What's up for Apple in 2012?

A new iPad, an updated iPhone and bridges to the enterprise are on the horizon

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The inclusion of near field communication (NFC) technology and support for mobile payments seems more in doubt. Obviously, Apple is proving that iPhones make great mobile payment systems via the self-checkout feature recently instituted by its retail stores. And it already has a user-payment mechanism in place through the iTunes Store. However, Apple sometimes waits on features (like LTE) until it feels they can work as flawlessly as possible. That could mean another year before NFC comes to iOS.

I strongly suspect that 2012 will also be the year when Apple begins to diversify iPad price points. The company isn't likely to introduce a 7-in. or limited-feature model, however. Instead, it will more likely follow the approach that it has used with the iPhone and continue producing past iterations and selling them at lower prices.

Siri evolves

It's a given that the iPhone 4S's virtual assistant, Siri, will improve and evolve throughout 2012. And there are a handful steps that Apple is sure to take to enhance the voice-controlled technology. For starters, we know that additional languages and localized results will be added in the coming months. We also know that Apple is amalgamating a lot of crowd-sourced data that will improve Siri's speech recognition and understanding of colloquial phrases. And it seems a sure thing that Apple will deploy Siri on a number of devices, including future iPads and iPod Touches (and potentially TVs, which I'll get to in a bit).

It's also likely that Apple will begin linking Siri to additional reference and recommendation services. Currently, Siri can get information from Wolfram Alpha, Yelp, and Google Maps. As the brouhaha over Siri's inability to locate abortion services proved, Siri is at the mercy of the services it connects with. No doubt, Apple is working to identify and develop partnerships with additional content sources, particularly in regional and local markets around the world. The company may even be looking at buying one or more outright. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Apple allow users to select which services Siri uses to locate information or in what order it should query those sources.

Beyond putting more data at Siri's virtual fingertips, Apple will also likely extend the technology's capabilities in terms of what data and apps Siri can interact with on an iOS device. Any new capabilities would be implemented in iOS itself or with Apple's apps at first. That said, I'm sure Apple will eventually open up at least a few APIs so developers can plug into Siri in a variety of ways. I expect this will be a key feature for developers in iOS 6.

One big question: Will Apple eventually introduce additional voice/personality packs for Siri? Given that Apple has already done so to some extent with the localized language support in the Siri beta, it seems almost certain that the company can offer additional choices, just as most GPS navigation systems do. The questions are: When will we see them, and will they be free?

As with developer access to Siri, I'm betting that those options will arrive with iOS 6 and that users will be able to purchase them like ringtones.

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.

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