What's up for Apple in 2012?

iOS 6

It seems a foregone conclusion that Apple will release iOS 6 in 2012, given that the company has put out iOS updates on a yearly basis since the iPhone shipped in 2007. Probably the biggest changes will center around Siri's expanded feature set, but Apple is likely to have some other surprises in store.

Two particular areas where Apple may shake things up involve maps/navigation and search. Over the past couple of years, Apple has quietly been building better map-related features; those efforts have included the creation of its own Wi-Fi hotspot database. And it's been buying mapping software vendors, indicating an eventual shift away from Google Maps. Likewise, particularly with Siri's search-related capabilities, Apple may look to develop relationships that reduce its reliance on Google overall.

Apple will probably also improve the notification center introduced in iOS 5 this fall. For people who have been critical of Apple's decision not to allow Android-like widgets on the home screen, this may be the company's first step in that direction. The Weather and Stocks apps currently can display more information than just alerts, and it's reasonable to assume Apple could expand this type of display.

Less dramatic steps Apple is sure to take will include increasing the capabilities of the features (hardware and OS-level tools) that developers can access under iOS and improving mobility management. Apple has given developers access to a greater range of APIs in each iOS release and that seems destined to continue -- both for Siri and other technologies.

The company will be looking to continue to improve device and data security, as well as the capabilities of MDM systems for monitoring and managing iOS devices in business environments -- an area where Apple has an advantage over most Android devices at the moment.

iCloud improves

It seems impossible to count out an update to iCloud in 2012. The big issue Apple needs to address is syncing between Macs and PCs. Right now, syncing third-party app data between iOS devices is decent, but limited. If Apple is going to challenge other companies in the cloud, it needs to be able to integrate with desktops better. And what Mac user wouldn't want to see iCloud bring back Mobile Me's ability to sync system settings?

Apple TV becomes more than a hobby

With a recent estimate that 8% of U.S. households have an Apple TV (with Apple capturing 32% of the connected TV market), it's hard to call the current Apple TV a hobby -- though Apple has done so since the original model was announced five years ago. 2012 seems poised to be the year that the Apple TV becomes a major product and revenue source for Apple.

Rumors have been rampant that Apple would eventually produce its own HDTV line instead of the current Apple TV set-top box. Those rumors began flying more than ever this fall after Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs was released -- largely because of a brief passage in which Jobs says that he "finally cracked it" in reference to the television market and/or industry. That comment -- along with the release of Siri on the iPhone 4S (and its ability to control TV content when paired with Siri Proxy) -- has been taken by many to mean that Apple is planning a next-generation HDTV that utilizes voice control. Many HDTV manufacturers have actually begun work on voice-controlled models as a result of those reports.

If Apple does develop its own HDTV line, 2012 will probably see a small rollout of a limited number of models to test the market.

Regardless of whether Apple is planning its own line of televisions, it's pretty certain that we'll get a new version of the set-top box, probably with an updated interface and features. The current Apple TV user experience hasn't really changed much in a few years, and I can envision Apple revamping it. Given Netflix's gaffes this year, I also wouldn't be surprised to see Apple offer additional streaming services like those from Hulu+ or possibly Amazon.

I also wouldn't be surprised to see Apple add AirPlay-based gaming and limited app support -- after all, AirPlay gaming can already be done on the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S. I do think that Apple will be very cautious about game or app support and I doubt such features would run directly on the Apple TV without a supporting iOS device.

While there may be a voice-control element based around Siri included with a new Apple TV or Apple HDTV, it will probably be an optional feature, and traditional navigation using an Apple remote or an iOS device and the Remote app will be included. In fact, voice-control systems could always be offered with complementary remote-control devices or apps to avoid the problems that would arise when background noise or loud conversations render voice commands ineffective.

Previews of Lion's successor at WWDC

There's been a lot of speculation about what the next version of OS X will look like. The idea that Lion might be the last release before the Mac and iOS platforms merge completely has even been floated since the announcement of Lion last fall. About the only assumption I can really make about OS X 10.8 is that it will be more iCloud-ready; there are plenty of ways Apple can -- and probably will -- make Macs more cloud-centric. Beyond that, the only thing we can expect is a limited preview at Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference.

The patent battles continue

Over the course of 2011, Apple became embroiled in patent lawsuits with Android manufacturers in countries all over the world. Keeping track of the ongoing skirmishes in what can only be called an all-out patent war has been like tracking division games during the NFL season. It's pretty clear that this war is far from over and that Apple is not interested in making money (or peace) by licensing its array of mobile technology patents. The company seems to be intent on crushing Android, which Jobs, on multiple occasions, emphatically described as stolen.

While I'd like to see cooler heads prevail, I don't see Apple backing down. What that will ultimately mean for any of the companies involved -- or even for the patent processes around the world -- isn't clear. One thing that it will almost certainly do is engender more antagonism between companies and even end users, something Apple would be better off without.

If there is any upside to this situation, it may well be that it exposes the need for an overhaul of the patent processes in the U.S. and around the world. After all, the system for registering patents was set up long before the advent of today's technologies, and it doesn't always seem to offer sensible and consistent guidelines for innovations in the 21st century.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

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