Apple launches its best laptop, dumps Google Maps and creates an electronic wallet

Yesterday in San Francisco, Apple revealed a bunch of software and hardware enhancements designed to sharpen its edge. David Phelan reports from the event

So what did Apple announce yesterday? How much time do you have? From the moment CEO Tim Cook stepped on stage at the Moscone Centre, San Francisco, the innovations came thick and fast. There was no new iPhone – that’s expected in the autumn – and no mention of the fabled Apple iTV set. But there was enough to keep the 4,000 plus audience of developers and press in a state of deep concentration for over 90 minutes.

There were the usual housekeeping boasts that showed how well the company’s doing. These included 30 billion downloads of apps, sales of 365 million iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod touch) and so on. There were spirited pops against rivals – of the 650,000 apps available, 225,000 are dedicated tablet apps, where other tablet platforms can only claim numbers in their hundreds, Cook asserted.

And then came the reveals. The MacBook Air, the light, super-portable deluxe laptop, was revised with faster chips and bigger flash drives, for lower prices than last year’s models. The MacBook Pro had similar incremental improvements (while the 17in display model was quietly dropped – though it’s likely to return, surely).

And then executive Phil Schiller announced the new MacBook Pro, a dazzling and utterly desirable notebook. It has a Retina Display – Applespeak for a screen with such high resolution you can’t pick out individual pixels. This 15.4in screen is stunning. It makes photographs gleam and text look as sharp as print. Programs will be updated to make the most of this pixel density.

It’s thin – Schiller proudly demonstrated that his finger was thicker than this svelte machine – though this does mean it’s the first Pro without an optical drive, so DVD playback will require the addition of an external disc drive.

It’s fast, light and best of all, if you go by the audience whooping in the Moscone, available today. Prices start at £1,799, which frankly seems like a bargain for such an advanced piece of kit. The MacBook Pro was the stand-out announcement, though the software reveals that followed may prove more groundbreaking.

Mountain Lion is the next big cat in the Mac operating system series. Its release date was confirmed as next month and its price even cheaper than last year’s Lion software ($19.99, with UK price to follow, I’d guess around £17.99). This is very cheap, obviously, especially as you can install it on all the Macs in your household for this price.

New features number in the hundreds but many had been announced already. New at San Francisco was the intriguing Power Nap which lets your computer be updated with new software, emails and notifications while both you and it sleep. And Dictation, a program introduced on the iPhone 4S as part of Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant, will arrive on the Mac. This will be of interest to Nuance, the leaders in voice recognition and whose Dragon Dictation program sales may be affected.

If you use multiple Apple devices, as the company hopes you will, you may surf the internet on your iPad, iPhone and computer. A new feature called iCloud tabs shows your browsing history from all your iDevices in one place. This looked ice-cool.

But the killer software innovations were saved for iOS which will arrive in the autumn, presumably with the new iPhone. Among the 200 new elements were increased opportunities to use FaceTime, the video calling feature. Currently it’s only available over wi-fi, but will work on 3G connections in future, too.

The voice-controlled Siri will be hugely enhanced, with lots of sports, restaurants and film information capabilities, though some of these may be restricted to the States for now. Siri had started proceedings by warming up the crowd. “I’m looking forward to the new Samsung,” the robotic voice intoned, “not the phone, the refrigerator.” Cue der-dun-der-dun-tish drum effects.

Now it would be able to launch apps, too, so saying “Skype” would start an internet phone call, for instance. And Siri, so far only on the iPhone 4S, will come to the iPad 2 and current iPad when the software is launched.

There were improvements to how you do the crucial thing a phone does, make and receive calls. So when a call comes in you can choose with the touch of a button to decline it and reply with a message. HTC, the skilful Taiwanese phone maker, has built this in for a long time, but typically Apple has made it look even better and offer more skillful additions. Like Do Not Disturb which takes messages without ringing your phone. Or it will allow calls to come through from specific contacts or from urgent callers who repeatedly ring within short time periods. Very clever.

Passbook is a simple way to put tickets, boarding passes and shop payments into one place. Reminders are triggered by place or time so when you arrive at the gate, your boarding pass automatically appears on the phone’s screen. Spooky. Windows Phone uses a similar system but Apple makes it slicker. This is the first step towards a digital wallet. If the next iPhone includes the NFC technology found on Oyster cards and door entry systems, such an idea will become a palpable reality. It’s taken Apple to do this – rival phones have greater capabilities but haven’t managed anything close.

And when you’re done with a ticket, say, with typical elan the phone shreds it before your eyes.

But the most captivating visuals were saved for the new Maps software which will see Google’s mapping software dropped from the iPhone. The mapping which replaces it looks simple and elegant. It’s done in-house by Apple in what it described as a worldwide endeavour. This included a gorgeous 3D rendering of cities building by building called Flyover. It looked amazing.

Since iOS 6 will only work on iPhones from 3GS onwards, iPads from the second generation, and more recent iPods, Google’s Maps app won’t vanish completely yet. And the big downside is there’s no mention of maps you can use offline, to save data costs in foreign countries.

But at least there was traffic information which will be improved by anonymised data gathered from iOS users – now there’s clever – and turn-by-turn navigation.

Apple follows its own road, ignoring customer demands for greater manual controls. It resists peer pressure to include technologies it doesn’t fancy just because rivals trumpet them. Sometimes these things can be annoying but the announcements like yesterday’s prove that the company’s stubbornness yields dazzling results. The software arriving in July and the autumn seem likely to put Apple ahead of its rivals. Again.

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