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October 1, 2012

Apple IOS 6 moves toward a Google-free future

SAN FRANCISCO — The new version of iOS, the software that runs Apple's iPhones and iPads, may be more important for what was taken away than for any of the things added.

Gone from iOS 6 are two formerly built-in Google apps that were integral to previous versions of the operating system: Google Maps and YouTube. (The latter, at least, can be reinstalled from the App Store.) Google's search capability is still there, but Apple's improvements to Siri, its voice-based personal assistant, provide an alternative way of finding more and more information.

And a new Apple app called Passbook represents a toe in the water of mobile payments, something Google has aggressively been pursuing with its Google Wallet software.

In short, while iOS 6 introduces some neat tricks into the iUniverse, it feels less like a major enhancement and more like another front in Apple's increasingly bitter war over Google's Android operating system.

The new software comes pre-installed on the iPhone 5 and is available as a free download for iPads, iPod touches and previous iPhones. I tested it on a variety of devices, ranging from a current-model iPad to a three-generations-old iPhone 3GS, and found it smooth, stable and responsive.

I also appreciated several of its new features, including bringing Siri to the iPad for the first time and allowing the iPhone 4S to take the same kind of panoramic photographs as the iPhone 5.

But the change that's grabbed the most public attention is the new Apple navigation app that has supplanted Google Maps. As I wrote in my iPhone 5 review last week, while the new app is gorgeous and the spoken turn-by-turn directions are a welcome addition, the software is too easily confused. In addition, it displays many fewer nearby points of interest.

In light of the furor over the app's flaws, it's worth noting that Google Maps suffered from similar problems when it launched on Android phones in 2009. Most memorably, while I was standing outside New York's Penn Station, it located me on Cheapside in London, even helpfully pointing out nearby Tube stations.

Still, it's obvious by now that the new application is inferior to the one it replaced, and I expect Apple to devote considerable resources to remedy it.

It's a path similar to the one the company is already following with Siri, which was introduced last year on the iPhone 4S. The voice assistant has proven to be a polarizing feature, some users enjoying the convenience of just talking to their devices and others disliking it for its miscues.

In general, I'm in the first camp, and like Siri's new tricks. She - it? - now provides sports scores (and even sometimes point spreads), can make dinner reservations via Open Table, passes fewer queries to Google web searches and has generally gotten better at understanding what I want.

For instance, when I asked the first version of Siri for directions to San Francisco's 9 Lombard Street, she interpreted the "to" as "two," and sent me to 29 Lombard Street; the software now interprets the question accurately. And the query "Do I need a jacket?" now yields weather information, rather than a list of nearby Men's Wearhouse stores.

The most intriguing new app in iOS 6 may be Passbook - not necessarily for what it does now but for what it may do someday.

Passbook is basically a single place for keeping tickets, boarding passes, loyalty and prepaid cards. But it has some wrinkles, like location and time awareness, that hint at more to come.

I used Passbook to store a ticket to a San Francisco Giants baseball game by clicking on an emailed link. When I arrived at AT&T Park, my iPhone recognized where I was and displayed a message on the lock screen prompting me to display the ticket. At the turnstile, the electronic ticket was scanned, and I was in. Easy.

Beyond the colorful look and slick animation - you'll have fun virtually shredding used tickets - there's nothing very revolutionary about an emailed bar or QR code. But the idea of presenting you with relevant information and offers, based on your device's awareness of where you are and what you're doing, is a critical step toward getting consumers to reach for their phones rather than their wallets to pay for stuff.

A number of iOS 6's 200 or so other changes amount to simple pleasures.

For instance, a handy new Do Not Disturb setting lets you silence your device between specified hours, while allowing you to note who should be allowed through, and under what terms.

Receive a call when you're in a meeting or otherwise engaged? A finger-flick sends an automatic can't-talk-now text. And if your data plan allows it, you can now conduct a FaceTime video chat over the cellular network.

Along similar lines, Mail lets you designate messages from VIPs in your life for special attention. You can post to Facebook as well as Twitter from the Notification Center and from within many apps. And you can also now share access to your iCloud-stored photos, perhaps one less reason you'd need to use You-Know-Who-owned Picasa.

Indeed, given Apple's war with Google, it isn't that far- fetched to imagine a day when even core search functions are handled by some Apple-designed replacement. But if the company wants to retain its reputation for putting the user experience ahead of all else, it had better be sure that anything it introduces is better than whatever it's replacing.

       

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