still hasn't been able to confirm Windows Phone 7.5 devices will be upgradeable to Windows Phone 8.)

3. Facebook gets hugged, but also kicked

The rusty old adage 'keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer' applies here. Apple and Facebook have had a fractious relationship in recent years as only two territory-treading tech titans can (three when you throw Google into the mix).

Apple's decision to anoint Twitter as its social network of choice in iOS 5 was a very public slap down to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg . But Apple's new leader, Tim Cook, appears to be taking a more emollient stance by raising Facebook up to Twitter's level in iOS 6. You'll be able to post updates, see events and contacts, and like apps, all without having to use Facebook's godawful iOS app.

The iOS 6 announcement has a sting in the tail for Facebook, however, because Apple is also creating its own social photo-sharing system. Since Facebook has essentially become a glorified photo sharing service, Apple's new feature -- called Shared Photo Streams -- stomps right on Zuckerberg's toes. So Tim Cook is giving his blessing to Facebook with one hand, while he slaps it upside the head with the other. Machiavelli would be proud.

4. iOS 6 is growing up -- and wooing BlackBerry lovers

iOS 6 will add lots of small but handy features that BlackBerrys and other business phones have had for ages. Features such as Do Not Disturb to kill all calls and notifications, VIP Mailbox to flag messages from specific senders, decline incoming calls with a message, callback reminders and more. Apple also announced it is extending FaceTime videocalls to 3G and unifying the Apple ID with your phone number, so if you own both iPhone and iPad you can answer a call on either (or even on an OS X device).

Individually, none of these updates will blow your hair back with excitement, but taken together they mean serious business -- literally. iOS 6 is growing up and getting ready to welcome former BlackBerry (and Nokia) users into its arms by giving them the tools they need to manage their work and personal communications, all on the one iDevice.

5. Siri is here to stay

There has been lots of tech chatter flying around about Siri in recent months -- which basically boils down to 'Siri is a failure' (or more viscerally 'Siri is so awful it would have made Steve Jobs' blood boil').

Apple's sassy voice assistant is certainly not perfect -- especially in the UK, where up till now is has operated with no nose for local flavour -- but nor is it a flash in the pan, as the expanded role for Siri in iOS 6 flags up. Most importantly, it's becoming much more useful in the UK and elsewhere round the world.

When Siri originally launched, Apple signalled its long-term commitment by sticking a beta label on the service -- something it doesn't normally do. Indeed, as mobile devices evolve into more people-centric wearables with less emphasis on a gadget in your hand -- think Google's Project Glass without the geekiness -- Siri might well be the sole survivor of Apple's future iOS.

Voice as an interface already has advantages in certain situations, which is why Apple is pushing Siri into cars. Expect Siri to drive into more and more places and become more and more capable. And even one day, in some far-flung future, to open the pod bay doors.

What WWDC announcements made your ears prick up? Let me know in the comments or update our Facebook page with your awesome insights -- and check out Luke's ace iOS 6 roundup video for more.

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Phones
About the author

Natasha Lomas is the Mobile Phones Editor for CNET UK, where she writes reviews, news and features. Previously she was Senior Reporter at Silicon.com, covering mobile technology in the business sphere. She's been covering tech online since 2005.

 

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