I may appear young. Right now, sporting a clean-shaven summer look, only my gray hairs give away my slow maturation. But in computer-years, I am an old man. I’ve been using computers, fixing them, and programming on them for well over 25 years. A lot has happened during that time. For me, holding my current smartphone, I am the computer equivalent of a man who witnessed the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk being given a ride on the space shuttle.
I’ve seen a lot: The rise of the Internet (and it’s re-invention as Web 2.0 and current re-invention as social media). Graphical User Interfaces. Dedicated GPU’s. The rise and fall of OS/2. The introduction and rapid plateau of computer audio. Even the widespread adoption of color displays – I was there. I entered the computer world right after the invention of the 5.25″ floppy disk and I participated in the industry the whole time. Personal computing has always been exciting for me, and some of the best parts have been the rivalries.The rivalry in the headlines now concerns the smallest (and most heavily used) computing devices – our smartphones. What was originally a fight between Palm, Symbian, and Blackberry has become a slug-fest between Apple and Google. The two compete in every arena they can – devices, software, publishing rights, and even lawsuits. Their fans fiercely defend their platform of choice and compare the other one to Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Well, take some perspective from an old man here – they’re not really competitors.
Let me explain.
Superficially, they look like competitors. Android and iOS are both smartphone operating systems. They both run on small black slabs with glass touchscreens up front. Most of the apps they run are the same (FaceBook, a Twitter client, newsreader, podcast app, games, and so on). But they embody completely different ways to interact with users.
Android is more like a regular computer operating system and was envisioned that way. It always had multitasking, copy/paste, and so on. It was also designed to run on different types of processors (not just ARM derivatives), different screen sizes and resolutions, and be customized by the device manufacturer and then also by the customer. It is, in that sense, purposefully generic. If you don’t like the SMS/Texting app, change it. If you prefer a different web browser, make it the new default. Feel free to install your own printing system. New keyboard app – no problem. You can even change the primary screen, the launcher and interact with apps using widgets without launching them first. The result is incredible flexibility and power. Each Android user probably has a few favorites in each of these categories. Texts come in through the FaceBook chat app. Swiftkey for rapid typing. Nova Launcher provides the hub for the experience, with live feeds of Twitter and important stock tickers updating in real time on the home screen.
But with that kind of flexibility comes complexity. There are ways to let an interface “teach” the user. Some of the best games use this model (“Portal” being the gold standard for this kind of interface design). But many great features will never be used, mainly because only the tech-savvy know to go dig for them. For people that just want to use their phone with minimal fuss, there will be some well-worn interface pathways that take the place of customization.
iOS offers opposing ideals. It is designed to restrict user choices. The designers, very consciously, consider themselves to have failed whenever the user has to make any configuration choice. iOS actually goes out of its way to prevent the user from customizing the OS. Very little can be changed. The user can’t even arrange the icons on the home screen other than a matrix filled from left to right, top to bottom. There is a wonderful uniformity to the experience as a result. Hand anyone an iPhone and they will be able to start using it. Apple can let the OS teach the user, since there is no danger of integral parts of the user interface being replaced with 3rd-party alternatives. Add to that – the 3rd party market for iOS apps is curated by Apple. Only apps that pass muster according to them can be run on an iOS device. In contrast, Android is like the wild west. Not only are there 3rd party app stores for Android, but it is trivially easy to manually install an app without anyone’s say-so.
This is why they are not competitors. Many features for iOS would be considered bugs in Android (app-store only? Oppression!), and many Android features would be considered design failures for iOS (widgets? How ugly!). They can compete on battery efficiency and screen quality – things like that. But Android wants to put the user in control, while iOS wants to put Apple in control.
For me, a grizzled veteran of digital technology, I want to be in control of my device. I want the freedom to choose a bad app. I do a pretty good job of keeping my computers running well and I don’t want to be told how to use my computer – from my big desktop all the way down to my smartphone. So Android is my choice.
But not everyone feels that way. It takes only a quick look at the Apple’s WWDC keynotes to discover that there are large numbers of users that want someone else to choose for them. Sometimes the designers know better, after all. Good interface design is an art form, and Apple hires artists. Think of the difference between a custom home designed by the homeowner and a home designed by an architect. The homeowner will waste space and materials. They won’t be able to understand the ramifications of their own choices. The quality of the house will suffer. The architect-designed house will just feel better, sometimes obviously so (lower energy costs, better light), and sometimes the benefit will be subtle (the “flow” of the house, the proximity of one zone to the next). Why not let the artistic expert decide, and then adapt your life to the better way? It seems preferable to trying to accommodate your right to choose the worse way. iOS users report this effect of using Apple’s software – it just feels right. I was used to doing X, but after the device made me start doing Y I realized that Y was better. Having someone else decide can be a very positive experience.
However, Apple’s position is precarious in a way Google’s is not: Apple has to retain the trust of its users. After all, it’s easy to trust the barista that has always made you amazing coffee, but after a few bad recommendations you might want to order for yourself next time. So far, Apple has not made a mistake, though the redesign for iOS7 is somewhat polarizing. Time will tell.
Google has a different task ahead. It has to encourage a cohesive ecosystem filled with a variety of different phone technologies, sizes, and vendor modifications. It has to keep Samsung from devouring Android’s hardware independence, while making the OS features easier to discover. They have to be exciting, and that’s hard when the users aren’t counting on the mothership to provide an improved texting app. If they didn’t like the old one they probably already switched the app to something better. Since they provide only the OS, Google’s press announcements are never as fun as Apple’s. For iOS users, Apple is everything. They provide the hardware, software, and they decide how the software acts and looks, ceding very little control to the user. For Android users, Google makes the plumbing. Someone else makes the handset itself, and the UI is custom.
At this point, I can’t imagine iOS “winning” its fight against Android, or Apple’s users fleeing into Google’s waiting arms. The differences are more than just features. They have different ideals. A Ford F350 and a Porsche 911 will both get you down the road, but they don’t compete against each other.