Apple is finally yanking the map out of Google's hands. That's the headline news of the keynote opening Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco: the replacement of the aging, increasingly-uncompetitive Google-based Maps app in the upcoming iOS 6 with an Apple-exclusive program.
But to me, the new maps app isn't the most important change revealed at WWDC (beyond those listed below, others included the arrival of a thin but expensive MacBook Pro laptop with an ultra-high-resolution Retina Display to match the new iPad and the ability to move a browsing session from one copy of Safari to another through Apple's iCloud Web service). It's more like the fifth-most important. Here's what tops it:
1. "Eyes Free" mode. When it ships sometime this fall, iOS 6 (a free upgrade for the iPhone 3GS, 4 and 4S, the current iPod touch, the iPad 2 and the new iPad) will allow some drivers to request directions and hear and respond to text messages without even looking at the screens of their phones, much less touching them. They will need an upcoming vehicle from Audi, BMW, Chrysler, GM, Honda, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes or Toyota with a "Siri button" on the wheel, but this still sets an important precedent. It's also a smarter response to distracted driving than trying to ban all phone use by drivers.
2. Facebook integration. The social network will be even more tightly integrated in iOS 6 than Twitter is in iOS 5, including automatically synchronizing Facebook events and contacts. (Many Android phones include a similar feature). The same integration is coming to Mountain Lion, a new version of OS X coming in July for $19.99. In the keynote, Apple bragged that Twitter's presence in iOS 5 has led to 47 percent of the photos shared on that service coming from iOS devices; imagine what this sort of Facebook tie-in might yield.
3. Passbook. This new iOS 6 app will collect electronic versions of shopper-loyalty cards, tickets and boarding passes, bringing up the right one automatically on an iPhone's lock screen when it detects it's at a relevant location. If enough vendors and merchants support this feature, this will insert Apple into the middle of an enormous number of transactions. And what if an upcoming version of the iPhone also supports mobile payments with an NFC chip? Let the rumor-mongering begin!
4. Notifications in Mountain Lion. Mountain Lion will copy a feature in iOS 5 (which in turn copied one from Android) by allowing background applications to request a user's attention in compact banners that scroll down from the top-right corner of the screen. (That, in turn, reminds me of a feature I appreciated in the Ubuntu version of Linux two years ago.) This should make Mountain Lion a less cluttered place for its users. It also seems a more sensible borrowing from Apple's mobile efforts than the interface elements Apple crudely transplanted into Lion, most of which I've since disabled.
5. Maps. The maps-and-directions program in iOS 6 looks uncommonly beautiful, with an eye-catching "flyover" mode that lets you soar over a rendered version of many major cities. On a more practical note, it will provide turn-by-turn directions that factor in traffic delays, include Yelp ratings of nearby establishments and let you book OpenTable restaurant reservations. But there's no word of an offline mode to match what Google says it's bringing to the Android version of Google Maps. And this app apparently won't offer walking, bicycling or transit directions, areas that I've found Google's app excels in. (Update, 6/13/2012: Grist's Philip Bump confirmed that it does provide walking navigation.) Apple says it will present third-party apps providing those services in Maps, but that's not as elegant. And elegance, as you may have heard, is kind of a big deal at Apple.
Images via Apple PR