The year’s Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) kicked off in San Francisco on Monday. As usual, Apple introduced some new hardware and software to whet the appetites of both consumers and developers alike. Aside from announcing a new design for the MacBook Pro with a lovely new retina display and the re-introduction of the upcoming version of the Mac desktop operating system OS X Mountain Lion, Apple (predictably) announced the next version of its mobile operating system, iOS 6. Ever since the first iPhone was released back in 2007, Apple has used the WWDC as an opportunity to introduce new operating systems for its mobile devices. This year’s conference was no exception. Over 200 new features are expected in iOS 6. Below is not only an overview of the highlights from the event, but what these announcements mean for iOS developers.
iOS Adoption Rate
Scott Forstall, Apple’s senior vice president of iOS software, began his presentation by showing a pie chart of the iOS adoption rate by users of various platforms. iOS 5 has a higher than 80% adoption rate, which is quite high compared to users of other platforms. As a developer I am always concerned with how many users are still running older versions of the iOS operating system. This iOS adoption rate can greatly affect development decisions. For instance, as old methods become deprecated and new features continue to emerge, I try to integrate these features into my apps. Seeing such a high rate of adoption means I can rest assured knowing that I can reach a majority of my target audience if I keep my apps current with the latest technologies.
Siri was introduced in iOS 5 as a voice-controlled personal assistant for iPhone 4S users. With iOS 6, this feature will now be compatible with the iPad 3. While developers cannot currently access Siri capability from their apps, an interesting feature in iOS 6 is the ability to launch apps by voice command. This seems to be a built-in feature and shouldn’t require any changes to an application by a developer. Forstall also briefly mentioned a new “eyes free” feature that Apple is working on with automobile manufacturers. This feature would allow integration of Siri into steering wheel controls, allowing drivers to use the assistant without having to touch or look at the device. This feature would be great for launching apps or getting audible information, but it remains to be seen how Siri might access certain features within an app once it has been launched. Perhaps in the future Apple will give developers access to a Siri API so we will be able to interact with our apps by voice command. So far nothing of this sort has been announced.
iOS 5 introduced Twitter integration. This meant developers had access to a new API that allowed them to easily access Twitter account data and post tweets from within an app using action sheets. This greatly simplified the process of adding social media integration into applications. With iOS 6, Apple does the same thing with Facebook, which has been a highly requested feature. Now developers can access Facebook account information from the system settings and use this account information to post Facebook updates from within their applications. The process uses the same action sheets that Twitter uses. iOS 6 allows Facebook users to post from the notifications page, have their contacts appear in the Contacts app, and sync their events and birthdays in the Calendar app. There is no word yet on whether developers will be able to access shared Facebook contact and event data for use in their own apps. Still, the simple ability to contextually post to Facebook from within your own app is a big deal to a lot of developers and potential clients. According to Apple, the addition of Twitter to iOS 5 tripled the amount of twitter usage. We can expect this integration to do the same, if not more, for Facebook.
Many new features will be available in the mobile version of Safari. Most don’t affect developers directly, but one feature was listed that may apply. Users will now be able to upload pictures and video from their mobile device to web pages directly in Safari without leaving the app. If you’re a mobile web developer, this may be of interest to you since it required workarounds in the past that were difficult enough to cause native development consideration. This capability appears to be built into iOS 6 and may not require anything more than a file upload field in your mobile web application. When the user clicks the file upload field, a popover shows your camera roll so you can choose a file for upload. Another interesting feature is something called Smart Banners. If a user goes to a mobile version of your website and you have a native app, you can alert them to the fact that you have a native app available with a banner at the top of your mobile web site. This banner would replace the intrusive alert message that we’ve all grown accustomed to. The banner would have a link to your app on the app store, and if your native app is already installed on the device, the user can click the banner to automatically switch over to it. In addition, the web app communicates with the native app so the user will immediately pick up where they left off after the switch.
The Passbook App
Apple is introducing a new app in iOS 6 called Passbook. It acts as a central repository for all sorts of passes including movie tickets, boarding passes, store cards with balances and store coupons. If you develop these sorts of applications (think mobile payments at coffee shops or electronic airline boarding passes) you will be able to store items in the Passbook app and take advantage of time and location-based services. If a user arrives at an airport or walks near a coffee shop, an alert will appear on the user’s lock screen. By swiping the alert, the user will be taken to the appropriate pass in the Passbook for immediate use. Information such as account balances and boarding times can also be updated in real-time through the Passbook app.
Apple has completely redone maps within iOS 6. Google maps are gone and everything is being done in-house with new cartography and worldwide coverage. Apple has ingested 100 million business listings worldwide and is working hard to make meaningful local searches available globally. Search results have new detail views with Yelp integration for reviews. New 3D views, flyover views and free turn-by-turn navigation are now options in the maps application. However, to use these more advanced features you’ll need a newer device. Developers will be able to tap into these features with the new Map Kit API. What we don’t know yet, however, is how much has changed or been added to the Map Kit API. We hope that it will remain backward compatible with older devices and previous iOS versions. Much testing will be done over the coming months to make sure both mapping solutions are supported within our apps.
Lots of new things are on the horizon with iOS 6 and these are only some of the highlights. Personally, I believe Facebook integration is going to be the most useful because we have many clients who have been asking for that feature specifically. Pass Kit certainly opens up some possibilities for exploring new types of application design and the new maps are going to be a really big deal for many. I would say the biggest challenge moving forward will be having to decide which devices and operating systems to support. At some point you have to cut ties with the past in order to keep progressing and nobody likes to alienate their users. We’ll see if the high iOS adoption rate continues as it has in the past.
iOS 6 currently plans to support iPhone 3GS and higher, iPad 2, 3, and the 4th generation iPod touch. However only the iPhone 4S and iPad 3 will be able to take advantage of Siri and some of the new mapping features. The first generation iPad isn’t supported at all in iOS 6, so be prepared to support multiple iOS versions for the foreseeable future.