The smart phone platforms flame wars are not ending, the trenches are well digged out and you have probably noticed those who are reasonable enough to say that it all comes to the personal preferences and that comparing two platforms makes no sense cause they represent two different design philosophies. Well, if you ask me, that’s not the case anymore. I’ll try to explain.
In order to understand Apple and their doings, one have to know the 80-20 rule. The “rule” says that 80% of things that matter are basically covered by 20% of the total thing, whatever it is*¹. Sounds weird but this is what is the core of Apple’s approach to the money, which reflects to the design, and to the technology they use. One would say that the most important design point is their focus on user experience, but I would argue that this is only a tool to achieve the previously stated goal. That is why only “one phone to rule them all” for all these years. Google, on the other hand, has totally different approach and it was based on formula 20%+80%=100%. Of information, of course, cause they are marketing company after all. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing evil in any of these approaches and both companies contributed to the world development in an unprecedented way. Apple helped mobile fly and disrupt Microsoft OS monopoly, Google is doing a great job in sorting the information and the knowledge of the world for all of us.
What points did they make regarding design process and principles. First, Apple made a big point about meaningful innovation, although not even they are always following this simple guideline. Google made a point of the power of community and collaboration. One does not exclude the other and I think they both have figured it out. Apple started actually to listen to its users and developers, Google on the other hand, started guiding theirs. In the most fundamental way, in terms of trends regarding platform development, they are on the same path, so there should be no surprise if their products Android and iOS actually become the same side of the coin (if not already). Functions of iOS have finally caught up, stability of Android is now impressive. Walled garden of iOS apps is thoughtfully pierced here and there, and Material design finally gives a good starting point for standardization of the appearance of different distributions of Android (and not only Android but the whole web and other UIs). I will maybe go over the line calling iOS a refined distribution of Android. It cannot be the other way arround because of the general approach which I was talking about in the beginning – Apple pursues meaningful 20% and Android the whole 100%. 20 is included in 100, can’t go against logic.
But, if from previous seems that Apple is losing the battle, think again. They are not, they just changed their original strategy to get to the meaningful 20%. When they started this smartphone thing, they were Apple Computers. The day they unveiled the original iPhone they dropped the “computer” part. It was so obvious cause Steve Jobs covered this in his famous presentation. The change in course that happened after Jobs was not that easy to notice but it is not less dramatic. Apple turned to fashion-tech company. It is now selling its brand still looking for those 20% willing to pay for it. The hype about their products is not explainable by specs or by user experience any more (or productivity or stability and reliability, not even by distinctive design…), cause two platforms are more comparable than ever, devices as well. It is very obvious that restricting the multitasking and the big screens to its users gave Apple opportunity to manage bearable battery life with only 1500mAh capacity. All the optimizations of A and M chips and iOS seamed magically effective only if you forget about those two functions. On the other hand, Samsung finally made full aluminium body phone sporting only a 1700mAh battery, sharp difference from other phones they make. But they can’t just drop multitasking, right? So, where seems that one company or product is superior to the other is just the matter of design decisions (both hardware and software design). As the design principles converge to each other, their magical strengths and weaknesses suddenly are proved to be just normal outcomes of their design goals.
Fragmentation of Android was the discussion theme for a long time. Here, too, we can see how the gap is closing between two operating systems. Apple quietly introduced the whole new screen resolution, and not just that but they kinda want developers to make different modes for their apps for 6+ which, at least means to rethink your app one more time. In case of iOS the design consistency is really important, so even slight changing of resolution could be a lot of work and tweaks and testing. Also, without fanfare they brought two new phones slightly different in hardware (OIS only). On the other side, Google introduced its Material design which I cannot praise enough for hitting the bull’s eye. It’s not a design language, its is a design meta-language we are talking about. It goes with all the screen sizes, but in a very structured and organized way, great foundation for solving the fragmentation issue. We have yet to see how it turns out but this is pretty promising. Also, they adjusted the OS for all kind of phones stressing the standardized UX as a goal, putting specs in the second row. So now you have a cheap Moto G ($179) running on 1GB with a non-flagship CPU providing 80% (if not more) of the experience of flagship phones. The range of prices is widened, but the capability of the device is not. If we compare the difference between iPhone 5c and 6+ we could maybe find bigger gap in functionality and user experience there. And that is not just old phone, this is Apples present low-end phone (very cheap development, obviously). So, yes, you have a feature or two implemented by various OEMs which are not standard Android features because of which automatic upgrades doesn’t work in Android world (custom hardware is another reason, actually big one) but it doesn’t mean you cannot have almost the same functionalities as newer devices have. It just means that your cheap phone will not become better over the time, and your expensive phone will not be supported forever and instantly, but will stay good enough for as long as you need it. And guess what, neither older iPhones become better with the new upgrades but quite contrary they can have a lot of performance issues because of the new software. See, there is a silent fragmentation in fruit garden, too.
This seems now like a bashing of Apple, but it is really not. It is rather demystification of its alleged superiority which is not something that Apple marketing team invented on purpose. It just happened, no one knows why and how. Not even Tim Cook, or late Jobs. Not even Jony Eve! Brands happen, just like Louis Vuitton, just like Cartier, Prada, Gucci or even Ferrari if you want. If this seems like another “Apple is doomed!” story just look at the brands above. Moving to fashion is a good thing, it is moving upwards. But, the good chance that Apple will continue to make a lot of money doesn’t make iOS or iPhone better tech then its Android counterparts. It makes them better branded and better sold.
If waiting for the upgrade on Android still seems like a big problem, let us try to put it into perspective. Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread was ambitious piece of crap. If you stick to it more than a year on a premium phone (which Galaxy Note was in 2012) you would risk your health. There, I’ve said it. I had it for 4 months when I got 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich which meant a lot. It meant so much that I even went to the local provider store to ask when is it coming, few times. Cause it was out and I was depending on Samsung and Docomo to push it to my device. Since then, I never cared about when the new version is coming.The phone even got 4.1 and since 4.1 it really doesn’t even matter which version you have. They are all stable, smooth and we can say that the improvements are cosmetic. It would not, by any means change your smartphone experience completely. And this is by far the biggest Apple contribution to the world. Meaningful improvement. basically, that means that if you need a measuring device to notice an improvement than it is not worth mentioning. I am not saying that it is not important (Dalvik to ART transition is pretty important, Extensibility is pretty important and bald) but it is not something that will immediately make a noticeable difference. Not like introduction of copy/paste function in iOS back then, or Project Butter in Android. And the fact is that Apple made more bald strategic moves with iOS 7 and 8 (design overhaul from skeumorphism to flat, opening up the apps to work with each other, screen fragmentation,…), but all of that in the area where Android already is. We are in the zone of “seen that already” for quite some time. It is increasingly hard to make a distinctive meaningful innovation on both sides. Anything that seems so (fingerprint sensor, 64 bit processing, waterproofing, heartbeat sensors, etc.) can be implemented by the other camp within a year or two, which is just enough for people not to switch that much.
Feature wise, both Android and iOS are heading in the same direction, having some minor advantages and disadvantages, but productivity wise they are even more on pair. Apple will use its brand strength to try to push some things where the technology is not a crucial point, but the trust. Like Apple Pay. Also, they will push their brand into the fashion arena with the Watch, where technology again is of secondary importance. Added value is biggest in unmeasurable categories. So Apple will run away from measurable fights (like, who has better screen, more accurate colours, better battery life and all those categories where Huawei can do as much as Apple) and will embrace fighting in the fog where it has a bigger advantage cause emotional counts more. You can’t measure it, but you can measure the amount of money it brings you, quite exactly actually. Yes, it’s called counting. 🙂
Google will remain to put its efforts to be omnipresent and neutral as much as possible, but will intervene and control its ecosystem more actively than before. On one hand they will stand against (decleratively) OEMs pushing their pandans to Google services, but n the other hand they will implement some breakthrough features back into the stock Android (like Samsung’s Knox). They are also trustful company and if they do not try to expand its existance to other slippery fields but remain focused on marketing mediating, they will remain to be perceived as such. The issue for this approach is geopolitics and their problems in Asia and especially in China. But that is another story.
*1 – 80-20 is not my idea of course. I first read about it on a great Japanese language blog alljapaneseallthetime.com where a guy calling himself Katsumoto will blow your mind with deep thoughts and meaningful generalisations. He is a great read, whether you learn Japanese or not.