The Apple-Google shift
Posted on 20 August 2016
In the last couple of years, two very distinct things have happened — or, to be more precise, been happening — in the world of consumer tech, in my opinion. A shift has occurred: Apple, once the definition of innovation, has become stale, content to rest on its laurels; while Google, once ugly and disparate, has continually pushed forward with new and better products that are a delight to use.
The result is two-fold: firstly, from a software perspective, Google-authored apps have all but replaced Apple’s defaults on my iPhone; secondly, for the first time ever, I find myself potentially choosing a Google phone over an Apple phone — a choice that represents not just a one-off hardware purchasing decision, but a first tentative step outside of Apple’s ecosystem and, as a result, a break in unashamed Apple fanboy-ism.
Okay, so I’m considering a switch to Android. No big deal. I’m following in the footsteps of many, many, many others. But what I find interesting outside of my own personal decision is that there seems to be a growing discontent with Apple — especially amongst former so-called fanboys/girls — and, at the same time, a growing appreciation of what Google have been doing, especially from a design perspective. In many ways it’s unwise to compare these two companies alone, but few would disagree that these days they’re the two sides of one coin.
So I thought I’d try and pick this apart. What’s actually changed?
It’s not that Apple no longer creates great products, but there’s just not that spark there anymore, is there? Remember when a new MacBook or iMac would launch? Or the iPhone? Or pretty much any new product? The buzz was palpable; the hype almost always justified. For years and years, Apple constantly innovated, whether it was with entirely new product lines or updates to existing ones, but recently everything has just felt a little… well, meh, hasn’t it?
Could this feeling because Apple is now so ubiquitous, no longer the underdog? Possibly. And could this be down to some very shrewd business decisions, with Apple deciding to refine and hone rather than experiment, as evidenced by the longer life cycles of designs for their phones and computers? Very likely.
But that doesn’t excuse recent product launches that have (again, in my opinion) fallen flat by their past standards. The MacBook? Well, it’s a lovely little machine (and I’m typing on it right now) and I even took a whole set of photos to capture its beautiful form, but time has revealed it to be irritating in many ways (the keys repeatedly get stuck, for instance, and the removal of a magnetic power connector is genuinely irritating). The Apple Watch? After the initial magic wore off, I came to the conclusion that it’s essentially useless — as did almost every other Apple Watch owner I’ve spoken to. The new Apple TV? A total lack of innovation — both from its previous version and the numerous offerings from competitors. New iPhones aren’t even exciting anymore.
In many ways, I wonder if this all started with the launch of iOS 7: although I was originally one of its supporters when it came out and enraged half the Apple-buying world, when I think about it these days, iOS still doesn’t really encourage interaction. It’s not about flat design versus skeuomorphic design; it’s more about how Apple laid the groundwork for what a great, minimal, mobile operating system could be… and then never really built upon those foundations. The same could be said of their camera technology. The iPhone camera’s noise reduction algorithm has ruined many a photo that would have benefitted from not being put through a paint-like Photoshop filter. Oh, and don’t even get me started on Apple Music. What a mess. Sure, it’s not a total failure from an interaction design point of view, but it’s a sub-par effort from a company that should really be far, far, far better than any other steaming music competitors. That Apple Music has been so successful is only down to the ecosystem they’ve cultivated — not because it offers a superior experience.
Then there’s just all the douche moves Apple has made again and again with proprietary connections — their decision to remove the headphone jack on the forthcoming new iPhone being the latest. All of this has added up to make even this most ardent of Apple fanboys start to question his allegiances.
And all the while this has been going on, Google — which, with each new product launch, whether software or hardware, has become even more of an Apple competitor — has continued to innovate; to make better versions of Apple’s own apps. (I don't even need to mention Maps, do I? No? Good.) And from a design perspective, Google has well and truly grown up: Material Design offered a lot of promise when it was first announced, and in the time that’s passed since, it’s proven itself to be a strong framework for unifying a the company’s multiple software offerings. Sure, there are times when its incarnation feels a little templated and dry — Google Play Music, for example — and perhaps it’s easy to praise Google for their grown-up new looks when, until recent times, Google web apps were so damn ugly. (Remember how Gmail used to look? For a reminder of that less graceful era, look at the browser version of Google Calendar.) But the difficulty of creating a system that works in so many instances, both in terms of aesthetics and interaction, should not be underestimated.
Beneath all of these apps and interactions and aesthetics, there’s another layer of Google that has become so trusted: its infrastructure. Yes, I get the fears about our data being mined to show us more relevant ads, but who do I trust for reliable cloud syncing: Apple or Google? Who do I trust to backup and share my photo library: Apple or Google? Whose infrastructure do I trust for my emails, documents, calendars, and more: Apple or Google? Granted, the latter could be any service provider vs. Google, but the point is that Google’s infrastructure underpins so much of the internet and our daily lives, it often just doesn’t make sense to let someone else handle what we know Google can handle so well.
(At this point, i’m going to refrain from delving into lengthy praises of particular Google apps and services, but I do want to give a quick mention to the Google Calendar and Google Photos iOS apps. They’re so radically superior to Apple’s equivalents, I’d question anyone’s need to ever open those defaults again.)
All this is to say: if Google can be this good on a competitor’s operating system, how much better can it be in its own environment? This is the question that’s been gaining traction in my head recently.
Android used to be a poor man’s iOS, but it’s obviously grown a lot since then. Unfortunately, fragmentation is a problem that’s plagued Android from the very beginning and is probably the primary factor that’s never allowed me to take switching seriously, but here’s where it gets interesting: with Google making (via OEMs) its own Nexus hardware, it’s possible to use a vanilla version of Android, free of bloat from carrier-installed software. It also removes that weird you-can-only-use-this-particlar-version-of-Android thing that plagues Android phones made by other manufacturers, and, in doing so, puts Google on an evening playing field with Apple: control the hardware and you control the software. It just works.
So it’s this vision of Android — a Google phone in its purest form — that’s making me, and others, consider the switch. And with new Nexus phones rumoured to land (or at least be announced) very soon, the opportunity to do so might be just around the corner.
Or maybe not. The new iPhone is also due very soon. Maybe it’ll be amazing. Maybe it’ll be the best hardware and software combination that exists in the world. Maybe Apple’s core apps, services, and experiences that underpin the entire iOS / macOS / tvOS ecosystem will up their respective games and I’ll look back on this post as blasphemy.
But — sadly — I’m not sure that’s something the Apple of 2016 is capable of.