By adding new maps and more FaceTime, iOS 6 hits major marks

6During the opening-day keynote at WWDC 2012 today, Apple announced the latest version of the operating system that powers its popular mobile devices. Scott Forstall, Apple‘s SVP 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 cellular network.

Yet, it’s 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 along with info cards for businesses, a “flyover mode” when searching for an address, and a full 3D in 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 this fall 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 fall. 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 have 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. Though 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 manufacturers like Toyota, GM, 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 than the fall for Eyes Free; Apple said its partners would 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.

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 maps are 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 with the next iteration of the handset. Eminently useful will be the capability 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 with other vendors. 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.

Phone controls
Shocking, I know, but the iPhone can make calls. And Apple reminded us of that fact by adding new features to the phone app. With iOS6 you’ll be able to reply to an incoming call with a text message or ask to receive a reminder about the call later. The former will be useful for when you’re in a meeting or out for a meal. When using the latter option you can can set the reminder to come at a specific time (like in an hour) or when you arrive or leave a specific location (like home or work).

Another useful addition is a “Do not disturb” option that will block incoming calls while allowing texts and alerts through. You’ll also be able to filter calls by group and set the phone to allow only the second call if someone rings twice within three minutes. Here again, we get small, but very welcome tweaks. Hopefully, they point to a more sophisticated address book for current and future iPhones that will let you organize caller groups and set different levels of access for each. That’s one area where the iPhone needs to catch up.

On a somewhat related note iOS 6 adds a ‘”VIP” option in which you’ll get an alert when e-mails arrive from your chosen contacts. That’s not a bad option for when you’re playing hooky from work, but still want to respond to inquiries from your boss. Best of all, though, is the ability to add photos directly into e-mail after you start typing them. Frankly, Apple should be embarrassed that it took years to add such a simple function to the e-mail app particularly after it existed on the text messaging side for so long. Congratulations.

With Passbook, you can store and quickly access electronic versions of your admission tickets, airline or train boarding passes, merchant loyalty cards, and coupons all in one place. Forstall called it, “the simplest way to get all your passes in one place.” On the whole, it does appear to be pretty simple. The clean interface stack shows a list of all your passes, which you can open to see the necessary bar codes and QR codes. The feature will alert you to changes to time-based events (like a flight delay or gate change) and it can use location to sense when you’re near a merchant and display the necessary card even when the lock screen is on. Finally, when you delete a card it will be virtually “shredded” on the screen.

Though unexpected, Passbook is intriguing and we suspect that it could serve as a convenient way to organize your passes and cards instead of having them scattered around in different apps and e-mails. We also can’t help but wonder if it points to NFC features in the new iPhone and if it spells dooms for some app developers.

Facebook integration
After iOS5’s tight Twitter integration last year, iOS 6 does the same with Facebook. You can post pictures and video directly to your account without using the Facebook app. Safari will get the same treatment so you can share a link with just a couple of clicks. As mentioned previously, you’ll be able to use Siri to post status updates and you’ll see better syncing between your device and Facebook photos, calendar, events, and birthdays. Lastly, you’ll be able to “like” apps, television shows, and movies in the iTunes App Store.

Of all the new features, this is the one that excites us the least. Sure, we’ll take any chance we can get to avoid using the horrible Facebook iPhone app, but anyone without a Facebook account (they exist!) won’t care. And, really, it may encourage your already attention-seeking friends to overshare even more.

Rounding out the list are a few new features for Safari. You can cache a Web page and save it for reading later even when you’re offline, view a Web page in full screen when using landscape mode, and share photo streams.

There will be more to come when iOS hits this fall. A brief glance at the above screen during the the keynote also revealed a “lost mode” that will let you send a number to a lost phone for displaying it on the screen, in-app content purchases, Game Center challenges, multiple e-mail signatures, redesigned stores, Game Center Friends from Facebook, and custom vibrations for alerts. For now, though, we’re pleased that Apple took the opportunity to hammer down a few sticking points that have plagued us for a long time. iOS has always been an evolution and with its latest version Apple continues to give us something sharp, powerful, and exceedingly easy to use.