Siri knows sports. Siri can make a reservation for you. Siri speaks many more languages. Apple’s talking assistant is getting a big update with iOS 6, the software that runs your iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Many of the new features in iOS 6 will be great for Apple's marketing department, but what else will there be to get excited about?
Siri, Thou Art an Excellent Marketer
Many of the biggest updates to iOS 6 surround core functionality alongside Siri. That means functions like taking and making phone calls, as well as how you receive notifications and emails, look up directions, upload photos and more.
Apple, as it is wont to do, focused on Siri for many of the features it announced at WWDC. Siri is coming to several new languages, including Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Italian, French and German. It will be interesting to see how well Siri interacts with consumers that speak those languages, and whether Apple’s voice-controlled assistant encounters any of the same problems that users have experienced in English. Siri will be optimized to work in 15 countries. You can ask it to post an update to Twitter or Facebook, or interact with it through an “Eyes Free” mode, using it with only your voice.
Siri’s two biggest new features will be connections into more databases and the ability to launch applications. In terms of databases, Apple showed off Siri's new persona as a sports guru with the ability to tell you the score of a game or look up statistics on a player. By itself, that is not much of an innovation, but what it represents speaks to Apple’s approach with Siri - allowing it to search for specific information by partnering directly with the sources of that information.
The ability to launch an app through Siri is also interesting, and it relates to how Apple is configuring iOS to deliver people to its App Store. Want to make a restaurant reservation? Siri will launch an app such as OpenTable to help you do so. By allowing Siri access to app functions, Apple is making sure that you are staying within its ecosystem. The more features that Apple can pack into Siri, the better commercials the company can make.
It's All About the App Store
Apple's approach can also be seen with the updates that are coming to the Safari mobile browser. If you visit a mobile Web page through your browser, iOS will recognize that you have that particular app installed and prompt you to open it. For instance, if you are using Safari on your iPad and visit Yelp, you will be asked to open the Yelp app. In many cases, there will be no functional difference between the mobile website and native app, but Apple wants users to go to apps, as opposed to a browser, whenever possible.
There is a duality within Apple that creates a dilemma for the company. On one hand, mobile Safari is perhaps the best mobile browser on the market. Safari is the engine that renders much of what happens within iOS, from how certain apps behave to how fundamental tasks are performed, such as searching the Web. Apple wants to tout Safari and its superior performance and ubiquity. On the other hand, the browser is perhaps Apple’s worst enemy. The App Store is Apple’s biggest marketing chip for the iPhone and iPad. “There is an app for that” has become the popular cliché, and native apps are the dominant way in which people interact with their iOS devices. There is a reason that Apple is hesitant to let dominant browser makers onto iOS: A true open browser that can support an application ecosystem outside of the App Store is a threat not just to Apple’s native app ecosystem, but also to the basic foundation upon which Apple’s marketing is built. Hence, what we see in iOS 6 with Siri and Safari is designed to reinforce the App Store model.
Simplicity is Key
When approaching iOS, Apple’s key has always been to make life easier for the user. That approach is especially prevalent in iOS 6. Perhaps the biggest example is seen with the ways in which the iPhone will be able to give users more granular control over the phone application. While the iPhone is many things – a smart mobile computer, a camera, a browser and a window to many different apps that can do many different things – it is still fundamentally a phone, and Apple has not ignored that. For instance, when sliding the phone’s lock, users will be able to not answer a phone call, but to reply to the caller with a message such as “What’s up?” or “I’ll call you later.” There is also a “do not disturb” function that will tell your phone not to bother you unless a caller keeps calling back over a short period of time, signifying that there may be an emergency.
A new app that speaks to Apple’s desire for simplicity is called Passbook. Basically, what Passbook does is give the user one destination for a variety of “passes” that could include concert, movie or airline tickets or loyalty cards (for Starbucks, perhaps).
Passbook is a possible prelude to Apple creating a mobile payments system that can challenge Square, Google Wallet and others. For instance, look at what Passbook does and what the Square Card Case does. Both essentially hold “cards.” Passbook is like the Square Card Case but without the actual ability to make a real-world transaction attached. Apple wants to make life simple for users by aggregating their tickets and loyalty cards into one easy-to-access app. At the same time, it is building a foundation for possible future iOS features that could be far more disruptive.
There are more than 200 new features in iOS 6, many of which have not yet been revealed. Developers that have access to iOS 6 are under nondisclosure agreements that most of them take very seriously. The punishment by Apple for violating an NDA is banishment from the iOS developer program, and that is the kiss of death to any professional app developer. But we will know more about what is hidden in iOS 6 as the summer unfolds, building up to the likely launch of the so-called iPhone 5 in the fall.