An interesting shift in the world of IT is the changed perception of operating systems. At one time even passing knowledge of them was the geeky preserve of a select few. Then open systems transformed them into radical hippy tools to overthrow the establishment, hence the famous “UNIX – live free or die” motto. Then came Linux.
But it is mobile devices that truly show just how much attitudes towards operating systems in general have changed over the past 15 years. No longer dreaded, the release of a new operating system is now eagerly anticipated, indicating the shift of IT from beige techie tool to consumer shiny bauble.
This is particularly apparent for Apple users. While not everyone subscribes to the slavish ‘fanboi’ mentality, most know that new releases of Apple’s operating system will mean either new hardware has just arrived or is arriving soon or some cozy, established ‘status quo’ is about to be given a severe shake up – often it is a combination of all three.
So what does the next major release of Apple’s iOS, version 6 due out in the autumn of 2012, have in store? While the only new hardware launched alongside the announcement of iOS6 was modest incremental improvements in the specifications of the range of laptops, some of the software features might indicate future hardware directions.
Firstly there were improvements in communications that affect email, phone calling and social networking. The VIP option added into email and different options for responding silently with messages to incoming phone calls will add fine tuning controls that will make it easier to fit these forms of communication alongside other primary tasks that are demanding more of the user’s attention.
The additional ways to simplify the sharing of photos and integration with Facebook might permit these social elements to be incorporated more easily into other primary activities too.
The extension of FaceTime to allow voice calls over any network and on any device – currently only tablet or phone – might also provide clues to the future activity Apple is nudging toward with this growth in video functionality, but more of that later.
The shaking up of existing arrangements takes two forms. The one that has attracted most attention is Apple pulling Google from the mapping function and replacing it with its own service. There is no doubt that Google’s investments with online mapping in general and Google Earth and Street View in particular have changed the way locations are sought and investigated.
Going beyond traditional mapping and navigation systems, they overlay far more data and location intelligence from the real to the digital world. Apple appears to be taking a further gamble by ‘seeing’ Google’s mapping and ‘raising’ the stakes with 3D photo-realistic information. If it can apply its characteristic ease of use to manipulating and navigating the information then users will get their dreams of The Matrix or Superman-like city flybys fulfilled.
The information is expensive to gather and maintain, but Apple’s deep pockets seem to be able to afford the fleets of aircraft and high definition cameras required to obtain it. They can probably easily afford to cover the costs, legal and otherwise, of ensuring privacy demands are met too. The gamble will be how to monitise the information, but while Apple rarely offers anything for free, it might take the view that its stunning terrain will allow it to collect revenues indirectly elsewhere.
A second shift, perhaps more intriguing, but understated and potentially quite radical comes from the Passbook application. This seems to be tackling the mobile wallet opportunity in an entirely different direction to other organisations – essentially looking at everything else people put in a wallet or purse, but not the payment instruments (cards and cash).
There is a lot of sense in this, in that the combination of agendas and egos in mobile digital payments – operators, handset companies and banks or card issuers – means that while the payment technology is relatively straightforward, the commercial arrangements are fraught with complexity.
Apple is instead pursuing the bits of clutter – tickets, coupons and loyalty cards – that people need or want to carry, but occasionally either lose, misplace or just fail to pick up. These are often involving transactions of low value compared to payments, but will be considered of relatively higher importance and convenience to the individual. Success will depend on getting sufficient numbers of third parties involved, but many will see this as a great opportunity to be carried in so many pockets basking in the halo of the Apple brand.
There are controls, safeguards and regulations to be considered, but an order of magnitude less difficult than digital payments and with greater likelihood of user acceptance. Passbook might be a ‘killer app’.
So what’s the possible new hardware waiting in the wings? It could be the long awaited TV, not simply a large touch screen with the current broadcast experience given the Apple once over, but an interface that provides the integration of consumable video content into a social communications hub for the home. That would be an interesting destination for the operating system experience.