Apple ups ante to increase heat on Google

Apple has unveiled the next version of its mobile software, adding maps and integration with Facebook to ratchet up pressure on Google in the market for handheld devices and online applications.

Apple's iOS 6 will have more than 200 new features, including turn-by-turn map navigation and tools to make it easier to access Facebook from iPhones and iPads, Apple said.

The company has also upgraded its MacBook computers, adding faster chips and sharper displays to the high-end Pro model months before competing devices with Microsoft's Windows arrive in stores.

Chief executive Tim Cook is using new software, unveiled at the company's annual Worldwide Developers Conference, to widen Apple's user base and woo developers who can add to a store that has more than 650,000 downloadable games, magazines and productivity tools.

The new mapping service, which replaces Google Maps, and new voice-recognition tools that make it easier to bypass traditional search engines, reflect Apple's efforts to diminish Google on its devices.

"The rift between Google and Apple couldn't be clearer than it was today," said Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray Cos.

"They just keep raising the temperature."

The rivalry has grown as Google puts its software on machines made by Samsung Electronics and other electronics companies to challenge the iPhone and iPad.

Smartphones running Google's Android operating system combined accounted for 56 per cent of global sales in the first three months of the year, compared with 23 per cent for the iPhone, according to Gartner.

The iPhone is the best-selling smartphone.

Apple said it's working more closely with Facebook, another big rival to Google. The new features make it easier for iPhone and iPad users to post pictures and other content to the social network.

Apple also is adding Facebook "like" buttons to the App Store and iTunes. Google introduced its Facebook competitor, Google+, this year.

Apple is also adding Baidu's search engine as an alternative to Google for iPhone, iPad and Mac users in China.

Apple is also updating its voice-recognition service Siri to work for Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.

The company is making the Siri service available for iPad users and added the ability to use voice commands to search for sports scores and make reservations through OpenTable's service.

Apple said it's working with carmakers, including Bayerische Motoren Werke, General Motors, Honda and Toyota, to add a button to car steering wheels to quickly activate Siri.

Another new feature is called Passbook, an application that organises electronic gift cards, boarding passes or movie tickets.

The feature could eventually include credit-card data and may mark an early step toward wireless payments for iPhone, said Ross Rubin, an analyst at NPD Group.

Apple has more than 400 million credit cards on file via iTunes and the App Store.

The mobile software upgrades will be part of Apple's next iPhone, which analysts including Munster have predicted will be released by October.

The iPhone is Apple's best-selling product, accounting for 58 per cent of its revenue last quarter.

Apple also showed off its Mountain Lion operating system for the Mac, which will be released next month.

The software includes a notification system so text messages sent to an iPhone or iPad will show up on the Mac as well.

The changes to the mobile and Mac software underscore a broader push by Apple to make its products work more seamlessly together, encouraging customers to purchase multiple devices.

Users can safeguard documents and files on Apple's iCloud storage service and access them from whichever machine.

That fosters "stickiness" so that users won't want to switch to another product because of all the time and effort they have invested with Apple's gadgets, said Chris Jones, an analyst at market researcher Canalys.

The event highlighted the difficulty Apple has keeping new product details secret. Many of the biggest announcements had leaked out. Case in point, an updated MacBook Pro.

Apple is tweaking its laptops as other computer makers such as Hewlett-Packard prepare machines that feature the new version of Microsoft's Windows this year.

Apple introduced a thinner, lighter MacBook Pro that boasts high-definition screens and sells for at least US$2199 ($2800).

The MacBook Pros feature more powerful chips from Intel, graphics capabilities from Nvidia and an HDMI port for playing videos to TVs.

The MacBook Pro has seven hours of battery life and as much as 768 gigabytes of flash memory.

The company updated the existing line of MacBook Pros, which will also boast faster chips. These will sell for US$1199 to US$2199.

New MacBook Airs, which are thinner and cheaper than Pros, will sell for US$999 to US$1499.

"While they're not dramatic new hardware, these were important improvements to make for Apple to be ahead of the competition," said Walter Piecyk, an analyst with BTIG LLC.

The event kicked off Apple's weeklong conference for developers who make the software that populates its App Store. More than 30 billion apps have been downloaded from its digital store, and developers have received US$5 billion from the sales, Apple said.

Apple keeps 30 per cent of the revenue raised from app-store sales and developers get the rest.

The success of Apple's App Store has helped create a market for applications that will reach US$58 billion in 2014, according to Gartner.

"The products we make, combined with the apps you create, can fundamentally change the world," Cook said.

Fellow technology companies also are trying to lure the developers.

Facebook opened an online bazaar last week. Google's store has more than 500,000 apps, while Microsoft has lined up design firms, recruited interns and sent engineers on an around-the-world roadshow to line the shelves of its app store.

- Bloomberg

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