Why iOS 6 is more about Apple than new user features

We've talked about iOS 6 and it's unusual focus at length already, but it's been in bits and pieces, scattered across a range of articles, and tangential to other points. I think it's valuable to collect it all together, though. Unlike any full point release before it, iOS 6 is more about Apple, their platform, and its future, than it is present user attraction. And it's worth collecting that, exploring why it is, and looking at what it means for iOS users.

At WWDC 2012, Apple senior vice president, Scott Forstall, introduced iOS 6 and showed off 10 of its over 200 new features. The response was decidedly mixed. Many saw it as more tick than tock -- a minor point release rather than a major new OS version that was inattentive to power-user interests, and a sign that Apple was slowing down. And it didn't help that Google's minor point release, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, shown off the very same month, seemed to pack just as much punch as Apple's major new OS version, if not more.

Sure, the low hanging fruit is gone for iOS, but a lot of higher-hanging fruit remains. Yet clearly that's not Apple's focus this year.

This year, there's no iPhone OS 2.0 App Store-level feature addition for iOS. No iOS 5 PC-free/iCloud-level addition either. There's not even an iOS 4 or iPhone OS 3.0 multitasking or cut, copy, and paste-level addition. No new Home screen interfaces or fast app switcher visualizations. No actionable notifications or methods for inter-app communications.

What there is, is all about Apple.

Removing Google's data hooks

Yes, iOS 6 beta 4 removes YouTube app... and that could be a good thing

iOS 6 will excise the Google-powered Maps app from the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, and replace it with an Apple-powered Maps app. It will remove the Google-powered YouTube app, and replace it with nothing. It won't remove Google search, but it will increase Siri's scope, and Siri's ability to intermediate and broker even more search queries away from Google.

That's not a coincidence.

While the exact numbers are hotly debated, it's long been said Google makes more money off iOS than they do off their own Android operating system. The reason for this is simple -- mainstream iOS users tend to use the web and apps more than mainstream Android users, and iOS is currently filled with Google services. The built-in iOS 5 Maps app is powered by Google and provides sponsored search results and a huge amount of location data to Google. The built-in iOS 5 Safari web browser defaults to Google Search, serves Google Search ads, and can provide even more varied types of data. When iOS users use those services, Google makes money and gets more data.

That's Google's business. It doesn't make money when you search its index, it makes money recording your information, aggregating it, and brokering deals for it. Search isn't the product it sells. We are. If Apple steps in and makes the queries on our behalf, and returns them on Google's behalf, Google is cut out of the important parts -- the money.

Apple won't be replacing YouTube with an iCloud Video app (now featuring 100 videos!) any time soon, but they will be making people go to YouTube.com or download a Google-made YouTube app from the App Store when it ships. Both require more from a user than simply seeing and tapping a built-in icon.

Maps and Siri, however, are a different story...

Taking control of iOS location data

Both Apple and Google used to use Skyhook for Wi-Fi router location mapping, and both have now switched to in-house databases. Google used to license map tiles and has since re-mapped the world themselves. Apple has bought 3 mapping data related companies, and with iOS 6, has re-licensed map data from TomTom and created an all new, Google-free iOS Maps app.

That puts Apple, and not Google or anyone else, firmly in the drivers seat when it comes to location on iOS. The current iOS 5 maps are nowhere near as good as the current Android maps. Google, reportedly, wouldn't give Apple turn-by-turn navigation unless Apple also embedded Google's location-tracking Latitude service, which Apple didn't want to do. Likewise, Apple either didn't get, want, or implement Google's better vector maps. (Not only in the built-in Maps app, but in the APIs developers use for embedded maps in App Store apps.) Update after update, Android Maps outpaced iOS Maps.

Now Apple takes the mapping data from TomTom, draws their own vector maps, and supplies or brokers their own mapping services, and makes the app they want to make. Getting to iOS 6 Maps was undoubtedly non-trivial, but now Apple has control of the experience from the moment they acquire the map data to the moment the end user calls it up.

Likewise, Apple reduces Google's access to iOS user location data. As explained above, data is what feeds Google, and now instead of it being the default, Google Maps will be a more involved, more conscious user-action away -- they'll have to rely on us going to a website or downloading an App Store app and independently agreeing to share our locations. Since many users simply use the defaults, that immediately cuts down the size of Google's trough.

Users lose Street View and some other specific features, but gain turn-by-turn navigation and 3D Flyover mode. More importably, Apple keeps control of direct location data, and they can roll out more sophisticated data overlays and surface more user-centric features in future versions.

Intermediating and brokering iOS search

Last year, after Apple announced Siri, I wrote about it's long term, potentially game-changing customer insight implications. Specifically, how Siri wasn't a voice control system, but a powerful, Pixar-coated way For Apple to both intermediate and starve their biggest rival, Google, gain invaluable business intelligence, and broker those services -- and potentially that data -- to a multitude of partners.

Right now, when you search Google, Google gets that data. They know what you're searching for, maybe where you're searching from, and they may even know who you are. Multiply that by hundreds of millions of iOS users, and that lets Google aggregate, analyze, and sell ads against a lot of data.

If, however, you search with Siri, some of those searches aren't even going to Google anymore -- they're going to Yelp!, Yahoo!, Wolfram|Alpha, and others. And when they do go to a provider, all that provider sees is Apple's servers making queries on your behalf. Not you, not your location, and not your identity. Sure, Siri right now still has tremendous problems to overcome, but Apple has tremendous resources to bring to bear on solving them.

And because the interface is the app, Apple can replace more and more of Google's pipes whenever and wherever they want, without users even noticing or caring, as long as the quality of the answer is sufficiently good. Instead of one ginormous provider, Apple can align many best of breed providers for everything from food and entertainment to sports and local business.

Which appears to be exactly what they're doing. If Apple could or would tie Siri into the Spotlight Search interface as well, they could do for text searching what they're doing for voice, further starve Google, and further capture and broker the lucrative search market.

Users lose the known quantity that is Google, and put up with the growing pains that come with Siri, but they gain greater and more varied information sources for natural language search. More importantly, Apple, and not Google, becomes the gatekeeper for search on iOS, and can roll out additional providers and services in the future.

Preparing for mobile payments

One of Apple's biggest advantages when launching the iPhone was iTunes -- not just the content and relationships, but the ability to handle transactions and take payments at a global scale. It's taken -- and is still taking -- years for even their biggest competitors to roll out anything approaching competitive systems, much less match Apple in terms of content available internationally and credit cards on file.

Apple can sell apps and media around the world, but there's a lot more to sell in this world than just apps and media. Apple has already begun to handle direct payments at Apple Retail Stores using the Apple Store app on the iPhone -- you show up, scan your item, and walk right out. Apple likely has far greater plans for that than just a fancy tech demo.

With iOS 6, Apple has also introduced Passbook, billed as way to easily aggregate and use all the vouchers and tickets collected by the various vendor apps on your iPhone, all in one place, and with all the benefits provided by first-party hooks into Apple's location-aware notification system. It can already work with the quaint QRC code system, and it's not hard to imagine that, in the future, it will work with RFID/NFC (near-field communications).

Start putting all the pieces together, and the technology Apple is introducing in iOS 6 sets them up to not only start staking out territory in the multi-billion dollar mobile transaction business of the future, but to do it in the extremely friendly, completely mainstream way Apple has done everything else with the iPhone and iPad.

Users get an interesting if not compelling new Passbook app today, and Apple gets to introduce the front end to what they may one day tie iTunes transactions into an entire mobile payments infrastructure.

Increasing support for Chinese markets

One look at Apple's quarterly earnings reports, and the attention given to the greater China market in the conference calls that follow, should leave no doubt as to how important China is to Apple. iOS 6 reflects that reality.

Users get better Chinese text input and dictionary support, Baidu, YouKu, Tudou, and Sina Weibo support, and Siri in Mandarin and Cantonese. Apple gets a more compelling product offering for the greater Chinese market, which will be huge for their future.

Outsourcing social to Facebook and Twitter

It's interesting that Apple owns the operating system with iOS and the server with iCloud, but they appear happy enough to let Twitter, starting with iOS 5, and Facebook, starting with iOS 6, own the social infrastructure.

Part of it could be Apple's ill-fated attempts at social in the past, most notably the Ping social music network. Part of it could be the lack of persistence social networks have shown to date. Friendster gave way to MySpace gave way to Facebook, and Google+ is at play in there, somewhere, as well. OS X and Windows span decades. Social has been far more migratory.

Apple needs social features, but they don't need to own social features. At least not yet. For now they just have to integrate with whomever has large user populations at any given time, which means Twitter and Facebook.

Users get to share what they're doing, and yes, give Twitter and Facebook the same kind of data Apple doesn't seem to want to give Google, but iOS gets the social features users want without Apple having to provide them.

Perhaps one day Apple will do to Twitter and Facebook what they're doing to Google now (and vice versa). But not today, and probably not for a while.

The bottom line

iPhone OS 1.0 was all about delighting users with a an enthralling multitouch interface and a fresh new take on the smartphone. iPhone OS 2.0 to iOS 4 were about filling in and rounding out features and functionality, and making the iPhone, and later the iPad, an ecosystem. iOS 5 was about taking the iPhone and iPad to the iCloud.

Now that's all done, and for mainstream users -- the users Apple is targeting -- iOS does what they need it to do.

Meanwhile Android and its various device manufacturers are still pushing out new features fast and furiously, yet at the same time they're being forced to go back and work on user experience and consistency, something Apple nailed in iPhone OS 1. webOS has floundered, Windows Phone has yet to find a place in the market, BlackBerry won't even have a shot at a relaunch into early 2012, and the Facebooks and Amazons are still testing the waters.

Apple has a unique opportunity, a unique moment in time, to fix some of the problems they themselves have been facing with iOS, and need to fix to better ensure the future of their platform. Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of user-centric, perhaps even geek-centric features. This time.

In a perfect world, Apple would be able to do everything all at once. We live in the real world of opportunity costs, however, where time and money spent on one thing negates that same time and money being spent on anything else. Even a company as massive as Apple has limits on how much carefully focused software they can project at one time. Sure, there's Do Not Disturb, FaceTime over 3G, VIP mail, Safari image uploads, kiosk-mode, and a few other enhancements, but making a new Maps app was a huge amount of work for Apple, even if replacing one maps app for another doesn't seem like a huge benefit for users. Likewise positioning Siri and Passbook for what comes next.

So iOS 6 is more about Apple and the future of the platform than it is about revolutionary user-facing features today. And that's fine, because a strong platform means more user-facing features for tomorrow...

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.