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Apple's iOS 8 and next iPhone are worth the wait

Last week, Apple revealed iOS 8 -- the next iteration of the iPhone and iPad operating system -- to developers and general public. The actual OS won't be released until the fall, probably at the same time as the next generation of iPhones. But in the meantime, Apple (AAPL) has given consumers a lot to lust after.

Health and home

Take the pair of new "kits": Healthkit and Homekit. Both push the iPhone in exciting new directions. Healthkit is a development interface that lets a variety of third-party health apps (and Apple's very own new Health app) communicate and integrate data to a unified database, which can be shared with health professionals. It's the next logical step in a technology that's been evolving since the rise of health bands and watches several years ago, and can make the iPhone a key element in letting doctors monitor a patient's health in a much more organic way.

Homekit is a similar unifying feature that promises to integrate the growing field of home automation apps and services. Reminiscent of devices like Revolv that are trying to be the overall command center for smart and connected home devices, Homekit already has some traction. Philips, for example, has shown off an iOS 8 widget for its Hue remote-controlled light bulbs.

Continuity with OS X

When iOS 8 and the next version of Macintosh OS X, named Yosemite, meet in the fall, Mac users will find the ecosystem is more integrated than ever. You can start writing an email on the Mac and pick up where you left off when you switch to your iPhone, for example. Text messages from your iPhone will sync and appear on the desktop. And the same is true of your voice calls: You can take calls (and see who is on the line via CallerID) from your iPhone at the desk, using your Mac's speakers and microphone.

Camera enhancements

It wouldn't be an iOS update without some camera improvements, and that's a good thing because the iPhone camera app has lagged far behind Google's (GOOG) Android and even Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Phone for so long. Like slow-motion cabability that arrived last year in iOS 7, the cool new feature is going to be an easy way to make time-lapse videos.

And at long last, Apple has added the ability to separately control focus and exposure. Unlike many third-party camera apps, though, in which you can tap to set the focus point and exposure zone, iOS 8 lets you tap to set focus and then slide an exposure control up and down to adjust the brightness manually. There's a self-timer as well now, with 3- and 10-second delays.

Many small changes

Those might be the new big ideas in iOS 8, but it has dozens of smaller ideas also. And many are quite exciting. For some, this might qualify as the best thing in iOS 8: a revamped keyboard. Apple has finally added context-sensitive predictive typing (offering words to choose from as you type) that's allegedly smart enough to learn from you over time and even distinguish your writing style based on whom you're writing to. And if that weren't enough, you might soon see specialty keyboards like Swype on the iPhone because Apple is allowing third-party keyboards at long last.

iPhone 5s users might be thrilled to hear that Touch ID is now available to third-party applications, so you can use it for a lot more than just logging into your phone and making purchases in Apple's App Store.

Also, you'll be able to respond to notifications without leaving whatever app you're using as notifications are about to get interactive.

Siri now listens constantly -- like on select Android phones -- and it has Shazam integration for on-the-fly music recognition.

Online, you might be pleased to know that private browsing is no longer an all-or-nothing affair: You can now make only certain tabs private. And the privacy-minded DuckDuckGo search engine has apparently finally grown up, despite its ridiculous name. You can choose it, Google, Bing or Yahoo (YHOO) as your preferred search site.

Apple has taken a cue from the many alternative mail apps for the iPhone. Mail now supports gestures, so you can reply, delete and flag messages.

And there's a lot more. It's not 2009 anymore, though, when Apple could do no wrong and every feature was seen as an innovation. Critics -- especially vocal Android partisans -- have complained that most of the new features in iOS 8 are already available in Android phones. It's ironic, considering that just a few years ago, Apple used to gear up for its developer conference by advising Microsoft to " start your photocopiers."

Even though the critics are, honestly, right, that doesn't change the fact that Apple users are finally getting some of the features they've only been able to see from afar. If you're a current iPhone user and you have a compatible phone (like the iPhone 5 and 5s), you can upgrade in about three months.

Photo courtesy of Apple.