Can iOS 5 challenge video game consoles? Not without some killer apps

Those of us not clamoring for an iPhone 4S have something else to look forward to come Oct. 12: iOS 5, the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system.

The new iOS introduces a number of new features. For one thing, this should be (just about) the last time you’ll have to plug your iPhone or iPad into your computer, as the new operating system introduces over-the-air syncing. It’ll also add iCloud features, a big selection of new apps and new functionality, and stick Twitter in everything your iPhone does.

Another big new feature getting a lot of attention is AirPlay Mirroring, a capability we’ll be seeing in the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S. Mirroring uses Apple’s AirPlay software, which allows iOS devices and computers to share content over a local Wi-Fi network, to also share what’s being displayed on those devices. A practical example: If you have Apple TV and an iPad 2, AirPlay mirroring will allow you to project what’s shown on the iPad 2’s screen on your TV.

Big-screen Gaming

That example also embodies one of the major developments that many people have been pointing to as the future of the convergence between mobile gaming and traditional video gaming. With AirPlay Mirroring and the right hardware – namely, a $99 Apple TV set-top box and your existing (latest-generation) iOS devices – you effectively have a video game console like an Xbox 360, a PlayStation 3 or a Nintendo Wii. You can play your mobile games at full-size on your TV set.

A lot of developers see this as a big wave that could make Apple a de facto player in the video game console market, which is currently dominated by the likes of Sony and Microsoft. Both those companies have been slow in developing their next generation of console hardware, and both systems are aging. Meanwhile, the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S are fairly shiny and new, with thousands of games in their respective iTunes App Store stables, and a huge new segment of gamers. Services such as OnLive, which allows users to stream PC games to their computers and TVs over the Internet, are also adding support to the iPad. With the right apps, it seems, your iOS devices may really be able to do everything your Xbox and PlayStation can do.

True competition?

But can AirPlay Mirroring really make Apple a threat to Microsoft and Sony? That’s a tough question, and despite the enthusiasm of quite a few developers, you’re probably not going to see kids trading in their controllers for shiny new iPads, even if (in the long run), it does seem more cost-effective to do so.

There are a bunch of great iPad games out there, and iPhone games besides, that would be pretty effective as console games. But unfortunately, there aren’t that many that really drive the experience that consoles and PC games currently deliver. It’ll take a concerted effort to make some bigger, more involved iPad games to really give the big players in video games a run for their money.

It might be possible, with a little marketing, for Apple to start to push its way into the console market with its highly successful mobile devices. PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox 360 all enjoy healthy downloadable markets with smaller games and a lot of those games, like EDGE Extended on PC, have gone on to become iOS games. There’s quite a bit of overlap that would make the iPad a viable home gaming machine.

But it’ll take some really big, awesome titles to really make a splash that traditional gamers notice. Mobile games still tend to be smaller and less robust than major video game releases, and until more games seem like they can stand up to more traditional video games – or at least provide a comparable experience – it’ll be tough for Apple to replace what gamers already know and trust.

But it’s certainly not impossible to see an iPad replacing a PlayStation; it’s just going to take some work from developers, and from Apple.

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