Why Apple's iOS updates are underwhelming

Monday marked Apple's annual Worldwide Developer Conference, and as we reported, the company unveiled updates for its mobile devices, desktop operating system, and more. But while past years have seen some compelling and awe-inspiring announcements, this year's presentation was less impressive.

To be clear, the updates and new products will delight Apple fans. But for the most part, what we saw this year was a measured evolution of the Apple brand without any big surprises. And many of the announcements add up to little more than Apple attempting to reach parity with the competition in areas in which Cupertino had fallen behind.

As usual, some of the biggest announcements were related to the iPhone and iPad. Coming this fall in iOS 9, the iPhone will acquire some predictive behaviors, taking action based on context and situation. For example, invitations and events you receive in email will be automatically added to your calendar; plugging in headphones triggers music to begin playing automatically; the lock screen will offer you quick access to apps that you often run at a particular time of day when that time rolls around. Depending on your perspective -- and on the quality of the implementation -- this might all be helpful or aggravating. And Android users have already been quick to point out that this is similar to the way Google Now behaves.

Apple (AAPL) is bundling a completely new app with iOS9 called News; it's a news reader that presents content from sites you like to visit in a visually engaging way (along with the ability to save it for later and read the content offline). Anyone who's been a mobile user for some time, though, will recognize this app as a variation of the popular third party app Flipboard.

We already knew ahead of the WWDC that Apple Maps has been upgraded with transit maps. This is a big feature for mass transit commuters; Apple Maps was woefully behind Google Maps in presenting this information. Even so, only expect to see this in a handful of cities (namely, New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, London, Berlin, and Toronto).

There is one genuinely exciting iOS update coming this fall -- the iPad is getting bona fide multitasking support. iOS9 allows you to run two apps side-by-side, like the original implementation of multitasking in Microsoft's Windows 8 modern app environment. In addition, you'll be able to watch video and conduct FaceTime chats in a corner of the screen, picture-in-picture style, while you run a different app. This is a genuine game changer for the convenience and productivity of using an iPad. That said, availability will be quite low, with the split screen multitasking only available in the newest iPad Air 2.

As you might expect, there are a slew of other small improvements. Apple Pay will have broader support, for example, with Discover card added to the roster. The venerable four-digit passcode is being upgraded to six digits (which means there are millions of possible combinations rather than just 10,000). And the upgrade itself is a svelte 1.3GB in size. This is important to a lot of people with limited capacity on their devices; in comparison, iOS8 was almost 5GB.

iOS9 is coming this fall, but you can also sign up right now for a public beta that will be available as early as July.

Photo courtesy Apple