Mobile Technology

Android vs. iOS: It’s all about the ecosystem now

Android vs. iOS: It’s all abou...
Android vs iOS – is it a choice any more?
Android vs iOS – is it a choice any more?
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Android vs iOS – is it a choice any more?
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Android vs iOS – is it a choice any more?
iTunes movies, currently unavailable on Android
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iTunes movies, currently unavailable on Android
Gmail is available on both Android and iOS, like most of Google's apps
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Gmail is available on both Android and iOS, like most of Google's apps
Siri is now one of Apple's main focuses
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Siri is now one of Apple's main focuses
Like Siri, Google Now's influence continues to grow
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Like Siri, Google Now's influence continues to grow
The Samsung Galaxy S7, one of the best Android phones around
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The Samsung Galaxy S7, one of the best Android phones around
Apps and ecosystems now mean more than mobile platforms 
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Apps and ecosystems now mean more than mobile platforms 
The Samsung Gear VR headset, which a) gives you by far today's best mobile VR app/game selection, and b) requires a Samsung Galaxy flagship
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The Samsung Gear VR headset, which a) gives you by far today's best mobile VR app/game selection, and b) requires a Samsung Galaxy flagship
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Since the very first Android phone showed up in 2008, a year after the iPhone made its grand entrance, Google and Apple have been locked in a battle for mobile market share. In 2016 though, the choice is less about Android vs. iOS and more about everything that goes along with it, from emails and cloud services to desktop OSes and even VR.

In the nine years since Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, iOS and Android have become more and more alike, both borrowing features from each other so most of the essential elements – notifications, app permissions, sharing, web browsing – all work in a similar way.

That's not to say there aren't differences between them, particularly visually, and Android remains a lot more customizable with launchers, widgets and default app settings. It's just that your choice of phone isn't quite as clearly defined along these Android vs. iOS lines as it would've been five years ago.

Now it's a question about what's beyond these mobile operating systems, and how heavily invested you are in the respective ecosystems. The era of Android vs. iOS is drawing to a close, so what comes next?

Beyond Android and iOS

iTunes movies, currently unavailable on Android
iTunes movies, currently unavailable on Android

Consider everything that plugs into the apps on your phone, and everything that's in the background: music and movies from iTunes, for instance, or messaging services like Hangouts. Google Drive works seamlessly on Android, with iCloud gaining ground on iOS.

You've got messages, contacts, emails and more on your smartphone, but also synced back to the web and to do the desktop. Nothing on your mobile device happens in isolation any more, except perhaps those games you waste a few minutes on every lunchtime.

The question of Android vs. iOS has to a large extent become the question of everything Apple against everything Google, and there's barely any ground where they aren't directly competing, from mapping services to smart home protocols.

Confusing the issue is the fact that Google and Apple take very different approaches to their rival mobile platform. Access to Google's ecosystem – Gmail, Drive, Maps, Hangouts, Play Music, YouTube – is almost as straightforward on iOS as it is on Android. Some of the iPhone's best apps are made by Google.

Gmail is available on both Android and iOS, like most of Google's apps
Gmail is available on both Android and iOS, like most of Google's apps

That's one of the few major differences remaining between Android and iOS: Apple's apps are tied to and updated at the same time as the mobile OS, whereas Google's aren't.

Apple may now officially be an Android developer (thanks to Apple Music) but don't hold your breath waiting for iTunes movies or an official Apple Mail app to arrive for your Android handset.

At every successive WWDC Apple makes it easier to work across laptops, desktops, tablets and phones, provided they're all made by Apple. At the same time it makes it harder and harder to get out of the Apple ecosystem once you're in it. Just how Apple likes it.

For another example of this shift from mobile devices (and the software they run) to platforms in a broader sense you need only look to Microsoft. Under CEO Satya Nadella's watch the company has ditched much of its Windows Phone masterplan and concentrated instead on making its core apps, from Office to Cortana, available anywhere.

Microsoft has now adopted the approach Google has taken all along, the approach which Apple up to this point has refused to follow. How that plays out in the years ahead will determine the fortunes of these three major players, but don't discount the smaller and nimbler companies working between the lines.

Google Now vs. Siri vs. Cortana

Siri is now one of Apple's main focuses
Siri is now one of Apple's main focuses

The only features with any real momentum on mobile OSes at the moment are the digital assistants: Google Now for Android, Siri for iOS, and Cortana as Microsoft's offering. It's no coincidence that as the line between Android and iOS blurs, Siri is making its way to the desktop and Apple TV – Apple knows how important it's likely to become.

Google too emphasized its progress in machine learning and artificial intelligence at its most recent developer conference. In a nod to the Amazon Echo it launched a smart home speaker of its own, complete with Google Now-esque capabilities.

Whatever comes after the smartphone (and the decreasingly useful Android vs. iOS divide), these digital, intelligent assistants are set to lead the way. As we've mentioned, Cortana is also cropping up on more and more devices, from iPhones to Xbox Ones.

Like Siri, Google Now's influence continues to grow
Like Siri, Google Now's influence continues to grow

And while all of these apps can tell you what the weather's going to be like tomorrow, they also rely heavily on what they know about you: the hotel booking confirmations in your inbox, the places you visited yesterday, the documents and photos you have stored in the cloud.

That brings us back to the running theme of ecosystems, because Google Now can't alert you about an upcoming flight if the booking message is in your Apple email account. Nor can Siri tell you about travel times to work if that information is stored in Google Maps. It doesn't matter if you're on Android or iOS, it matters where you're information is.

And if you've still got a choice about that, you're probably in the minority.

All of which makes Google's approach look smarter than Apple's, despite the many millions of dollars Apple is making every year on hardware. In some ways both companies win: Google gets more users on its services, Apple continues to sell record-breaking numbers of iPhones.

The hub for next-gen toys

The Samsung Gear VR headset, which a) gives you by far today's best mobile VR app/game selection, and b) requires a Samsung Galaxy flagship
The Samsung Gear VR headset, which a) gives you by far today's best mobile VR app/game selection, and b) requires a Samsung Galaxy flagship

Adding to the customer lock-in factor are recent smartwatches like the Apple Watch (iPhone only), the Samsung Gear S2 (Android only) and various Android Wear watches (which work on both Android and iOS, but lose a few features on the iPhone). And while it's still just getting off the ground, VR is about the buzziest thing around right now, and Samsung's Oculus-powered Gear VR requires a Samsung Galaxy, while Google's upcoming Daydream VR headsets are Android only for now.

Apple has yet to announce any VR plans of its own, but we'd be shocked if it weren't working on something that isn't ready for a public announcement. When Apple does reveal something in VR, it's a safe bet that it will require an iPhone, accentuating the existing lock-in from the Apple Watch and services.

What we see is the modern smartphone becoming less of a standalone device, and more of a hub for not just services, but also this futuristic hardware. Much like the PC and iTunes before it were the necessary hub for the early iPods and iPhones.

The ecosystem future and user choice

The Samsung Galaxy S7, one of the best Android phones around
The Samsung Galaxy S7, one of the best Android phones around

Unless you're employed in a management role at Apple or Google, you don't have to worry about whether having Gmail available on iOS hurts Android phone sales or whether Apple Maps should launch on Android. For us humble users, the only real question is which ecosystem to pick.

This far down the road, though, it's highly likely you've already signed up for one team or the other.

The more flexible choice is undoubtedly Google. You can be a Gmail user and switch painlessly from an iPhone to a Samsung Galaxy to a Windows tablet to a web browser without even breaking sweat.

Try and do the same if you're a long-time Apple Mail user and it's not quite as straightforward, even if Apple's online offerings are improving. Think contacts, calendars, photos and files too, and it's pretty much the same story across the board.

Apps and ecosystems now mean more than mobile platforms 
Apps and ecosystems now mean more than mobile platforms 

Not everyone cares about cross-platform compatibility, though, and there are certainly reasons to pick Apple's ecosystem over Google's. Your data isn't mined and marketed to the same extent, and if you're already comfortable with Apple software on iOS and macOS then sticking to Apple's services as well is an obvious choice.

Google and Microsoft are happy to have you using their apps and services no matter what your device. Apple, meanwhile, wants you on both its hardware and its software at the same time.

For the majority, it's probably just a case of sticking to what they already know or what they've already signed up for for the past several years, whether that's iMessage or Google Now or Outlook.

It's going to be interesting to see how the balance among Apple, Google, Microsoft and others plays out in the years ahead now that the focus has shifted from mobile platforms to apps and ecosystems – but you can certainly expect to hear less and less about Android vs. iOS from hereon in.

Indeed for anyone under 20 the more relevant argument is WhatsApp vs. Facebook Messenger vs. Instagram vs. Snapchat – and Apple and Google would be wise to take note of the shift.

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10 comments
Racqia Dvorak
It makes me so happy to see an article that is both informative and insightful, yet avoids bias. Journalistic integrity!
Scimitarshane
But it does lack the foresight to include the windows ecosystem. Windows 10 has bought unparalleled integration across all devices.
zr2s10
"Google and Microsoft are happy to have you using their apps and services no matter what your device. Apple, meanwhile, wants you on both its hardware and its software at the same time."
Google doesn't actually have any apps on Windows Mobile. There are some 3rd party alternatives, but no authorized You Tube or Google Maps apps. The mobile sites work, but aren't perfectly integrated.
I don't like Apple, because they're so restrictive. The lack of SD Cards, and charging an arm and a leg for an extra 16 GB or so is unacceptable to me. And for a long time, the screen size was an issue. I'm also not cool with fixed batteries (that can't be "fixed"), but alot of manufacturers seem to be ditching that.
For AI Assistants, Cortana has been incredible so far. The main differentiation for me is hands-free messaging and calling. When on Bluetooth, my Lumia 640 is hands down better than Google Now on my S5A. It asks me if I want to listen to a message as soon as it arrives, dictates it back to me, and sends when I approve. Google Now requires intervention, and frequently messes up words. I find myself having to pick up the phone, which is what I'm trying to avoid when driving. Cortana also makes reminders a breeze, and works consistently on my Lumia. I have it on my S5A, and it works, but location based reminders are hit-or-miss.
J.S.Gilbert
Most of the people I know are far less concerned about the mating of any particular phone to VR, a watch, etc. and there are dozens of apps that make moving around from platform to platform happen. As far back as Windows 95 (and before), we've been having to develop workarounds when things didn't work as we might like them to.
Sometimes it's a much more fundamental question, such as a hesitancy to adopt iOS when it stopped supporting Adobe Flash. The absence or inclusion of a key app of feature on any platform is often a deciding factor, well beyond "big picture" stuff. I think there are still people in Palo Alto carrying Blackberry's along with their iPhones.
I know of many video producers/ developers who are on OSX because of issues with Windows and Quicktime (specifically Prores).
Currently there is a huge boom in live streaming video and it would seem that iOS video apps outnumber Android apps by a factor of around 10 to 1. Many of the apps that are cross platform seem to have better functionality under iOS. Additionally, as a writer who is fond of Scrivener, the fact that it is now available for iOS and not Android may be a major deciding factor in my switching from a Samsung Android phone to an iPhone.
I am far from being a MacBoy aned I despise the whole Windows vs. Mac argument. I could care less what instrument I am using, as long as it does what I want. So when it comes right down to it, the deciding factors for most users will tend to deal far less with any ecosystems.
If Instagram or SnapChat were only available on iOS, we'd see a sharp turn in phone sales, even if that app was only platform specific for a month or two.
Sure there are people who feel the look of the apple represents status or conversely, feel that Apple is the company to hate. In the end, it's still going to be about the apps.
willemco
Agree with the previous comment. My choice has been made a L O N G time ago when I decided NOT to pay a premium for a cell in the Apple prison. Never had any regrets but DID spend some time getting under the skin of developers of apps for treating Android as second class. Fortunately most of them have seen the light and acknowledged where the future (and the money) is, and that's Android in my opinion. Always hated Microsoft as well with their ongoing updates of their stupid Outlook where I ALWAYS lost all of my history whenever they decided to punish their users for their custom! Had Gmail from the onset and NEVER EVER lost my history and neither did I had to go through the painful and elaborate task of retrieving my contacts! A BIG THANK YOU to Google. Not to mention their search engine..... where would we be without Google? And everything is for FREE! Don't be mistaken that Google is the only one that wants your details.... they ALL do that - Apple included! But Google seems to be the only one where you find 'unsubscribe' on the first page. Others (Facebook is a REAL bad one) make it near impossible to get rid of. For messaging I use many but Viber is my favourite because you can use it on any device without having to resort to 3rd party apps. Telegram is another one but unfortunately not enough people use it. I am still flabbergasted why anyone gets an I Phone while there is such a variety of MUCH BETTER Android phones on the market with loads of memory, better cameras, flexibility, looks and all at a much friendlier price! For me it's Android from start to finish. Not interested in making myself look an utter looser by showing up with an iPhone in a company of intelligent people!
Omen
I've been a Mac user since there were Macs. (No joke, my original Fat Mac had two floppies and no hard drive.) However, I became increasingly frustrated with the peremptory manner in which Apple treats its customers - no upgrades, increasingly expensive hardware, poor service - so that when smartphones came along I ducked the overly expensive IPhone and went Google. I never looked back and have never regretted it. If someone develops an OS that will run Mac apps, I'll be off like a shot.
ArthurGD3
I've been saying this for years now and it will only become more so as time goes on and as said in the article, our smartphones turn into a hub devices for so many other devices/peripherals and services (in many ways that is already taking place).
This is why someone of Microsoft's resources couldn't maintain the capital/energy/time needed to put Windows Phones on the same playing field as iPhones and Android phones. There is really no room in a mature smartphone market (developing and third world countries excluded) for a tertiary ecosystem option like Windows Phone/Windows Store and regardless of how good the core OS and functions were, apps and services are king right now and that's not going to change for the foreseeable future and Android and iOS will be dominating the mobile space for a good while.
Caimbeul
A few comments that aren't paid, anyway. But, subjective opinions don't validate a data-shy article. iOS has been a complete eco system back to before the OS had the name. The point of iTunes and Apps.
iOS users still utilize the capabilities of the system 3-400% more than any competing OS. They do more. Importantly, they have security and consistency. When Samsung released the latest Galaxy they needed 41 combinations of hardware/software, region to region, carrier to carrier. Which is why their margins still suck and performance unpredictable.
The average iOS user is a power user by definition. The only Android user in my extended family [finally moved to OSX, btw, on his desktop] is always left behind on intrafamily comm/exchanges. Has nothing to do with geek capability. He wrote code for AS400s! Just too cheap to move to a higher standard in a personal computing device.
Joe Blough
The customizability of Android is a two edged sword. It has a major downside in that OEM's are left to their own to decide if they upgrade the OS of their past devices or not. I have a boat anchor tablet that stopped upgrading at Droid 4.0x, the manufacturer couldn't care less. At least if you buy IOS there is discipline and automatic upgrades. This lack of control means there are many software developers of "real" applications that will not touch Droid because of the many and difficult support issues over what's in the OS, is it upgraded or not, etc. My next tablet will by IOS since I want the applications that won't deal with Droid's lack of control.
YuliaYe
as said cleveroad - https://www.cleveroad.com/blog/android-as-a-bodyguard-or-what-keeps-your-applications-secure - Android dominates the market. And I agree with them!