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IHNATKO: Apple updates MacBooks, iPhone software, more

FILE- In this Wednesday March 7 2012 file phoApple CEO Tim Cook announces new iPad during an Apple announcement San

FILE- In this Wednesday, March 7, 2012, file photo, Apple CEO Tim Cook announces a new iPad during an Apple announcement in San Francisco. Apple CEO Tim Cook is expected to show off new iPhone software, updated Mac computers and provide more details on future releases of Mac software when he kicks off the company's annual conference for software developers on Monday, June 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

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Updated: July 13, 2012 6:15AM

After Siri warmed up the crowd with a few jokes (“I love you guys. And it’s really hard for me to get emotional because as you can tell, my emotions haven’t been coded yet.”), Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage of the Moscone Center West and kicked off Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference.

He had a right to expect a warm welcome. He started off by talking about the dominance of the App Store. With numbers. If there’s one thing that keeps developers targeting iOS before all other phones and tablets, it’s the amount of revenue that iOS apps generate: five billion dollars paid out to developers so far.

First up: updates to their existing MacBook Pro and MacBook Air lines. All of them now sport Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge processors, and by extension all of the USB ports are now USB 3.0.

The first surprise of the keynote: a brand-new addition to the lineup, featuring a “next generation”/reinvention of the macbook design. It’s as big as a 15” MacBook pro but it’s thin, thin, thin, just 0.71 inches thick, and seems inspired more by the styling of the iPad than by the MacBook Air.

The star of the show is a new Retina-grade screen: it’s 2880x1800 at 15.4”, displaying a full five megapixels all at once. But Apple’s stress isn’t on having a million windows on the screen at once; it’s on making the existing interfaces crisper and prettier. Text in menus is like printed text, and the working video preview in the upper corner of a Final Cut Pro X editing window is, in fact, showing full 1080P video.

In terms of processing power, it’s essentially the MacBook Pro. It could have actually been the new MacBook Pro...but building this as a separate product is a safe move. It has no optical drive and it lacks onboard Ethernet, and all of the storage is via solid state drive (which is either low capacity or crazy expensive). Given that Apple is the only source for Macs, eliminating some features that many people would consider Basic Essentials would have been a considerably bold move...even for them.

(Particularly when you consider that the next-generation MacBook is offered at a starting price of $2,199.)

But Apple is clear about their intentions: this new MacBook Pro is the future of mobile Macs. As with the other new MacBooks, it’s available starting today.

Next: an update on Mountain Lion, the new version of the Mac operating system. Mountain Lion’s big trick will be iCloud. It works well on iOS, but integration on the current edition of the Mac OS is sketchy and unreliable.

Apple didn’t state it outright, but there’s clearly a war against the file system. The big advantage of iCloud, as Apple sees it, is that each document-based app has its own constellation of files that appear to the user immediately, and which are transparently synced and shared with every other device you own.

The message is “Document libraries.” New documents that come in via Mail or the Messaging app are dragged right into the cloud, without explicitly making a stop in a Save File dialog, at least as far as Apple’s WWDC demo is concerned; as you move through Apple’s iWork apps, you never once see your data as files on a volume.

This new “Files? Why on earth would a user want to deal with files?” philosophy is just part of the ongoing effort to bring good ideas from iOS into the desktop operating system, where appropriate. It’s also being done in a more literal fashion, with the arrival of iOS’ Notes app, and iOS-style notifications.

And speech-to-text dictation (a new announcement). It works like it does on the iPad: no Siri-style personal assistance but you can say what you want and presto, it’s in an email.

As with the design of the next-generation MacBook, Mountain Lion underscores the fact that for the past ten years at least, Apple has been developing one tight constellation of products. Look at the new iCloud-enabled version of Safari. When I walk away from my iMac in my office and then open my’s all the same webpages and tabs, scrolled to exactly the positions they were in when I left. And it works across iOS Safari, too.

Another neat new feature: “Power Nap.” At the moment, when you put a computer to sleep, it sleeps. “Power Nap” keeps the Mac up to date even during sleep mode: it fetches mail, updates the calendar with incoming reminders, receives App Store updates and performs backups in a power-friendly way. It works with recent-generation MacBooks only, so it looks like it requires either help on the hardware end or a firmware update.

Apple had already announced AirPlay for MacOS, but it bears another mention: Mac OS Mountain Lion can mirror any Mac’s display to an HDTV or projector via Apple TV.

Did Apple demo this with a business presentation? Naw: with gaming (via a gutsy appearance by Fair-Use Parody The Stig). AirPlay will probably prove to be just as big a part of Apple’s ongoing strategy for world domination as iCloud: it’s MacOS and iOS’ connection to TV sets, and the TV set is the next battleground.

Mountain Lion will ship via the App Store next month for $19.99. That’s down from $29.99 for Lion. Apple has always put a high priority on getting as many users on the same OS as possible.

And then it was time to talk about the other operating system: iOS. Here, Apple rolled out facts and statistics the way that the Soviets used to parade tanks and missiles and troops through Red Square. The subtle undertone, to those of us shrewd, experienced, and attentive observers: “Android sucks and will continue to suck until there’s nothing left to be sucked.”

Apple continues their annual schedule of iOS releases with iOS 6, featuring “more than 200 new features.”

Starting with new Siri features. Remember that Siri is supposed to be an active digital assistant who helps you get things done, and not just dictate a Tweet or check the weather.

Siri now knows sports scores. “Who won last night’s Cubs game?” yields a depressing spoken response followed by a nice scoreboard widget with more details. There are additional sports widgets for league standing, schedules, and player stats. “Who’s taller: LeBron or Kobe?” gets what I presume to be the right answer.

Existing features have been expanded to make them a little deeper. Siri will find you a Mexican restaurant nearby, as usual, but in iOS 6 it’ll also help you make a reservation through OpenTable.

The underlying theme is to put a new face on information available from the Web. When you ask about movies, Siri pulls review information from RottenTomatoes, schedules information from another source, trailers from a third...without having to leave Siri.

Oh, and Apple’s trying to go back and cover the basics that they missed the first time: yes, Siri can finally launch apps. I care about that more than I care about LeBron James’ height.

You’ll be slightly less likely to kill yourself while speaking with Siri in your car. Apple’s developed “Eyes Free” in conjunction with auto makers. A button on the steering wheel activates Siri for complete speech control of the iPhone.

And hey, cool: Siri is finally coming to the iPad. The new model, anyway.

iOS shows new love for Facebook, elevating it to the same BFF status it granted Twitter last year. iOS will manage your Facebook login credentials and integrates Facebook throughout the iOS experience, feeding content into your calendar, contacts, notifications, and more.

Apple’s finally taken a look at the second syllable on the name “iPhone” and beefed up the phone app. iOS 6 delivers more options for dealing with incoming calls (such as: push one button to answer, leave an automated response, and then dump). Plus a long-desired “Do Not Disturb” mode that quiets the iPhone every night during sleepytime, or when immediately when you’re about to see a play and don’t want Patti LuPone to yell at you.

And praise the Lord, iOS 6 gives you fine-grained control over what calls will make your phone ring. All I’ve ever wanted was “Only let it ring if the number is in my address book.”

FaceTime messaging receives some neat tweaks. Not it works over cellular in addition to WiFi, and it unifies your phone number. You can configure your world so that phone calls that arrive on your iPhone can be answered on your iPad.

Apple’s added a bunch of new apps to iOS.

More and more ticketed events are using phone-based ticketing and boarding passes. So Apple built a new app to store them all. “Passbook” is based on an open standard that any ticketer can support, and it can handle a wide variety of transaction items: passes, tickets, coupons, even a Starbucks Card, with balances. All of these things are live. If your flight is leaving from a different gate, your electronic ticket will be updated with the new information. And when you’re done with an item, the app “shreds” it automatically.

“Guided Access” is interesting: it’s an iOS app that lets you disable certain sections of an app’s user interface. So you can hand an iPhone to your kid without worrying quite so much that they’ll go somewhere you don’t want them to, or that a visitor to your museum will use your Guided Tour app to make rude comments on Facebook.

But onward to Maps, which, as expected, has been rebuilt from the ground up for iOS 6. The rather basic app from iOS 1.0 now has turn-by-turn directions, better access to local points of interest, a crowdsourced live traffic database of its own creation . . . and it’s fully integrated with Siri for hands-free operation.

The other big plus of the new Maps app is 3D maps. Like Google, Apple has amassed its own air force to overfly major cities and build 3D wireframe maps of the whole metroplex. It allows the ultimate birds-eye view, and an almost cinematic preview of what the drive actually be like as you near your destination.

Apple’s releasing a beta of iOS 6 to developers today. It’ll ship to consumers later in the fall, and will work with all iPhones from the 3GS to the newest one, and on the iPad 2 and the third-generation iPad.

Nope: First-generation iPad owners are out of luck. I’m going to try to find out why they’ve been left out of the party’s not like the iPad 2 was a revolutionary leap ahead in processing power. Speech To Text and Siri might have been the killers.

And so, the stage is set for another big Apple year. We didn’t see a new iPhone today, so it appears that we can expect those announcements every fall from now on.

That wasn’t terribly surprising. The surprise is that amid the across-the-board updates to the MacBook line, and the release of a whole new model, we heard not a peep about the desktop tower Mac Pro, which is beginning to look like a product that Apple is hugely not interested in. They did update a new processor. Perhaps it’s destined to be the Cinderella of the Mac line, doing all of the heavy work but never getting to go to the big ball.

Also released but not mentioned in the keynote: a redesigned Airport Expeess mobile WiFi base station (integrating a bunch of pro features from the Airport Extreme) and a new iPad Smart Case that protects the back as well as the screen.

Also missing: any mention of Apple TV, either the standalone accessory or the rumored new TV set. That ought to set back the rumors at least another year. Apple’s going to need to teach developers how to write TV apps before they can get such a product into the open water...or else, they’re going to have to sell it as a completely closed system, which is hard to imagine.

But otherwise, there was a lot to like about today’s announcements. We saw a lot of housekeeping with iOS. Apple seems to be spending more time addressing shortcomings (such as Maps and the Phone app) than reinventing the whole platform. And basic questions like “Hey, why can’t we get Siri on our iPads?” are now put aside; Apple finally gave us our lollipops to shut us up.

Overall, the WWDC keynote feels like the first act of a trilogy. Google’s holding their own annual developer conference in just a couple of weeks. Though given the almost total lack of control over the software direction of Android phones and tablets, they’re not exactly presenting from Apple’s same position of power.

And at the end of the year, Microsoft will introduce Windows 8 and a new edition of Windows Phone. If they can truly pull off that kind of integration, Apple could finally have a challenger on its hands in mobile devices. Apple owns the tablet market just as overwhelmingly as Microsoft owns desktops. What happens when Microsoft tries to make a tablet that also works like a desktop?

“Game Of Thrones” ended its season last week. Fret not...we’ll see more swordplay by the end of the year, that’s for sure.

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