5 features to expect from Apple's iOS 6


Mike DanoAs the iPhone 4S heads into the history books as one of the world's most successful smartphones, I'm betting the Apple product machine is deep into work on the next big thing. While most pundits have focused their attention on what the next iPhone will look like (will it be tear shaped?) and what hardware specs it will offer (quad-core processor?) I think the next upgrade to iOS is just as important, if not more important, than whether the next iPhone will have a redesigned home button.

To get a sense of what's in store for iOS 6, it's worth taking a look back at iOS 1. The first version of Apple's operating system didn't support third-party apps, it didn't offer multitasking and it didn't include any speech-recognition services. Today iOS offers all those things, and in many cases the addition of features to iOS has been partially in response to competitive pressures. For example, Apple added multitasking to iOS in 2010 after Android vendors including Motorola and others used the lack of multitasking in iOS as a competitive wedge. And Apple's new speech-to-text service (not Siri, specifically, but the ability to input text via speech) is virtually identical to the setup Google introduced to Android in 2009.

Thus, it's reasonable to assume that Apple has been carefully watching the competitive smartphone landscape in order to maintain parity with competitors in terms of features and functions. The below list are the main features I expect Apple to add to the next version of iOS:

Live icons. Apple's iOS 5 homescreen is almost identical to the homescreen of iOS 1. The 4x4 grid of app icons, anchored by the "home row" beneath, is easily navigated and remains one of the iPhone's strengths. However, Google has managed to separate Android from iOS by essentially adding a homescreen layer atop this icon grid. On this top layer, Android users can manipulate specific phone functions (like switching on 4G) and access widget-based Internet information.

Microsoft has taken this concept a step further with its live tiles for Windows Phone, which provide users with a quick glance at the goings-on inside their phones. Microsoft even used this approach as the basis for its first batch of Windows Phone ads.

Thus, it's reasonable to expect Apple to counter these competitive advances with live icons of its own. While such an effort would have to adhere to Apple's strict sense of design, I expect the company to, for example, at least allow weather apps to display the current temperature via their homescreen icon. Whether Apple will allow ads to bleed through onto homescreen icons, or whether it will allow users to control the size and shape of the icons, remains an open question. But I fully expect Apple to provide further homescreen options. (There are already hints of this in iOS 5: The New York Times icon within Apple's Newsstand shows the front page of each day's issue.)

Expanded Siri functions. Siri is the flagship feature of Apple's new iPhone 4S. The service provides natural-language access to texting, calling, reminding and a few other functions. Apple gave the service a "beta" label on launch, and promised to update the service with additional functions in the future.

In iOS 6, I expect Apple to expand the types of chores that Siri can complete. For example, Siri currently can't access the iPhone's voicemail--I'm guessing that could fall under Siri's purview in iOS 6. Other functions that could be added to Siri's repertoire include the camera, the App Store and potentially the ability to read email. Some type of Siri interaction with Apple TV is also a strong possibility.

I would be surprised, however, if Apple granted third-party developers access to Siri in iOS 6. That the service still carries the beta tag means Apple doesn't consider it complete, and I expect the beta label to be dropped long before third-party access is provided.

iChat (with voice-calling functions). So follow me on this one: Apple introduced FaceTime in 2010 that provides free (Wi-Fi-only) video calling between FaceTime users. Then, with the release of iOS 5, Apple introduced iMessage, which provides free messaging between iOS users. How will Apple top that in iOS 6? Why not free voice calling between iOS users?

Developers have repeatedly discovered clues to an iChat service within iOS. Apple's current iChat service on its Mac computers is basically an instant messaging service. But for iOS, I would imagine Apple going a step further to offer free VoIP calling through iChat, a move that could represent a significant step forward on the VoIP front and another blow to wireless carriers' revenues.

Already Microsoft is working to acquire Skype, and Google is boosting its Google Talk and Hangout services, so I'm betting Apple will want to stay at the forefront with a free voice calling service between iOS users.

And what if Apple opened its iChat specification, allowing potential VoIP interoperability among Skype, Talk and other such services? It's a tantalizing possibility--free, interoperable VoIP voice calling--but I doubt a customer-friendly approach like this would generate much support from the bigger, revenue-driven players in the market. (Further, to my knowledge, Apple has not opened the FaceTime protocol, despite promises to do so.)

App-specific data tracking. Within its Ice Cream Sandwich release, Google introduced a service that will allow users to see how much data each of their Android apps consume. In a world where unlimited smartphone data is rapidly being replaced with tiered data plans, this kind of knowledge will be key to helping users monitor and understand how their phones are interacting with the wireless network (after all, wireless carriers are not providing much help in this area). Thus, I would expect Apple to ape Android in this regard and provide similar monitoring services, like to how it currently handles third-party disclosures on location services.

Third-party access to system services. This is a big one, and I think Apple will be very careful treading in this area. But the fact that Windows Phone and Android have paved the path in this area leads me to expect a similar response from Apple.

And already Apple is playing in this area. The company granted Twitter access to the iPhone's menu system in iOS 5, and I would expect that to be the first of many such actions. Rather than sandboxing Twitter inside its own app, the move allows iOS users to Tweet from Apple's Safari, camera roll and other locations previously only available to Apple services.

The question, of course, will be how Apple goes about providing system-wide access to third-parties. I expect the company to leverage its leading position by demanding a pay-to-play model, whereby companies like Flickr and Dropbox would have to pay Apple for the privilege of getting inside iOS. This also could explain the absence of Facebook from Apple's iOS 5 update--Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg may have believed Apple should have paid Facebook for the opportunity to embed Facebook into iOS.

While many of these functions have already been introduced on competing platforms or hinted at within iOS itself, there remains the possibility of a surprise "one last thing" from Apple for iOS 6. Siri and iCloud, while both hinted at, still created a splash when announced, and both represent major leaps forward in speech recognition and cloud computing, respectively. Thus, it's reasonable to expect Apple to attempt a similar "bombshell" function in iOS 6. What that could be is obviously anyone's guess. +Mike Dano