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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more