With the recent announcements around the next iterations of Android and iOS, it is time to take a step back and look at what the new crop of operating systems is bringing forward in order to learn where mobile is going next. However, when looking at the announcements made by Apple and Google, the picture that appears is one of a world where the two leading operating systems are focused on parity with their competitor, with slightly different approach to solving the same problems.
Let’s take a look back at Google I/O and Apple’s developer conference and see what your next mobile device will do.
The next Android
The biggest news to come out of Google I/O, the company’s developer conference, may be about something that wasn’t there. Faced with increasing fragmentation as its partners do no seem to upgrade the Android operating system as quickly as Google would like, the company essentially announced that it would not release an operating system this year. The predictable chain of new operating system versions was broken, as Android 4.2 (the latest version, also known as Jelly Bean) is not to be replaced any time soon with Android 4.3. This, in itself, is a pretty significant event as it represents a substantial shift in how the company is treating the core architecture (the bones, if you will) of its operating system, as something that should now remain relatively static, with new features and improvements being tacked on in a different way.
Not upgrading the operating system, however, does not mean that Google is not throwing in a lot of new features that help it close the gap with Apple. From a consumer standpoint, Google introduced:
- Google Play game services to compete with Apple’s Game Center. A solid offering that is very nice for game developers but iOS has had it for years already and has even integrated it in OSX now.
- Changes to Google Cloud Messaging to make it act more like Apple’s Push Notification Services. Once again, improvements that will make a user’s life better but generally match what Apple is doing with iOS.
- A way to ensure that notifications are updated and synched up across all its devices, removing the annoyance of having to see the same notifications again and again if you have multiple devices. This is new and great for user but hardly revolutionary.
- Google Play Music All-Access, a subscription-based music streaming service to compete with the likes of Pandora and Spotify. Great for Google, as it gives them a new revenue source but hardly a game changer as its competitors in that space have done since for years.
- A chat system (Google Hangout) working across Android, iOS and Chrome to rival Apple’s own iOS and OSX iMessage service.
- A new version of Google maps for iOS and Android with better re-routing and traffic accident information. This is a key features in terms of servicing users who take their phones in their cars. However, releasing the features on both iOS and Android means that it stops being a differentiator for Android.
All those features are nice features that will result in a better Android experience and interestingly enough, all of them can be pushed to existing Android users, reducing the chances for fragmentation a completely new operating system could create.
But if you look at it, there is little here that is truly innovative. Each of the improvements either matches or iterates on something that was already there, giving the impression that Google no longer shoots for leaps and bounds when it comes to their mobile offering.
The next iOS
But before one start making fun at Google’s stewardship of Android, let us take a look at Apple’s announcement around iOS 7. For Apple, things are pretty nice: the company has been seen fairly consistently as a thought leader in the mobile space since the introduction of the first iPhone. So its Worldwide Developer Conference is the kind of event early adopters, developers, and even Apple competitors look forward to in order to get an understanding of where Apple’s thought leadership will take the industry. In the past such events reignited or brought forth such concepts as touch interfaces, apps, and app stores.
So when Apple set out to introduce its iOS 7, people paid attention. And while most of the focus was on the new look and feel of the operating system (something many attribute to Microsoft’s own visual treatment), Apple introduced a number of other features for consumers:
- A solid multitasking system that closes many gaps iOS had compared to Android.
- Control center, a feature that allows users to quickly turn on/off some core features like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc. This is quite nice but it is something that has existed in Android for a very long time, so long in fact that it has even given some of its partners (eg. Samsung) to completely abuse it.
- A new way to organize tabs in the web browser, reminiscent of what Google does with its chrome mobile browser.
- Air Drop, a feature that allows you to “beam” pieces of content (pictures, videos, etc…) to nearby users. Once again, a nice concept but this is hardly new as Samsung has done so for over a year and Palm computing introduced the concept in the 1990s, almost 2 decades ago.
- New camera formats that match the ones in Samsung’s app on Android, a feature Samsung itself stole from Instagram. Speaking of camera, the company also unveiled iCloud photo sharing, a product that matches Google+’s photo sharing feature.
- iTunes Radio, a service similar to Pandora, Spotify and Google’s recently announced Google Play Music All-Access, highlighting that Apple is substantially better at naming new products than Google.
- Siri moving to Bing results, to compete with Google’s native search via voice on Android. The move to Bing further increases the divide between Google and Apple but does little in terms of new innovation to put in users’ hands.
- iOS in the car, a feature that makes the operating system work better in cars, to match similar offerings from Samsung’s Android flagship device.
- A way to ensure that notifications are synchronized across all devices, matching what Google’s recently announced changes to their own notification system.
Once again, all those features are fantastic for iOS users and will make the overall experience better. But are any of them revolutionary? No, not really. Just as Google may seem to have run out of new ideas and is bringing features from iOS into Android, Apple seems to have run out of new concepts and is bringing features from Android into iOS.
Who will introduce the next big step in mobile?
With each of the players having presented their offering for the next year, it seems that 2013 will be a year when little innovation will come from the core of the operating systems. Yes, there will be changes and improvements but the leading companies appear to have decided which battle they will fight in 2013:
- For Google, the battle is against fragmentation and the company is working making sure new features are rolled out without requiring the help of its integration partners.
- For Apple, the battle is towards acceptance of new UI paradigms and further attempts to make the chrome (the visible part of the user interaction) disappear.
- For Microsoft, it’s a focus on leveraging social as the center of its mobile OS and backfilling a lot of missing features while trying to attract developers to its platform.
- For Blackberry, it’s a focus on trying to catch up and not be crushed by Microsoft when it comes to being in third place.
But in all this, the big thing that appears to be missing is a true differentiator at the core level. This may mean we are reaching new levels of maturity in mobile operating systems, requiring less of the original scaffolding to be setup but it may also mean that future updates will continue to remain relatively boring, with incremental progress replacing the kind of giant leaps we’ve come to expect from year to year.