Today is the day Apple fans have awaited since May, when the company announced the newest iteration of its iOS platform. The unifying theme of iOS 7 is simplicity, which is why Apple employe Jonny Ive, who designed the physical iPhone, to redesign iOS. And yes, it does look — different, at least. But let’s be real for a moment: design is about user experience, not aesthetics. A new-look iOS means nothing if the user doesn’t have an easier time with it.
From afar it can prove difficult to judge exactly how an OS will resonate with any particular user. We all have our individual preferences, after all. Yet those of us without direct access to the platform still need some kind of baseline for comparison. It’s not as though we’ll be able to walk into an Apple Store and get a really good feel for the OS during a test run.
Thankfully, many tech blogs have had iOS 7 in their hands for a few weeks (or more, depending on whether they beta tested it), some of them running it on a review unit of the iPhone 5S. We’re subjected to the bias of the individual reviewer, but many times that has to suffice. After reading through it a few times, it seems that Darrell Etherington of TechCrunch lays out a wonderful view of iOS 7, cutting most of the bull and sticking with the features the OS brings to the table.
My first impression: Android has been ahead of the pack for some time now.
Us vs. Them?
Unfortunately, any time you see a comparison between the two top smartphone platforms, you get an us vs. them situation. There are hardcore Android fans who mock the closed nature of the iPhone. The Apple faithful often thumb their noses at Android’s sometimes-crude design and “fragmentation,” even though that term hasn’t been relevant for at least two years. This dynamic makes it difficult to make any real comparisons between the two platforms.
It wasn’t until this past May, when Apple revealed iOS 7, that Android’s superiority became pretty clear. I remember thinking, at the time, that this was nothing that Android wasn’t doing. Yes, Apple is getting out ahead on the design aspect, as they always have. That’s their thing, and if people really do prefer aesthetics over experience they’d do well to wait on line to buy an iPhone 5S. But when it comes to the experience that these designs create, Android has been doing it for a while.
There are some controls that you use so frequently, you want easy access to them. Previously on the iPhone you had to go into the Settings app to make changes to your WiFi options, airplane mode, Bluetooth, sound, brightness, and others. The new iOS adds the Control Center, which puts these things within easy reach.
Of course, Android has had this feature since at least 2.1 Eclair. (That was the first version of Android I used so maybe they even had it before.) Just drag down the top bar and you have all those functions just a touch away. The drag-down menu on Android is just super useful. Playing audio? Most apps show up in that menu, so you can pause, skip a track, or close the app. Again, these are features that have been present for years.
True, Apple does add AirDrop, a great feature that allows you to send files, via WiFi, to any other network-connected iPhone. While NFC is much more efficient, transferring files instantly, it also only works in a very short range and requires both parties to open a specific app. AirDrop is a bit more passive, more like a Skype file transfer. Google has acquired Bump, which will give Android the same functionality, but Apple did win on getting this feature first.
Here is another aspect where Apple wins outright. Siri has evolved into a truly useful function. (As opposed to when it was introduced; then it was mostly a novelty.) If you don’t mind looking like a crazy person by talking to your phone, it can become a valuable asset while you’re on the move. It’s great when driving, particularly.
The S-Voice feature on Samsung Android phones is just atrocious. The voice recognition is subpar, for starters. That’s really the crux of the entire feature, so without that it can’t really take off. The interface is also clunky, forcing you to wake up the feature before actually using it. There’s an opportunity here, but Apple just put plenty of distance between itself and the next closest competitor.
This is another area where we needn’t spend much time, because one platform has been doing this for years while one is just catching up. Android’s multitasking function is second to none. Remember when BlackBerry (yeah, I know) was touting its wonderful multitasking functionality that would allow it to stand out in a smartphone market dominated by two platers? Not only did they lift that multitasking feature right from WebOS, but Android had already lifted it by the time we got a look at BlackBerry 10.
Press and hold the button on an Android and you have a list of open applications, including a preview window. You can scroll through these and go to the one you intend. You can also close them all and start a new list of open applications, or go to the task manager so you can stop the processes. Apple’s multitasking feature looks similar, as it should, since it’s the most effective way to handle that task. But it doesn’t even bring as much to the table. No task manager or “close all” here.
The new Safari is admittedly great. I absolutely love some of the features in it, especially Read Later (even though I use Pocket as well). The new tabs page is well designed and easy to use. But does this really trump Chrome? I think not. If Safari synced with your home computer, perhaps it would come close. But Android does bring that one killer feature. Any tab you have open in your home browser, you can access on your Chrome for Android app.
In general the apps function similarly, so when one has a killer feature like this, it’s a victory. But let’s be real here again: the mobile browser is going to undergo revolutionary changes in the next few years. While Android has the best iteration currently available, I’m certain that it will look primitive by this point in 2015. We use our mobile phone differently than we do our desktops and laptops, and the next few years will be defined by moves in that direction.
Condensing these last few items is a decision made because 1) I’m already sick of comparing these two platforms, and 2) because there are clear cut winners here.
Camera: Give it to Apple, which knows that its users love to snap pictures. You can put megapixel power behind your camera, or you can design it to take better pictures. HTC tried this with the HTC One, but as with most HTC devices that one hasn’t spread to many users. The new iOS camera features allows your phone to take vibrant pictures in any setting. With panorama and other functions, it’s tough to see another player topping this any time soon.
There are plenty of neat features they added to the photo app as well, including putting the picture locations on a map. Why Google hasn’t beaten them to the punch I’ll have no idea. Doesn’t Google basically own the mobile maps space?
Radio: When Google introduced Play Music, it was a revolution. It was essentially Spotify (with admittedly fewer songs) combined with your own music library. The idea is that you upload 20,000 songs from your own library, and then supplement it with Play Music. That can make for some killer radio stations — which is the only real feature of iTunes Radio. It’s nice, of course, but pales in comparison to Google’s offering.
Notifications: Again we have an area where Google was way, way ahead of the curve. Apple didn’t even introduce the notification center until what, iOS 5? Apple does bring some neat changes to the notification center in iOS 7, but it’s still just catching up to Google, which has the best drag-down menu experience of any platform. Bar none.
Whenever Apple or Google does something on mobile, we’re going to see comparisons between the two. It’s the nature of the us vs. them beast. With iOS 7 Apple largely played catchup to Google, adding many features that have been staples in Android for years. In many other areas, though, they took leaps ahead, putting the pressure on Google to keep apace.
Here’s the twist: Google is defragging Android, which will allow it to push updates as they become available. You get an iOS update once a year, with various small improvements and bug fixes throughout. With its new delivery method. Google can update Android in perpetuity — the way software was meant to be updated in the internet age. A year from now we’ll certainly see new developments from both camps, but chances are we’ll see Apple playing a lot more catch-up.