What iOS 6 means for Android, and how the platforms compare
Yesterday, Apple concluded their massive WWDC event, which encompassed everything from new laptops to mobile software. The myriad of information from this event will likely dominate the news cycle for pretty much the rest of this week, meaning that there will be little news that doesn’t concern Apple. So, while I’m not really helping to break Apple’s dominance of the news this week, I would like to take a look at a slightly different angle of things.
One of the main products that Apple announced was iOS 6, and while we didn’t get to see the new iPhone that some were rumoring, iOS 6 does give us a good idea of where the platform is going. Instead of focusing just on iOS’s features, however, I would like to take a look at how iOS 6 compares to Android 4.0, as well as what Apple’s advances may mean for Google’s mobile OS.
This Android heavy comparison may be partially chalked up to the fact that I am an Android fan, but the fact is iOS and Android are not separate entities. They build off of each other, have many of the same features, and Apple even took time in their presentation (which you can see above) to take a couple of jabs at Android fragmentation themselves. As such, I think it is only fair to take a look at the iOS announcement more from the Android side of things, since consumers have already seen what Apple thinks about the mobile OS market.
First, let’s talk about the main attack Apple made on Android: the fragmentation argument. This argument is almost as old as time, and basically comes down to the fact that Apple keeps most of their devices updated with the latest version of iOS, while Android devices may or may not be updated. in fact, in the graph above the latest Android version makes up a tiny slice of the pie dominated by the older Android 2.3 Gingerbread. I will admit, it is true that Apple does a good job of updating their hardware, and even the old iPhone 3GS will be getting iOS 6. Still, there is a problem with this comparison. Google’s goal with Android isn’t necessarily to update all older devices, but rather to make a universal open source operating system. Since making the OS open comes before ensuring updates, Google really doesn’t have the same power that Apple does to update their devices. Basically, Google and Apple have very different strategies, at least as far as updates go, for their very similar products. So while it may look like iOS scores a big win here, it isn’t quite as clear cut as it looks. Apple has to support less than 5 devices, whereas there are hundreds of Android phones that Google has no control over. (A graph showing the three Nexus devices and their update status might have been a closer comparison, but that is neither here nor there.) Just keep in mind that, although what Apple is saying about updates is totally true, there is a reason that Android is set up the way it is, making the comparison not as direct as it may seem.
Now let’s move on to something a little more concrete – the features. Since there are quite a few new features in iOS 6, I have broken them up into a helpful list in order to more easily compare them with what Android offers in the same area.
Reward cards and payments
Apple introduced a new feature called Passbook, which takes a lot of features from other apps and combines them into one by offering reward cards and shopping help in one location. Interestingly, it isn’t a payment system like Google Wallet, but does look like something Apple wants users to turn to when shopping anywhere. In fact, although it is more like Google Offers and some other third party apps right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the new iPhone includes NFC and Passbook is the application that will eventually be used for payments. Out of iOS 6’s new features, this seems to be one of the more unique, although much of the functionality can be duplicated on both platforms through third party applications.
Video chat without WiFi
Ah yes, FaceTime now works over 3G. Not only is this a fairly basic feature, it has been available to jailbroken iPhone users for quite a while and on Android for as long as devices had front facing cameras. I am sure that the carriers had a lot to do with Apple restricting FaceTime use when there were still unlimited plans, but now that nearly everyone has a data cap I suppose the carriers decided that it would be alright for users to use the data they pay for. It is going to be a nice feature for users who were stuck on iOS 5 before, but is hardly a big deal.
With iOS 5, Apple added the Notification Center to their OS, and no matter how much of an Apple fan you are there is no denying that they were inspired by Android’s notification shade. I’m not saying that Android doesn’t do the same thing from time to time, but that isn’t what the discussion is about right now. There’s no problem with Apple adding notification features from Android, which is something they continued to do with iOS 6. This time, the new feature is the ability to quickly respond to a call that you don’t want to answer with a text, or be reminded to call said person later. While it isn’t included in stock Android, many custom ROMs and some manufacturer skins have had this feature for a while. There’s also a new do not disturb feature in iOS 6, which is the same as one that I have been using in CyanogenMod for quite a while.
One of the main reasons that Calob decided to dump his iPhone earlier this year was that the iOS email app didn’t have some basic features, and just generally wasn’t very good. With iOS 6, Apple seems to have fixed a number of these problems. They have added easier attachment management, a “Priority Inbox” feature like the one found in Gmail, and better multiple inbox support. Once again, these features will be welcomed by those on iOS 5 and will no doubt work very well, but for something as basic as email, I would have expected Apple to be much farther ahead then they currently are. Instead of just adding basic features that other platforms already have, and not pushing the envelope (pardon the pun) with any new features.
Navigation and Maps
One of the biggest Android-related changes in iOS 6 has to do with mapping and navigation. In the past, Apple has always used a maps application based on Google Maps. As you might expect, now that they are in serious competition with Google, they don’t want to rely on them for maps or any other application. So, Apple came out with a new navigation and mapping solution with TomTom that will be coming with iOS 6. The new mapping application looks good and has 3D maps, traffic monitoring, and turn-by-turn navigation, an Android feature that was often trumpeted as being better than the iPhone. Still, Apple’s maps include no offline support, something that will be coming to Android and Google Maps soon, and Apple’s maps are also missing walking, biking, and transit maps. This doesn’t mean that Apple’s offering isn’t good, just that it is more catching up than adding impressive new features over competitors.
Siri and voice control
Siri was one of the big features of the iPhone 4S when it was first announced, but has generally been mostly a gimmick or toy rather than something actually useful for most people. Calob even mentioned that the iPad version might end up being more of a gimmick, so I had a bit of a laugh when the iPad version of Siri is exactly what Apple announced with iOS 6. Still, Siri does get a few more features. The new version of the voice utility will be able to launch applications, look up and book spots at restaurants and movies, as well as get real time sports information. I will admit that the demoed features look pretty neat, and I’m a big fan of the sport lookup. However, I had my Galaxy Nexus at a baseball game earlier this week, and it was faster to type in a player’s name and get information than try to use voice search. Google’s voice search is already pretty good anyways, and you can also make your own Siri replacement if you really want to. There may be situations where it really is faster or better to use Siri, but for now the same result can be had (often faster) with plain old typing.
This breakdown is in no way meant to diminish the features or impact of iOS 6, as the software is still obviously a pretty big deal, and has improved on some of these lesser known features in order to make them more accessible. Not only that, the big story with iOS 6 will be the new iPhone, which will likely have quite a number of features we have yet to see. However, something interesting that I noticed about the iOS 6 announcement is that is seems like Apple is not really outclassing everyone in the market with dazzling new features like they used to. Instead, they have taken things that were already out there and polished them up, another tactic they have used in the past. Unfortunately, things are starting to look a little tarnished (I can’t help myself with the puns), as basic features from other platforms have taken quite a while to land on iOS, polished or not.
So, what does this mean for Android, especially with a new version likely to land this summer? Well, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t actually mean too much. I have yet to be presented with a feature from iOS 6 that is big enough to convince someone to switch from Android, and until the release of the next iPhone, it doesn’t look like there will be any major headline features that will try to draw users to the iOS platform. Instead, it seems like iOS 6 is more of an update aimed at existing iOS 5 users, which adds and improves features that existing users want from the OS. There doesn’t seem to be anything that Android really needs to “top” with the new version coming out in the next few months, and it appears that Google has actually been given an opportunity to make the big announcement that adds new features and forces Apple to continue to catch up. We will still have to see what Google comes up with at Google I/O, but I think that this may be a big opportunity for them to announce their rumored Nexus tablet, new Nexus devices, and a new Android OS to really draw users in to the Android platform, even coming from iOS.
Of course, there are still quite a number of things that Android can learn from iOS with regards to ease of use and perhaps even updates, but those lessons aren’t anything new. Yes, iOS 6 is going to be a very good OS with plenty of great features, but it just didn’t raise the bar for competitors in the way that past versions have been able to. That doesn’t mean that iOS 6 isn’t good, or that it won’t be an awesome update for iOS 5 users. What I do think is interesting, though, is that it isn’t the kind of groundbreaking update that used to make Android users envious and Google try to catch up. Instead, it looks like, for at least one conference, iOS was stuck with catching up. Apple may do it prettier, better, or even make it run faster, but that doesn’t completely distract from the fact that they seem to have fallen a little bit behind in the OS department.