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Today's iOS 6 updates are more significant than unveiling a new device

by Brad Spirrison

Who would have thought that an Apple announcement that barely touched on games would be such a game-changer.

While it was no surprise that the opening of the Worldwide Developers Conference came and went without a new iDevice, few expected the combination of new features in iOS 6 to be more significant than the arrival of a new iPhone or iPad.

The 200 new updates in iOS 6 that will be tinkered around with all week by developers (the beta is released today) and available to the general public this fall will feature dramatically new ways to use Maps, Siri, Facebook and Facetime on the iPhone and iPad.

Here are the key points:

When it comes to Maps, Google’s loss is everyone else’s gain

While it was no surprise that Apple officially divorced itself from Google Maps integration in iOS 6, the features the company showed off today go beyond corporate intrigue and could redefine how we ultimately interact with our devices. The vector-based Map elements appear to be graphically superior than anything seen to date. While turn-by-turn navigation may render one of our favorite apps – Waze – obsolete, having that service combined with real-time traffic information contained within the new program will appeal to more users and ultimately provide for a better service. Like any crowdsourced behavior, the more people participating the stronger it becomes. Additionally, local search enhancements found in the new Maps will now touch more than 100 million local businesses and incorporate ratings and descriptions from Yelp. Way cool.

Siri expands to the iPad and increases capabilities

Owners of the iPad 2 and new iPad will be able to introduce themselves directly to the Siri voice-activated personal assistant. And the iOS 6 Siri is a lot more advanced than the edition that arrived last fall upon the debut of the iPhone 4S. Siri will now seamlessly integrate with multiple third-party apps including Yelp, OpenTable, and Rotten Tomatoes to help users find stores in their area, make restaurant reservations and check out in advance if a movie is worth viewing. Sports fans will appreciate not only having the ability to find out a given score, but dig into layers of their favorite teams and athletes that make a Topps sporting card appear like a relic of centuries past. A new “eyes-free” service between Siri and most of the major car companies (Ford excluded) should help users more easily navigate their device as they literally nativate their ways around town.

The ramifications of Facebook integration will have more of an impact than Twitter in iOS 5

Finally, some good news for Facebook! Two weeks ago, Tim Cook hinted that Apple was ready again to play nice with Facebook after shutting the company out of iOS 5 updates. The sheer volume of iOS users who have Facebook accounts relative to Twitter accounts makes this more powerful than anything Apple has done to date with micro-blogging powerhouse. The Facebook services including integration with Contacts and Calendar, and the ability to post Facebook updates directly from Notification Center and via Siri, are more accessible than anything previously seen with Twitter.

Passbook is the new killer app

Anyone with a fat wallet will appreciate the new Passbook app, which organizes everything from boarding passes, to tickets to the ballgame, to coupons at the grocery store all in one application. As is the tendency with new apps introduced by Apple, we will likely see some of our favorite incumbent apps rendered obsolete from this ubiquitous service. Stay tuned for extensive coverage of Passbook and an analysis of what related apps you should keep – and which ones you will want to ditch.

See more faces over cellular networks

FaceTime to date hasn’t really captured the initial excitement it generated when it debuted at the 2010 WWDC. This, in many observers’ opinions, is because the service only really worked via Wi-Fi. Now that Apple is playing nice with the carriers and letting users embrace FaceTime via cellular networks, expect more people to jump from Skype and similar services and take advantage of FaceTime’s unique capabilities within iOS 6.

What we didn’t see

I’m very surprised not to see an SDK for Apple TV, and expected more TV news than just the announcement that Macs can now talk to Apple’s television set-top box via AirPlay. We should still look for developers like Showyou, Squrl and Frequency to continue to innovate on existing iOS platforms. Expect Apple to unveil more on its TV “hobby” before the end of the year, and perhaps in concert with the arrival of the iPhone 5.

Stay tuned.